Neil deGrasse Tyson has been called many things. Groundbreaking astronomer. Dynamic communicator. Sexiest astrophysicist alive.
But what about public theologian?
It might sound crazy, but the recent reboot of the television show Cosmos: A Personal Journey — Carl Sagan’s classic 1980s exploration of all things science, this time starring the charismatic Tyson and renamed “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” — is already attracting more attention for what it says about religion than astrophysics.
The show, which premiered Sunday night, begins roughly as expected, with Tyson guiding viewers through a humbling and special-effect laden tour of our seemingly infinite cosmos. But things abruptly shift gears as the program enters its middle segment, with Tyson narrating an animated retelling of the life of Giordano Bruno, a 14th century Dominican friar who dared to make the bold claim that our universe is not confined to the solar system (with the sun at the center), but in fact home an infinite number of suns besides our own, each surrounded by worlds populated with intelligent beings.
Predictably, Bruno’s ideas weren’t exactly popular with the religious leadership of his day. Scene after scene shows him mocked and exiled for his passionate embrace of an infinite universe, and Bruno is eventually imprisoned and tortured by the religious “thought police.” Ultimately, despite Bruno’s repeated assertion that his controversial conviction is fueled by his deep love in “the Creator,” we see him burned at the stake for his beliefs.
Bruno’s story makes for fantastic drama, but one can’t help but feel that his narrative seems a little out of place in Cosmos. Throughout the program’s hour-long runtime, Tyson repeatedly champions the merits of science and the scientific method; science is powerful, Tyson argues, because it operates using empirically verifiable evidence. Yet Bruno’s belief in an infinite universe was born not out of the evidence or scientific fact, but out of a fantastical vision. Tyson even says as much at the close of the segment: “Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well turn out wrong. But once the idea was in the air, it gave others a target to aim at, if only to disprove it.”
So why tell Bruno’s story? Some have interpreted the segment as an excuse to make a wholesale attack on religion. Spurred by an explosion of people who use religion deny the existence of climate change, the public wing of the scientific community has been more aggressive towards religion recently, with Bill Nye even going so far as to debate the merits of Creationism with Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Thus, maybe Cosmos, produced by vocal atheist Seth MacFarlane, is using the drama of Bruno’s story to implicitly shame religious Americans by highlighting an example of oppression enacted by religious hierarchy.
But a closer look at the segment reveals that Tyson and company may have in fact divised a far more effective way of disarming the science-v.-religion debate by venturing into what religious scholars sometimes classify as “public theology.” Others have rightly noted that the core message of the Bruno narrative isn’t that God doesn’t exist, but rather “your God is too small.” The “your” here is directed not at believers at large, but instead implicitly pointed at the small minority of conservative Christians who continue to doggedly insist that science is somehow incompatible with religion.
And make no mistake, they are a minority. Although it receives less airtime than fundamentalist theological strains, scientifically-informed theology is norm — not the exception — among modern American Christians. For every conservative pundit or elected official who tries to use the Bible to deny climate change, polls show that there are millions more religious Americans (read: the majority of almost every faith major faith tradition) who agree that the recent string of natural disasters were the result of climate change. In fact, a recent study conducted by Rice University found that not only do roughly half of American evangelicals believe that “science and religion can work together and support one another,” but that evangelical scientists actually practice their religion more than evangelical Protestants in the general population.
Roman Catholicism has come a long way since Bruno’s day as well. Although admittedly embarrassingly late to the science game, the Vatican issued a formal apology to Galileo, who was also imprisoned for his scientific beliefs, in 1992, and now employs an official Vatican astronomer. There is even an entire book published by the Vatican dedicated to the discerning the theological challenges of life on other worlds (which is also the subject of some fantastic science fiction), and multiple popes have listed climate change as a primary concern for the church. And lest we forget, the Big Bang Theory was originally developed by none other than Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist, astronomer, and Catholic priest.
Tyson himself has made a point of praising this more nuanced brand of religious thought. In a recent interview on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show,” he spoke about the Bruno segment and noted that the real problem isn’t religion per se, but the use of narrow theology to restrict the new ideas.
“The issue there is not religion versus non-religion, or religion versus science,” Tyson said. “The issue is ideas that are different versus dogma.”
To be sure, Tyson — who like Carl Sagan before him, describes himself as an agnostic, although not an atheist — isn’t likely to be writing theological tomes anytime soon. But perhaps Tyson’s Cosmos can continue to use stories like Bruno’s to assert a simple theological truth that millions of Christians have known for centuries: science might be a threat to intolerant religious people, but God and science are anything but incompatible. At its best, firm theological conviction like Bruno’s can actually work with science to produce fantastic, world-changing ideas — some of which might even be worth retelling in television shows hundreds of years down the line.
Amen to that.