I’m a bit late to this, but I stole a few minutes this week from my non-TV endeavors (that would describes almost all my endeavors, actually) to catch the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s famous science documentary, Cosmos.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is surely gifted at what he does; his excitement is infectious. And his tour of the known universe, accompanied by beautiful computer graphics, was fascinating. I stood in awe not only of deGrasse Tyson’s cosmic yarn but of him, the man. (And the logo is great.)
But I tried not to allow my awe to gum up my critical faculties. Instead I used it to fuel them. And I came away with a definite conclusion: this is religious indoctrination. The show featured…
- Stylized icons of martyrs (namely Giordano Bruno)
- The demonization of opponents (the Catholic authorities in the story of martyr-to-science Bruno look and sound utterly diabolical)
- Hope expressed in a technological utopian future (a vision of space colonies surrounding earth)
- A self-conscious but self-inconsistent creed enunciated at the very beginning: “question everything”?
I wasn’t surprised by this religious flavoring. Humans are incurably religious. Listen to the religious overtones in what deGrasse Tyson told Bill Moyers about Cosmos:
Science is an enterprise that should be cherished as an activity of the free human mind, because it transform who we are, how we we live—and it gives us an understanding of our place in the universe.
This doesn’t sound like Non-Overlapping Magisteria to me. It sounds like an effort by one method of human knowing, the kind of knowing accomplished by our five senses, to supplant (rather than complement) divine revelation. It sounds like people worshiping created things rather than the creator.
As Ross Douthat recently observed about atheists (and I think this would apply to self-professed agnostics, even really nice ones like deGrasse Tyson),
To the extent that contemporary atheists are also idealistic liberals who believe in human rights and human reason (which in many cases they seem to be!), they are actually making their own metaphysical bets that have little or nothing to do with the scientific method or the latest in evolutionary theory or a rigorous devotion to pure materialistic empirics, and have more in common with the religious world-picture than they admit.
If pure empirical science, the kind that by ideology or by implication admits the existence of nothing but nature, gives me any understanding of my place in the universe, it’s a deterministic place which can’t at all transform how I live—because I don’t have a free human mind. I have the set of atoms the universe gave me by accident.
I’m actually looking forward to watching more of Cosmos. I can hear what the heavens are declaring loud and clear, even above Neil deGrasse Tyson’s narration.