What Does Neil deGrasse Tyson's 'Cosmos' Say About Religion?

"We are all made of star stuff," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us in episode one of Cosmos. It's a line that hits on two ways that the Cosmos series effectively spans the scale of time. 

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Space nerds across America sat down on Sunday to watch Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a long-anticipated reboot of a classic Carl Sagan series about the universe, this time starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. We are two of those nerds, and we'll be taking on some of the questions raised by each episode over the weeks.

From the original 'Cosmos'

"We are all made of star stuff," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us in episode one of Cosmos. It's a line that hits on two ways that the Cosmos series effectively spans the scale of time. There's the obvious, that every atom in your body came from out there, a long time ago. And the second way: the line itself comes from the original Cosmos series. If the first episode is any indication, Tyson's version of Cosmos keeps a lot of the aggressive humanity and wonder that made Sagan's so great. And as much as we're fans of the 1980's space graphics of Sagan's, the visuals are lightyears away from what the original could do.

Episode one walks viewers through the "cosmic address" of Earth, or where our home planet is located within the known universe. And — a trickier task — it does a lot of work to orient itself on a political landscape where not everyone seems to want to hear what science can tell us about our origins and surroundings.

How did the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey treat religion?

Danielle: Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson promised Brian Stelter that he would be casting a wide net, audience-wise, with Cosmos. He would aim to attract viewers “who don’t know that they like science,” but who “have a little flame inside of them of curiosity,” but also those “who know they don’t like science. They’ve got no flame at all. So we’re going to go in in there and light it.” This is an admirable (if unrealistic) goal, and one that Tyson seems to have embraced in episode one by inviting religious viewers to identify with scientists.

Abby: It’s interesting, because at least one early review of the show suggested that the reboot lost one of the things that made the original Cosmos so special: its ambitious view that every single person on the planet possessing an ounce of wonder could appreciate the cosmos, religious or not. But now that I’ve actually watched the new one, its clear Tyson obviously takes that scientific missionary work seriously, too.

Danielle: Yeah, I expected some subtlety in the program’s attempt to bring a religious audience around to Tyson’s point of view (namely, evolution,) but there was no ambiguity about the fact that Tyson wants its viewers to see the scientifically oppressed as akin to the religiously martyred. The story of  Giordano Bruno is used to illustrate this parallel -- he’s a monk who saw a scientifically accurate “vision” of the cosmos, a revelation that he held dear despite persecution and, ultimately, execution. Bruno was a martyr, Tyson tells us, as he walks us through the (beautifully animated) stages of his oppressed life.

Abby: You know, the interesting thing about the Bruno story to me is the fact that it’s a defense of faith, and not of science. Bruno had no evidence to back up his version of the cosmos, as correct as it turned out to be. His value to Tyson’s narrative is that he challenged established, unscientific “facts.” I’m wondering how the Bruno interlude will go over with some factions of the religious audience the show clearly wants to court: although almost any sane person living in the year 2014 would agree that the Inquisition is a good a source for a historical villain as any, it was still a religious institution.

I’m hoping, and I think the show’s writers are hoping, that viewers will understand the Bruno story not as a condemnation of religion, but as a redrawing of the boundaries between faith and science. Instead of putting the two in opposition, the show wants to place faith, curiosity, wonder, and questioning — what if my God is too small? to paraphrase Bruno — along with science against enforced ignorance.

Danielle: Yes! Tyson’s unapologetic looping of faith into science was a pretty bold move, and I’m also curious to hear what some scientists think of it -- posing scientific discovery as based on, at best, a hunch, and at worst divine intervention might raise some eyebrows. The fact that he’s shattering expectations on both sides could allow the rest of the show to explore scientific phenomena in a very fluid way.

Abby: This is, in part, why I found myself liking the Bruno story — which, by the way, is one of the few big deviations from the original Sagan Cosmos in this episode. It challenges a lot of different people. Bruno must have some scientist fans, however, as they named a crater on the moon after him.

But what did the Internet think?

Danielle: Everyone on Twitter was full of #cosmos #truedetective jokes, which is actually pretty flattering to Cosmos, considering the True Detective finale was so popular it basically broke HBO Go.

Abby: Yeah, but only one of those shows kicked off with an intro from Barack Obama. And it wasn’t True Detective.

Danielle: Those who watched (and liked) Cosmos were especially into Tyson’s final anecdote, in which he described his first meeting with Carl Sagan. Sagan, says Tyson, taught him the type of person he wants to be. Cue the waterworks. 

Abby: This would be a good place to mention that Sagan’s Cosmos, particularly the introduction to the first episode, does tend to make the room a little dry for me every time I watch it. In the reboot, I actually gasped when Tyson pulled out Sagan’s calendar to show their appointment, marked down. For me, that Tyson tribute really helped to anchor what the reboot’s makers believed they were doing. Far from casting the Sagan version aside, there’s an acknowledgement that a science show over 30 years old produces an argument, or a thesis about how to appreciate our universe, that is still relevant today. But enough of that. Can we talk about NASA?

Danielle: Absolutely, NASA was clearly the winner of the night. First of all, they got to tweet out a couple of what must be a gargantuan stockpile of outer space images. They were like, remember the moon? We've got the moon! And people really liked it!

Abby: Ha ha yes: AS SEEN ON TV: Asteroids! NASA’s got asteroids photos for days. Plus, NASA helped to promote the show by conducting an experiment aboard the ISS. For the kids.

What did we learn?

Danielle: I recall learning about Copernicus and Aristotle, of course, but had never heard of Bruno before this episode. But I'd still have to say that I was most impressed by the things I already knew -- mainly, that the Earth is very, very small (and humans even smaller) and very, very new. Every time I stop to think about the sheer proportions of our existence it totally blows my mind. How is it that I feel so much but am so small? What a crazy way to live. Okay Abby, it should probably be your turn now.

Abby: Right, yes, enough about the awe that the sheer scale of our known universe demands. Since this episode serves as an introduction to what's to come, the information is on the basic side, and I also didn't end up with a list of new science facts. What I learned, however, is that Cosmos's executive producer Seth MacFarlane is capable of making something I'll actually enjoy (more on the backstory of his involvement in the series here). MacFarlane, it should be noted, co executive-produced with  Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original series and was Carl Sagan's wife.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs on the Fox network Sundays at 9 p.m., and replays on National Geographic on Mondays at 10 p.m. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.