Does Cosmos Promote Atheism?

Stargazing is my hobby, and I subscribe to various related publications, including the magazine Astronomy. Bob Berman is a regular columnist for Astronomy and his columns are usually entertaining and informative. Occasionally they are peevish, as when he recently devoted much of his monthly column to a matter of pronunciation. He insisted at length that the name of the first magnitude star Vega is pronounced “Vee-ga” not “Vay-ga.” Well, I guess we all have pet peeves. One of mine is people who make a federal case out of differences in pronunciation. BTW, I have always said “Vay-ga” and have no plans to change.

In his column for the August 2014 issue of Astronomy, Berman takes on Neil deGrasse Tyson and his recent, superb Cosmos series. In an essay titled “Astronomy and God,” Berman charges that the series engages in anti-God propaganda with “religious putdowns” in every episode. Berman recognizes that devoting his monthly column to the perennially explosive science and religion issue is “about as wise as inviting the Three Stooges into a crystal glassware shop.” He should have followed his wiser instincts. His column badly misfires and should embarrass him and the editors of Astronomy.

I watched the entire Cosmos series and found it to be a beautiful, clear, and inspiring piece of popular science exposition—much like the Carl Sagan original. I saw nothing, absolutely nothing that a rational religious person should have found offensive. Admittedly, I am an atheist and when it comes to religious putdowns, I may be sensitivity-challenged. So, what are these “putdowns” Berman alleges? In one episode, Giordano Bruno, tied to the stake and awaiting burning, is offered a crucifix to kiss and turns his head away in disgust. This is a putdown? Bruno had been imprisoned in a dungeon for years, tortured, and was about to be put to an excruciating death—all because his vision of an infinite cosmos was considered heresy.

Does the representation of Bruno turning away from a sanctimonious, hypocritical crumb of grace—and the self-abasement and repudiation it would have implied—constitute an insult to Christianity? How should Cosmos have depicted the scene? Or does Berman think that the whole representation of the Bruno business has no place in a program devoted to science and can only serve as an inflammatory affront to believers? After all, Bruno was a visionary (maybe we should say “crackpot”), not a scientist. Still, the Church did stigmatize, warn, threaten, and, indeed, sometimes punish those who disagreed—on scientific grounds or otherwise—with the official line about the nature of the cosmos. That is simply a fact, and a salient fact, of the history of science. Should Cosmos have simply ignored that fact?

Another alleged putdown is in the episode dealing with evolution, where there was emphasis on the architecture of the eye, a particular battleground between evolutionists and “intelligent design” theorists, says Berman. Apparently, Berman regards it as a deliberate poke in the eye to ID theorists even to mention the issue. Once again, though, the debate about the evolution of “organs of extreme perfection,” like the eye, is important to the history of evolution. Darwin considered this objection in the Origin of Species and replied to it at length. It was as staple of the early critics of natural selection. The point, therefore, did not arise only in recent debates over ID, and mentioning it in the series was not a gratuitous provocation, as Berman seems to think.

Berman claims that the new Cosmos series, like the original written by the agnostic Sagan, portrays religion as “a superstition anathema to science.” In consequence, he says, “religious groups have been howling.” Really? Which ones? Has the Vatican issued an official protest? What about the Archbishop of Canterbury? The Methodists? Rastafarians? If creationists and fundamentalists are the “religious groups” Berman has in mind, I say let ‘em howl. The louder, the better. Fundamentalists ladle out the vitriol when are on the attack, but they cringe, whimper, and pout when they perceive any slight against them, and whine about the “anti-Christian bias.” Of course, for a fundamentalist, the operant definition of “anti-Christian” is “whatever does not support my brand of fundamentalism.” In reality, Berman’s claim that Cosmos is anti-religious is not in the slightest supported by any of his citations of the series.

Berman says that any appearance of advocacy by science will make people think that science is just one more “view” or “position” rather than “an impartial portal to truth.” He counters, with an air of profound insight, that “Atheists cannot prove God’s nonexistence, nor can religious folks prove the opposite.” Berman does admit that science works on the basis of naturalistic assumptions that make no appeal at all to plan or purpose:

“As we know, science says that one strange moment long ago, the cosmos suddenly appeared out of nothingness. Thereafter, random motion eventually produced golden retrievers and all the rest.”

But, says Berman, “This view is neither right nor wrong. It is merely science acting appropriately.”

Gee. I can’t think of any message more likely to promote the idea that science is just another ideology than to say that methods and assumptions of science are neither right nor wrong, but just the way science does things. That is what the “social constructivists” and postmodernists say about science and they most certainly regard it as just another ideology. But Berman also speaks of science as a “portal to truth.” Is he saying that the naturalistic assumptions of science have nothing to do with it being conducive to truth? Could science be done just as well, or better, by looking for plan and purpose? ID theorists think so. Does Berman? If not, why not? On the other hand, if methodological naturalism is one of the heuristic assumptions guiding science to truth, advocating it cannot be a bias.

Berman concludes with a call for humility and a list of questions that indicate what is allegedly unknowable, or at least presently unknown. One of the alleged imponderables he lists is “Do cats dream in color?” Another is the question of what preceded the Big Bang. I’m not convinced that these are unanswerable, but, for the sake of argument, let’s admit that there may be questions that we want to ask but which science will never answer. So what? Does this make it one scintilla more likely that we will get answers to such questions from religion? Over the centuries, the answers given by religion have gone down like bowling pins, and science has been the bowling ball. The rhetoric of being “on the right side of history” may be overused these days, but if history does have a right side, science is on it. Further, we live in an era of burgeoning irrationalism. Anti-science stalks not just the A.M. airwaves, and Koch brothers-funded “think” tanks, but the very halls of Congress. Come to think of it, these days a bit of outright, unabashed advocacy might be a good thing.