As I watched the first episode of the new Cosmos series March 9, I wondered a number of things in succession: Wait, who's this Bruno guy? How are the show's writers going to play the science-and-religion thing? More important, with so much science to explain--and to illustrate with nifty special effects--why are they playing the science-and-religion thing at all?
Discover magazine blog has since filled in my sketchy knowledge of Bruno and his contributions.
What struck me about the portrayal of science versus religion was the twist on the familiar scientific martyrology. Many cliches were repeated, as the lone truth-seeker chafed against limits on academic freedom and was ultimately slain merely for teaching ideas that were ahead of his time. (The Discover blog deconstructs these cliches as well.) But the money line was cartoon-Bruno's plea to his examiners, "Your God is too small!" I took this as an argument that religion, rightly understood, is not threatened by, nor does it pose a threat to, scientific inquiry. Of course, it's more than a little presumptuous for a popular science show to define the right understanding of religion, but the argument is basically what I was taught as an undergrad at Wheaton College, and a far cry from the sneering hostility of Andrew Dickson White or Inherit the Wind.
Still, why go there at all?
As with most questions regarding motives, this one lies beyond the scope of inquiry. We historians instead raise questions of context: How might this text, and its reception, shed light on a historical moment?
The original Cosmos series aired on PBS in 1980, a rather different moment than 2014. Conservative Protestantism was resurgent in America, as Ronald Reagan gained the White House. But the year also saw the release of A Secular Humanist Declaration by the Counsel for Democratic and Secular Humanism. Carl Sagan's line "The cosmos is all that ever is or ever was or ever will be" served as a rallying cry for opponents of evangelical creationism. "'Cosmos' series criticized for its philosophical view," read a headline in Christianity Today. There were some nuanced discussion as well, but us-verses-them rhetoric abounded on both sides.
Last month's debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham illustrates the distance we haven't traveled since 1980. But the varied and vibrant responses to the new Cosmos highlight some new developments. Sure, there's plenty of grumbling from religious conservatives and crowing from their enemies. Meanwhile, Religion News Service has a nice piece on the popularity of Sagan, and Cosmos, with many "nones" and organized nontheists. Writer Kimberly Winston notes, "Sunday Assembly, a growing movement of nonbelievers, has begun weekly meetings with [Sagan's] quotes. Some nonbelieving parents have named their children after him." (Where, exactly, is the line between non-religion and a new religion?) And a TV review of the broadcast on The Wire focused on the question, "What does Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos Say About Religion?" "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," mused one of the reviewers, just before a roundup of tweets about the show.
Thanks to Cosmos, then, there's a flurry of interest in 16th century church history and in discussion of the porous and shifting boundary between religion and science, two subjects that usually don't grab much attention outside ASCH and AAR. And thanks to the Internet, many people can participate in these multifaceted inquiries, rather than hearing only the loudest voices of the culture wars. I'll count that as progress.