How ‘Cosmos’ brilliantly reconciles science and religion

This photo released by Fox shows Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who hosts the television show,
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the television show, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” which premiered Sunday, March 9. (AP Photo/Fox, Patrick Eccelsine)

When the science educator Bill Nye agreed to a February debate with Ken Ham, the president of the Creation Museum, there was reason to worry that it wouldn’t be a productive exercise. The objections were numerous: “There’s a history of these debates and they never change anything!” “Nye isn’t an expert in evolution, or in public debating!” “Even if Nye won the debate on the merits, the spectacle would end up doing more harm than good” (and in fact, the debate seems to have given the Creation Museum a fundraising boost).

But maybe the best argument against the debate was that it wasn’t really possible for the two participants to do more than talk past each other. As Ham put it in his opening statement, “the creation/evolution debate is really a conflict between two philosophical worldviews based on two different accounts of origins or historical science beliefs.” Nye is right that “these are concepts unique to Mr. Ham,” and that Ham is attempting to create an equivalence between two models that don’t have the same evidentiary support. But Ham isn’t wrong that what was on display in their debate are two profoundly different interpretive lenses. Ultimately, people looking at the world and each other through those lenses aren’t going to be able to reconcile their different priorities and operating principles.

Rather than trying to answer the objections of creationists, or to look through both lenses at once and hope it’ll produce a satisfactory result, Nye might have taken a lesson about how to talk about religion and science from one of his old Cornell professors: Carl Sagan. Last night, Fox debuted a sequel to Sagan’s 1980 PBS mini-series, “Cosmos: A Personal Journey,” titled “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“A Spacetime Odyssey” and Tyson side-step this kerfuffle altogether and adopt a different conceptual framework for managing it. Rather than suggesting that science and religion are in conflict, in its first episode “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” used the story of Dominican friar and scholar Giordano Bruno to suggest that embracing the scientific method is a way of showing profound respect for divine power.

Bruno appears in passing in the book, which Sagan published in conjunction with the broadcast of the PBS series in 1980. But Tyson’s sequel, Bruno is the subject of a long and beautiful animated sequence that’s at the center of the first episode. “Bruno hungered to know everything about God’s creation,” Tyson tells the audience, explaining how Bruno responded to Lucretius’ theories of a universe that was “as boundless as his idea of God.” After Bruno had his vision of an infinite universe, it seemed clear to him that a more limited model of the solar system actually implied a finite vision of God’s power. He, not his critics, were acting as the more reverent Christians.

It’s a nifty rhetorical move, shifting the conversation from who has the better scientific model to who has more respect for the Creator and greater capacity for curiosity and wonder. Sagan himself could be biting about the notion of a deliberate architect of human existence: “For thousands of years humans were oppressed–as some of us still are–by the notion that the universe is a marionette whose strings are pulled by a god or gods, unseen and inscrutable,” he wrote in his book. But the pivot that Tyson and executive producer and writer Ann Druyan — Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator — are making in this sequel to Sagan’s project is entirely consistent with his book. “The sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star,” Sagan wrote more than thirty years ago. “If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe.”

Maybe the best way to reconcile science and religion, it turns out, isn’t to try to bend scientific methods to produce agreeable results, or to exhaust yourself answering the objections of people who aren’t actually interested in being convinced. Perhaps we’d all be better off with a truce, where the faithful can acknowledge that scientists are taking a different route to big truths, and scientists can be comfortable that the awe that is an inspiration for and an inevitable a byproduct of their work inspires different feelings in different observers.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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