'Cosmos' redux could benefit from unbiased approach of Sagan

benekcj@hotmail.comMarch 25, 2014 

It behooves humanity to maintaining a certain level of humility concerning what we believe we know in terms of both science and religion.


In the third grade I was an astronomy fanatic. I loved looking at constellations in the sky, drawing pictures of them and imagining that I would one day travel into space. It was the closest thing possible in my childhood mind to practically living out "Star Wars."

I also clearly remember the morning when my third-grade teacher told me the universe, as far as we know, goes on indefinitely. I was so mind-blown by the concept that I skipped recess. My teacher kindly stayed with me, recognizing my shock. She tried to resolve my curious questions but was forthright when she didn't know an answer.

During that same time, in the 1980s, famed astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan's 13-part series "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" was the most-watched series in the history of American television. Sagan, like my grade-school teacher, was one who was fairly quick to admit what he didn't know. He was a scientist and when it came to God, he confessed he hadn't yet seen evidence to convince him of the proof or disproof of God.

Some 34 years later Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane have produced a sequel series, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." This series' astrophysicist host, Neil deGrassee Tyson, has roughly maintained the spirit of Sagan's scientific rationality in his personal remarks toward religion. Yet, it seems fairly obvious that its producers have other motivations.

Both MacFarlane and Druyan are outspoken "atheists," in the original sense of the word. It's not that they don't have little "g" gods of their own (we all do), but they intently choose to show their contempt and rejection of the gods/God worshipped by the majority of human cultures. Unfortunately, already in the first two episodes of the sequel, this production bias has shown through without much consideration for sociological or historical accuracy.

Take for instance the show's failed depiction of theologian Giordano Bruno. The totality of Bruno's brilliant, yet complex and problem-filled life was reduced to a mere cartoon about intellectual freedom in the series. Additionally, the show simultaneously summarized all the cultural nuances of the Christian-Italian life of the late 1500s and early 1600s down to one particular theological stance, which today is seen by the church universal as heretical.

Like much of the blossoming astronomy of the time, most of the world's religions, Christianity in particular, have reformed many of their theological positions as a result of newly discovered and experiential evidence. Unfortunately, for viewers of the new "Cosmos" series, we are also confronted with the reality that the same claims for intellectual authority and control that existed in 16th and 17th centuries, which were so blatantly critiqued by the show, are still alive and well in its production. As a result, the series has missed the opportunity to emulate and inculcate the kind and open-minded spirit of Sagan (and excellent grade-school teachers everywhere).

Still, what the current "Cosmos" series does clearly show us is that the biases of interpretation of our existence matter in our conceptualization of it. As a result, we might consider the possibility that it behooves humanity to maintaining a certain level of humility concerning what we believe we know in terms of both science and religion. Because, if we subjugate the splendor and awe of our existence in exchange for intellectual bullying and control, we subject ourselves to the possibility of missing out on a joyous reality that may prove to invigorate us far more than we could have ever previously imagined.

The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.


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