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Friday, March 28, 2014

Cosmos: Sagan, Tyson, and science vs religion

I've been watching episodes of Cosmos on the computer (you can watch episodes for free here) and in the second episode the 16th century burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno by the Inquisition was mentioned. There was a post about this at America magazine's In All Things, Here's a bit of it ...

[...] Where Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” began with the ancient Greeks, whose wonder at the marvels of the heavens led them to ask questions about the world around them, Neil deGrasse Tyson begins his history with a long animated sequence on Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 AD. Many others have already pointed out the historical fallacies in Tyson’s portrayal of Bruno as a modern freethinker martyred by the oppressive forces of Christianity, and these misrepresentations are indeed significant. But I think this loses the forest for the trees.

To my mind, the real issue is that where Sagan wanted “Cosmos” to introduce everyone to our marvelous universe, Tyson’s remake is a triumphalist exaltation of the power of science, and this is the true poverty of the new “Cosmos.” In Tyson’s “Cosmos,” true discovery begins with the Renaissance and the last 400 years of history are seen through the lens of an immense struggle between progressive Science and the oppressive forces of Religion. In this “new-atheist” vision, we now know so much about our universe that we have no need for God and should instead allow Science to take its rightful place as the true path to knowledge and human security ...

Just wanted to make a couple of comments ...

First ..... Carl Sagan's earlier version of Cosmos *did* obliquely mention the "immense struggle between progressive Science and the oppressive forces of Religion" in an episode about the murder of Hypatia by followers of Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (later made a saint) ...

For those interested, I had a post on the film about Hypatia (starring Rachel Weisz) here..

Second ...... There's no pint in having a thin skin about the Inquisition. No amount of spinning by Catholic apologists will make it non-scandalous, much less make it go away. Yes, many early scientists were also vowed religious and the demarcation between science and religion was more fuzzy in the middle ages than is usually represented in popular culture. But there is no getting around the fact that the Catholic Church initiated an Inquisition process in a number of countries and in various times that lead directly to the torture and murder of tens of thousands of people in God's name, and Giordano Bruno was one of them.

- Further reading: The Top 10 Questions Everyone Has About the Inquisition by Cullen Murphy


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