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The New Cosmos Takes On Religion

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I suppose that any substantial popular reaction to a miniseries on science is a good thing, but I was struck this week by how all of the reactions I saw to Neil deGrasse Tyson”s reboot of Carl Sagan”s Cosmos were about not science, but religion. Writers, it seemed, were determined to see in the first episode, which aired Sunday, either an outright refutation of theism or a novel attempt to reconcile religion with cosmology (and presumably evolution, etc.). Having finally watched the episode, I see their point.

(One note before I continue. Tyson did not write Cosmos. I attribute aspects of the series to him because it was the gig he signed up for as the presenter.)

The first chapter of the new Cosmos was a lot like Tyson himself (as well as his cohort on the evolutionary biology front, Bill Nye): a bit smug, but generally likeable. The hour-long show was little more than an introduction to the topic, which placed our little planet (and thus ourselves) firmly in the context of the larger universe (or multiverse, perhaps). Even so, Tyson manages to touch on topics sensitive to some Christians: evolution, climate change, geocentrism, and the stifling effect of the church on science in general.

These are not accidents, of course. However occasionally inelegant the writing, however massive the scope, of this first offering, the linkage to American Christian fundamentalism and conservatism was unmistakable and intentional. There”s a long animated bit about Christian friar and whacky mystic Giordano Bruno, who was burned for heresies including, but not limited to, lack of proper appreciation for Biblical geocentrism. Bruno “discovered” a fairly accurate interpretation of the then-observable universe via a dream, and is described in the film as a martyr. But what manner of martyr?

It”s hard to say. Bruno was in no modern sense a scientist, and was murdered by his own church. One might assume, then, that Tyson considers Bruno a martyr on behalf of his pantheism. One blogger writing for TheWire.com describes it thus: “the interesting thing about the Bruno story to me is the fact that it’s a defense of faith, and not of science.” Indeed, but not the faith of a literalist Christian church. When the animated Bruno, faced with imminent worldly judgment, turns his face away from a crucifix in apparent disgust, we have to assume that Tyson is telling us something about the possible relationship he perceives between faith and science.

The crux of this matter is when Bruno protests: “Your God is too small.” Anyone who has spent any time trying to resolve the conflict between faith and science understands precisely what this means: the hopelessly incomplete cosmological view of ancient religious texts cannot be a full encapsulation of God. The Bible was written to be understood and to communicate sacred truths, not to stand as a factual textbook about the nature and function of physical creation. Any god contained entirely within millennia-old texts is likely too simple, too incomplete — too small — to be sufficiently godlike.

Of course, aside from this apparent nod to pantheism, we have other clues about Tyson”s real feelings about creation. He speaks of “the chance nature of existence,” for example… a phrase that seems incompatible with the idea of a divine creator. But the most effective, and best, part of the first episode subtly… even accidentally… borrowed directly from the Bible itself.

The ingenious calendarization of the cosmic timeline, in which Tyson stands atop a 12-month calendar upon which has been mapped the whole of the universe”s history, makes a subtle and beautiful point about the creation stories in Genesis. Just as billions of years were probably a few too many for the ancients to perceive, so too do we need a mundane stand-in to guide our understanding of numbers and complexity too great for our human minds to grasp. Genesis used a six-day creation story, and Tyson resorts to a 12-month calendar. We understand things by symbol and metaphor, and these are necessarily non-factual, regardless of the truths they might signify.

Or maybe I”m reading too much into that. But I”m not. Though perhaps I am. Who can understand the mind of Neil deGrasse Tyson, after all?

So what can we really conclude about all this religion in Cosmos? It”s an admirable attempt to have a look at the relationship between science and faith without pulling any punches, and also without the condescending “tolerance” of the Richard Dawkins set. And while Cosmos doesn”t make any representations about what God is, it”s safe to assume Tyson is pretty comfortable telling us, via science, what God isn”t. Which point of view he clearly shares with the faithful.

If this is beginning to seem like a love letter to Cosmos, let me set that record straight pronto. I believe this whole angle was misguided. I do not think it”s profitable for scientists to make proclamations about faith any more than it is for Ken Ham to pull scientific “facts” (or “criticism”) out of his keister. And, really, is an undiluted overview of the cosmos the best introduction of this topic to believers in young-earth creationism? Does it make sense to deliver a message so extraordinary and difficult to grasp to those who rely heavily on faith and common sense over evidence and reason? Anyone with a 2500-year-old (or 500-year-old, for that matter) view of the cosmos could understandably read modern cosmology as incredible new age mythology. And trust me when I tell you that they do.

But the more important point is this: this idea of the church as a body united against scientific progress ignores a few realities. It ignores, mostly, that the majority of Americans, including Christians, believe in science at the expense of Biblical literalism. And it ignores the fact that, even in a conservative, inerrantist church like my own room is made for ideas that aren”t compatible with a traditional understanding of a six-day creation that happened a few thousand years ago. It is often said that Europeans suffer no such conflicts about divergences between Biblical truth and scientific fact. But in reality most Americans have resolved these questions for themselves in exactly the same way as our European cousins: by assigning each type of information to its own domain and not trying to resolve differences among disciplines of different kinds. And in an interview about Cosmos with WNYC”s Brian Lehrer, Tyson pointed out that this works both ways, pointing out that about a third of scientists say “there is a god to whom they pray.”

But in the end, the most compelling part of episode one of this Cosmos reboot was a quote from Sagan himself: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” This nod to the anthropic principle has always been interesting for what it does and does not suggest. Sagan does not assert (in these ten words, at least) either that we are the only way for the cosmos to be self-aware, or that self-awareness is even a requirement. (This last is why it”s only a nod to the bizarre anthropic principle.) One interpretation of this notion is that God is physics – or, more likely, the larger forces we describe as “physics” via our own limitations – and that human knowledge of the cosmos is no more complete a self-awareness than the average teenager”s. We don”t have a clear understanding of the human mind; how could we have a complete intellectual understanding of the universe and forces that contain that mind?

And here”s where science and religion should share something remarkable. Physicist Brian Cox said in an interview, “I”m comfortable with the unknown, that”s the point of science. There are places out there, billions of places out there that we know nothing about. And the fact that we know nothing about them excites me, and I want to go out and find out about them… I don”t need answers to everything. I want to have answers to find.”

There is great beauty in our incomplete understanding precisely because the cosmos, and God, are beyond our complete understanding. As Christian author Anne Lamott put it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”