More than 30 years after Carl Sagan brought the beauty and wonder of outer space to millions of TV watchers, a new version of the popular “Cosmos” series debuted on several cable channels last Sunday.
I remember watching the original series as a child, captivated by Sagan’s ability to explain the grandeur of a universe populated by “billions and billions” of stars and other mysterious objects. It nurtured in me an interest in astronomy and stargazing that continues to this day.
That’s why I was looking forward to the new show, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a talented communicator in his own right. Astronomers have learned much in the last three decades, and the show could be a good vehicle for conveying those discoveries and inspiring the next generation of young stargazers.
But, while there was much to like in the first episode, it also left me shaking my head at the way religion was treated. Certainly, the dialogue between religion and science has not always been congenial. But the episode painted an incomplete picture about the history of science and religion, particularly in relation to the Catholic Church.
The episode spent more than 10 of its 60 minutes telling the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Italian friar who came under the scrutiny of the Inquisition for his beliefs about God and the universe and was subsequently burned at the stake. The Church was painted as a close-minded institution intent on silencing scientific inquiry. Fans of classic TV may even have noticed the resemblance of the chief inquisitor portrayed in the retelling to Ming the Merciless of “Flash Gordon” fame.
This was the extent of the show’s focus on organized religion. The Church’s treatment of Bruno is indeed a sad mark on its history, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story about the Church’s relationship with science through history and into the present day.
Perhaps future episodes of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” will note that much of modern science was born in Europe’s Catholic universities, or that many of history’s best scientists were clergymen, including Father Georges Lemaitre, who proposed what later became known as the “big bang” theory of the universe’s beginning. The Vatican even maintains an observatory — its roots date back to the 16th century — and staffs an astronomical research center hosted by the University of Arizona.
Perhaps today’s best-known Vatican astronomer, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, described the relationship between faith and science best in an interview I had with him in Rome a few years ago. “God created the universe,” he said. “God said the universe is good. God is expressing who he is to us [in part] through the physical universe. So knowing how the universe works gives us a sense of God’s personality, and it’s a way of getting to know God better.”
This is hardly a close-minded approach to science. Both religion and science are ultimately focused on the search for truth, each using their own methods, vocabulary and areas of expertise.
Viewers of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” didn’t get this part of the story Sunday night. No one wants a whitewashing of history — some people representing the Church have committed serious wrongs during its 2,000-year history — but a little balance is in order in the interest of fairness, accuracy and truth.
Let’s hope some of that is forthcoming in a series that has the potential to inspire viewers about the beauty of creation that surrounds us all.