I’m seeing a lot of silly carping about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos — almost all of it is focused on the story of Bruno told in the first episode. The apologists for religion are upset: how dare a science program point out the poisonous influence of religion? Bruno wasn’t really a scientist anyway, so he shouldn’t count! Peter Hess of the NCSE offers up a good example of apologetics.
Unfortunately, the series premiere risks squandering that opportunity through a combination of misleading history and reliance on an antiquated narrative of inevitable conflict between science and religion—and the Catholic Church in particular—that simply is not borne out by the facts. A generation of careful scholarship has given us a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the long, rich, and complex relationship between religion and the sciences. This latest Cosmos reflects none of that historiography, presenting us instead with what is quite literally a cartoon version of the life story of someone who was not a scientist. Missing were the stories of Catholic astronomers such as Copernicus [delayed publication out of fear; only saw his ideas in print on his deathbed; book was prohibited by the Catholic Church in 1616] and Galileo [tried by the Vatican, forced to recant, spent the end of his life under house arrest], Protestants such as Brahe [Brahe was a geocentrist — a geoheliocentrist, actually] and Kepler [Did you know his mother was tried and imprisoned for witchcraft?] and Newton[Also a mystic, Bible-prophecy walloping, fanatical religious person], or Fr. George Lemaître, proposer of the Big Bang.
Whenever I see one of these guys throw out noise like
a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the long, rich, and complex relationship between religion and the sciences, I want to ask…what was nuanced and sophisticated about setting a human being on fire? I also think his list of famous scientists overlooks an important trend: between Copernicus and Lemaître, we are seeing the steady triumph of science over religion, that we see the Church forced to reduce the severity of its enforcement of dogma in the face of the overwhelming success of science in accurately describing the world. The Church was dragged kicking and screaming into an era where you don’t get to murder people for disagreeing with your dogma.
It is odd therefore that Cosmos focuses almost exclusively on the marginal case of Giordano Bruno. Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason. Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very diffferently than did our ancestors.
But the circumstances were quite different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code and the customs of Renaissance politics, Bruno was judged by an ecclesiastical court to be an obdurate heretic for refusing to cease in promulgating his theological ideas. As such he was deserving of capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states in which the nature and exercise of authority are vastly different than they were in Post-Reformation Italy.
Is anyone else getting that queasy feeling, like when you read about William Lane Craig justifying the murder of babies by ‘Israeli’ soldiers? Hey, it was OK to set people on fire in 1600! Why are you complaining?
I agree that we live in a very different era in the 21st century. Give the credit to secularism, rationalism, and the Enlightenment, though, because fucking religion fought every progressive change every step of the way, with liberal religion dogging along by discarding parts of the religious nonsense of previous generations.
I don’t think it odd at all that the series brought Giordano Bruno to the fore. This is not at all a show for scientists, but to bring a little bit of the awe and wonder of science to everyone. I think it was a good idea to use a non-scientist as an example of how dogma oppresses and harms everyone. Bruno was an idealist, a mystic, an annoying weirdo, a heretic, and for that, the Catholic Church set him on fire.
Do I need to repeat that? Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop. Don’t even try to rationalize that.
Furthermore, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s own words, transcribed by Wesley Elsberry, are crystal clear on the point he was making.
Giordano Bruno lived in a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state, or the notion that freedom of speech was a sacred right of every individual. Expressing an idea that didn’t conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble. Recklessly, Bruno returned to Italy. Maybe he was homesick, but still he must have known that his homeland was one of the most dangerous places in Europe he could possibly go. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a system of courts known as the Inquisition, and its sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs. It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police.
The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought. Let’s not hide that fact. Let’s not pretend it was OK because it was 400 years ago. Let’s not say it was irrelevant because many of their victims, like Bruno, were not scientists. I think it’s a rather important point that the progress of science requires that we not set people who disagree with us on fire.
Wesley makes a very good point at the end.
The point “Cosmos” was making was more basic. At the level of telling people about science, we don’t need a lot of historical nuance about the Inquisition: what they did was so far out of bounds of the way discourse needs to be handled that simply noting the historical divergence is sufficient. “Cosmos” did that, plainly told people they were doing that, and, sadly enough, a lot of people of otherwise lofty intellect managed not to take the point.
I will also disagree with Hess. There is a conflict between science and religion. Somehow, these people think that the historical evidence of people leaving behind their antiquated religious ideas and gradually adapting to a more secular view of the world is evidence that religion and science are compatible.
You know, I’d heard this vague euphemism that the church “immobilized his tongue” to prevent Bruno from speaking heresy on the way to the stake, but I didn’t know how. The answer was provided in the comments:
[on the way to the stake, Feb 19, 1600] As the parade moved on, Bruno became animated and excited. He reacted to the mocking crowds, responding to their yells with quotes from his books and the sayings of the ancients. His comforters, the Brotherhood of St. John, tried to quiet the exchange, to protect Bruno from yet further pain and indignity, but he ignored them. And so after a few minutes the procession was halted by the Servants of Justice. A jailer was brought forward and another two held Bruno’s head rigid. A long metal spike was thrust through Bruno’s left cheek, pinning his tongue and emerging through the right cheek. Then another spike was rammed vertically through his lips. Together, the spikes formed a cross. Great sprays of blood erupted onto his gown and splashed the faces of the brotherhood close by. Bruno spoke no more. … as the fire began to grip, the Brothers of Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul. Risking the flames, one of them leaned into the fire with a crucifix, but Bruno merely turned his head away. Seconds later, the fire caught his robe and seared his body, and above the hissing and crackling of the flames could be heard the man’s muffled agony.
Yeah, that’s what the apologists want to dismiss as irrelevant.