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Are Science and Faith Mutually Exclusive? On Cosmos and Anti-Theism

When the first episode of Cosmos—the new reboot starring Neil deGrasse Tyson of the classic show starring Carl Sagan—featured a clear anti-religious narrative, I chalked it up to appeasing some corporate entity or the atheistic bent of one of its executive producers (you know which one!). Now that they’ve gotten that out of their system, I thought, they can now move on to actual science. But I’m sad to report: three episodes into the series and all three have prominently featured an unscientific approach to the relationship between faith and science and an ahistoric approach to the history of religion and science. 1 Even Harvard Professor Emeritus Owen Gingerich has weighed in with a critique. 2

Clearly this is red meat for the growing number of ‘nones’ in the U.S., who have abandoned “organized religion” due to the perception that all religious people and religion itself are anti-science. But the response from this growing constituency has been far less than measured and rational. Instead, the rejection of religious Fundamentalism has produced Anti-theist Fundamentalists. Both groups trade metaphysical attacks that discount the others’ entire worldview. I had hopes Cosmos could rise above this juvenile approach, and not fall prey to this sort of uneducated partisanship. It has unfortunately become a shining example it.

Last night’s episode, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” was yet another chapter in a narrative being carefully written that features science as the savior of humanity from the dark evil of religion. It’s a compelling narrative, and one which many millions of Westerners will celebrate, but it is not a narrative without its own social location and biases. As just one of many glaring examples of its jaw-droopingly unscientific coverage, the episode keyed in on Isaac Newton, acknowledged that he was a person of faith (a Christian) and then proceeded to claim the physics he developed did away with the need for God. Cosmos’s extremely low view of their viewership completely expected to get away with that blunder, and the sad reality is: they will. Very few, if any, atheists will call Cosmos out on that logical incongruence, and any theist who points it out will be simply written off as another religious Fundamentalist.

Well, I’m decidedly Not a religious Fundamenalist. I Do affirm the science of evolution. I Don’t believe the earth is 6,000 years old. I Do affirm the Christian faith.

…and there are Millions of Theists Just Like Me!

To claim that all people of faith are anti-science Fundamentalists is as ignorant as claiming all scientists are evil people bent on debunking religion. Neither is true.

Do You Want Evidence that Science and Faith are Not Mutually Exclusive?

JohnPolkinghorneI present to you the Sir Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a world-renowned mathematical and quantum physicist, as well as an Anglican priest. He is no ordinary scientist. He received a PhD in Physics from Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1955. After that, he went on to teach mathematical physics and received a ScD (Doctorate of Science) in 1974. During his extensive career in physics, he received many awards and taught physics for many years. One of the most amazing aspects of his career is his contribution to the discovery of “quarks.” He later went on to become the President of Queen’s College at the University of Cambridge.

By my count, he has six honorary doctorates to add to the two he earned!

Throughout his long and illustrious career pioneering and innovating science, he never once renounced his faith in God. He was a theist the entire time! And upon his retirement, he went back for more education—this time to become a priest in his tradition: Anglicanism. 3

In addition to the books Polkinghorne has written in his field of science, he has also written 26 books on the relationship between faith (or religion) and science. He is perhaps one of the most qualified persons alive today to comment on their compatibility or conflict. Here’s what he had to say in an interview:

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, Polkinghorne argues. In fact, both are necessary to our understanding of the world. “Science asks how things happen. But there are questions of meaning and value and purpose which science does not address. Religion asks why. And it is my belief that we can and should ask both questions about the same event.”

As a for-instance, Polkinghorne points to the homey phenomenon of a tea kettle boiling merrily on the stove.

“Science tells us that burning gas heats the water and makes the kettle boil,” he says.

But science doesn’t explain the “why” question. “The kettle is boiling because I want to make a cup of tea; would you like some?

“I don’t have to choose between the answers to those questions,” declares Polkinghorne. “In fact, in order to understand the mysterious event of the boiling kettle, I need both those kinds of answers to tell me what’s going on. So I need the insights of science and the insights of religion if I’m to understand the rich and many-layered world in which we live.”

Seeing the world from both the perspective of science and the perspective of religion is something Polkinghorne describes as seeing the world with “two eyes instead of one.” He explains: “Seeing the world with two eyes—having binocular vision—enables me to understand more than I could with either eye on its own.” 4

And here he is in a series of videos discussing faith and science:

Conclusion

The anti-theist narrative being written by the Cosmos series is unscientific, since science is specifically restricted to matters unrelated to faith. If anti-science theists are wrong to use their worldview to dismiss science (and they most certainly are!), then it is equally wrong for anti-theist Materialists to use their worldview to dismiss faith. Both are forms of fundamentalism.

Sir Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne stands as a shining example of just how perfectly theism can support the rigorous pursuit of truth through the sciences. His career has been spent pushing science to its very limits, extending its reach, and yet he’s never seen it impinge upon his faith. Much the opposite! Like Newton (and so many others) before him, Polkinghorne has seen his faith as a valuable asset to his pursuit of all truth.

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1. How ‘Cosmos’ Bungles the History of Religion and Science by David Sessions

2. Reflections on Tyson’s Cosmos, Episode 1

3. Biography/vita of Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne
[http://www.starcourse.org/jcp/] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Polkinghorne]

4. God vs. Science by Dr. Dean Nelson in The Saturday Evening Post

 

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Cosmos, Episode One: A Religious Approach to Science and an Unscientific Approach to History

As I’ve publicly stated in the past, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my favorite people on the planet 1. He has a compelling personality; he’s a brilliant thinker; and he has an inspiring story. When he has appeared on The Daily Show (btw, Jon Stewart is another one of my favorite people on the planet), I’ve watched with a generous portion of fanboy enthusiasm. I love it when he corrects the inaccurate science of movies and TV shows without apology or subtlety 2. I’m like that when it comes to theology. If I come on your show and you’ve got Jesus hanging on the wall depicted as a European, better believe I’m going to tell you about yourself!

For all these reasons and more, I was very excited when I find out Tyson had been chosen to host a reboot of the classic TV show: Cosmos. And I watched the first episode with ‘nerdy glee’. 3

While the episode’s visual effects were stunning (including a very cool, updated version of the “Cosmic Calendar” from the original show), and while I will continue to watch the series to see what develops, I have to unfortunately report that I was very disappointed with what I can only call the episode’s religious approach to science and its unscientific approach to history.

People Are Biased, Especially Smart People

It’s important that we never place those we admire on so tall of a pedestal that they would dare not climb it because to fall is certain death. 4 Neil deGrasse Tyson, like every other human ever born, is biased. His experiences from his subjective perspective have helped to shape his convictions, conclusions, and (yes) his “beliefs.” There’s actually no getting around this, for any of us.

Few things are less aggravating for me, yet more common, than reading or hearing educated people claim objectivity. Education should lead a person to the unavoidable conclusion that as one grows in their capacity to critically analyze life, they are arriving at increasingly more conclusions, not less. PhDs, for example, have become experts in a very narrow area of subject matter. Their education has honed their focus to a fine point. On that point, they have poured over the research and writing of countless others. On that point, they have developed countless theses and developed their thinking over the course of years, but more likely decades. To expect that expert to be “objective” is ridiculous. There are no persons more likely to have a biased opinion than the highly educated, because bias that results from legitimate information, training, and experience is bias nonetheless.

A Religious Approach to Science and an Unscientific Approach to History

Tyson has legitimate reasons to be biased—he’s both highly educated and highly intelligent. But Tyson’s legitimately-informed opinions are often falsely presented as objectivity. That’s disappointing. Absolutist metaphysical claims should be confined to the domain of Fundamentalist Religionists, not reasonable, scientific people. But Tyson begins Cosmos with an homage to the original show, a mantra Peter Hess called something more akin to a “paean of praise from the Christian liturgy” than a statement of scientific fact.5 Quoting Sagan, Tyson said, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” It’s true that the cosmos is all we Currently Know exists, When interpreted from a Materialist worldview. But science is not equipped to determine what will or won’t be discovered in the future (e.g. “…or ever will be”), and science is not equipped to pronounce Materialism the only game in town. As Hess points out,

“Consciously or unconsciously, all of us—Christian or Muslim, monotheist or atheist, freethinker or agnostic—carry the baggage of metaphysical beliefs in our approaches to science. If we are honest, we will explicitly acknowledge our metaphysical carry-on, recognizing that the story of this pulsing, vibrating, magnificently unfolding universe is susceptible of both theistic and atheistic interpretations.” 6

But Cosmos’s religion-like approach to science did not end with absolutist metaphysical claims; it also continued with a witch trial and a conversion testimony.

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A Witch Hunt and a Martyr

Not ones to shy away from irony 7, the New Atheism 8 has been attempting to burn religion at the stake for over a decade now. And one of the most common weapons they brandish in their mob-like groupthink is the “Religion is Anti-Science” trope. I had hopes that Cosmos would not be as simple-minded as such anti-theists, but I was unfortunately let down.

Midway through the first episode, the entire presentation shifted from computer-generated, awe-inspiring vistas of the universe to a jagged, cartoon history lesson. A person might wonder what purpose such a divergent storyline has to do with the cosmos. The answer lies in the narrative Cosmos is attempting to construct with regard to the development of modern science in contrast to religion. Using the obscure story of Giordano Bruno, a possibly unhinged friar (that means he was a highly religious person) who believed in multiple “worlds” in the universe and was executed for heresy, Cosmos attempts to tell the story of the medieval Roman Catholic church’s opposition to science. The problem is, the actual historical facts do not support the narrative Cosmos attempts to construct.

In contrast to Cosmos’s narrative, Bruno was not executed for this cosmological theories. He was, in fact, executed for his heretical theological views—views on the divine nature of the Christian Messiah, the triune nature of the Godhead, and a host of other subjects on which Cosmos had no comment. 9 Far from being the martyr for science that Cosmos attempted to cast Bruno as, it is far more likely Bruno was no martyr at all. For martyrdom necessitates that a person has died in defense of the truth about Christ, not opposing it.

It’s unfortunate that modern and postmodern viewers will likely never investigate beyond the narrative with which they were presented by Cosmos. The mere offense of capital punishment enforced by a state in which the religious and civil spheres were inexorably enmeshed is enough to indict all religious people in popular opinion. Therefore, there is little hope Cosmos would ever face any backlash or consequences for such a mischaracterization of religion. But what should strike the general viewing public as utterly inconsistent, if not hypocritical, is the overtly religious manner in which Cosmos set about telling the story of science’s development in the West.

First, Cosmos chose the story of a singular figure who was supposedly persecuted through no fault of his own by the faceless machine of religion—a person who’s only aim was to advance human understanding through science. However, none of that is scientifically substantiated. Under even mediocre scrutiny, one can observe that these “facts” do not hold up. Bruno was a religious person (a friar) who did not use the scientific method to observe, document, and test his hypotheses. No, he claimed to have knowledge of other “worlds” from a vision God gave him in which he traveled to them. Furthermore, Bruno was not punished for cosmological claims, but for claims wholly unrelated to them. Further still, Bruno was punished not by the church, but by an unholy union of church and state. But none of Cosmos’s rhetoric reflected any animosity toward the power of governments to suppress knowledge or science. God knows that doesn’t happen in the U.S., right!?!?!

Second, by using an intentionally emotional appeal to audiences, in the form of a martyr story, Cosmos deliberately employed the means by which religious convictions are inspired. Thereby, Cosmos utilized the means of the religious by whom they are attempting to depict science as persecuted. One might be tempted to think that a program as committed to the scientific method as Cosmos claims to be would take a more scientific approach to historical reconstruction. That one would be wrong. Rather than gathering the best historical resources and presenting a composite with critical input from expert sources, Cosmos instead presented both a literal and metaphorical cartoon of Bruno’s story.

Good Old-Fashioned ‘Personal Testimony’

Another amazing way Cosmos employed religious means to convey their message about science was through the use of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s personal story, which includes his relationship with Carl Sagan.

At the end of the first episode of Cosmos, Tyson related the tear-jerking and heart-warming story of how he, a young kid from the Bronx (an under-resourced borough of New York City) with dreams of becoming an astronomer, met Carl Sagan and how powerful and lasting was the impact of that meeting. Tyson even produces artifacts from that encounter not at all unlike medieval monasteries that housed the bones of saints, or televangelists who sell prayer clothes for the healing of their TV viewership. The reverence Tyson showed for the mementos he preserved from Sagan’s life was nothing short of religious. For him, the signed book by Sagan that Tyson keeps to this day is no less sacred than the Bible given to me by a Christian minister for Christmas following my conversion to Christianity as a teenager. In fact, Tyson goes on to state in no uncertain terms, Sagan’s influence on his life was far from merely professional. No, Sagan showed him “what kind of person he wanted to be.” Ethics and morals are decidedly not the realm of science for the Materialist. For the Materialist, Sagan was merely honoring some sort of social contract out of an evolutionary impulse to perpetuate the species. Tyson has groped around in the dark absence of a spiritual framework—out of a manufactured fear of “religion”—and has stumbled upon, and embraced, his own brand of religion: Saganism.

Conclusion

Perhaps the Cosmos series cannot be faulted for employing religious means to convey a message about which they feel passionately. For millennia, religious methodology like these have been effectively used to gain followers for a belief-system. But Cosmos cannot employ a religious approach to science and an unscientific approach to history without rendering itself grotesquely hypocritical. With the New Atheists, the series seeks to present science as the foundation of all that can be known, and the only proper methodology for discovering facts. All the while, however, the show itself employs religious themes, means, and messages to teach against religion. That is a contradiction that ironically demonstrates a lack of faith in science.

The reality is faith and science are not enemies! As Hess points out, “Missing were the stories of Catholic astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo, Protestants such as Brahe and Kepler and Newton, or Fr. George Lemaître, proposer of the Big Bang.” 10 One of my personal heroes of theology is also a world-renowned physicist: John Polkinghorne. 11 He would certainly not say that science and faith are enemies, but would most certainly say they are complementary. Also, there is a whole host of noteworthy theologians and Christian church leaders who also affirm science and see no irreconcilable conflict between the two. One particularly clear space where these two worlds are both celebrated is in the BioLogos community. 12

I’d like to see Cosmos take a more scientific approach to the relationship between science and faith. If they did, they would discover that people of faith (religious people) have been vitally responsible for the development and advancement of science, and many modern scientists are people of faith.

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  1. https://www.facebook.com/beingtc/posts/10153768461315077?stream_ref=10
  2. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Fact-Checks Gravity on Twitter,” Wired Magazine
  3. Shout out to Joshua Tom for this phrase. I’ve gotten some good milage out of it.
  4. This analogy is accredited to Ellen Hopkins in Identical.
  5. Peter Hess, “A Burning Obsession: Cosmos and its Metaphysical Baggage
  6. Ibid.
  7. After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last?
  8. The New Atheists
  9. “Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.”[http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Giordano_Bruno]
  10. Hess, “A Burning Obsession”
  11. Are Science and Faith Mutual Exclusive?
  12. BioLogos