Cosmos

by Brian 30. March 2014 06:43

I finally got a chance to sit down and watch the first episode of the new Cosmos series with host astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It began with exciting animations and music to set your mind adrift like one of Sagan’s dandelions, untethered from the weight of substantive science. My daughter and I enjoyed the cosmic micro-to-macro journey, reminiscent of the intro to the movie Contact. It opened up some interesting conversation. I found Tyson’s personal experience with his mentor Carl Sagan touching and his excitement for science encouraging. But the effort to divide faith and science was both disappointing and misleading. Even though Tyson is not an atheist (he self-identifies with agnosticism) the executive producer Seth Macfarlane is an outspoken one. It seems pretty obvious to me his bias was allowed to drive the direction of the first episode.

 I’m going to skip over the first half of the show and the pop-science introduced briefly by Tyson’s comment: “Many of us suspect” everything in our observable universe is “but one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes...worlds without end.” [i] Tyson was allowed to quickly brush over this speculative, unobservable, metaphysical conjecture as if it were a genuine scientific theory. Since I’ve already blogged about the multiverse, I’ll move on to the second half of the show where for over 20 minutes I listened to Tyson attempt to widen the gap between those who look at the world through science and those who look at it through philosophy and theology. I won’t go into how badly Cosmos mishandled the history of the church and Giordano Bruno. You can read this excellent article showing how embarrassingly inaccurate Cosmos portrayed things. I do want to briefly mention how their divisive approach was unnecessary.

The new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, believe those on the side of science must ridicule the other side of faith. There are also those like Hawking and Krauss who seem to think philosophy is dead because of the advancement of science. On the other hand, strict literalists like Ken Ham often appear to ignore any scientific view which might require a rethinking of one’s theological interpretations. The producers of Cosmos appeared, to me at least, to be fueling the fires in all of these camps. However, there are many scientists, philosophers and theologians who reject the notion science, philosophy and faith must forever be at odds. John Polkinghorne, who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, is an example of such a scientist and theologian.  I’ve blogged about this elsewhere but Polkinghorne’s words are worth repeating.

We must take account of what science has to tell us about the pattern and history of the physical world in which we live. Of course, science itself can no more dictate to religion what it is to believe than religion can prescribe for science what the outcome of its inquiry is to be. The two disciplines are concerned with the exploration of different aspects of human experience: in the one case, our impersonal encounter with a physical world that we transcend; in the other, our personal encounter with the One who transcends us. They use different methods: in the one case, the experimental procedure of putting matters to the test; in the other, the commitment of trust which must underlie all personal encounter, whether between ourselves or with the reality of God. They ask different questions: in the one case, how things happen, by what process?; in the other, why things happen, to what purpose? Though these are two different questions, yet, the ways we answer them must bear some consonant relationship to each other.

Science, philosophy and theology are all trying to make sense of the world from different angles. They all have their primary domains of inquiry into a single world; a single reality. These domains may overlap at points (contrary to Gould’s NOMA.) For example, we cannot divorce ourselves from scientific knowledge when developing a theology of creation. Nor should we air the conjecture of materialist scientists regarding unobservable constructs beyond the event horizon of our universe – at least not without the input of philosophers and theologians. So when you have an executive producer of Cosmos saying: “There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.”[ii] It’s no wonder why the main message of the show is one of division instead of unity.

 



[i] Neil Tyson, 15:00-24 Cosmos Ep1.

[ii]Esquire interview Aug, 18,2009

Religion

by Brian 15. May 2010 21:01

Religion; I cannot think of a more misused word in our culture today. It is disappointing how often one hears statements like: “all religion is dangerous” or “all religious people are foolish,” etc. Does anyone even know what the word means anymore? I found a decent definition the very first place I looked online; especially the first entry:

Religion is: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

I would reword “esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies” as atheists are quite dogmatic and devoted to their metaphysical views on the cause, nature and purpose of the universe without appeal to superhuman agency. Philosophical naturalism (the logical position for an atheist) leads rationally to specific moral positions that can and have governed the conduct of human affairs. And every time I see a Darwin-fish emblem or an internet infidel T-shirt I have to wonder about their devotional and ritual observances. Yet when you hear your average irreligious American use the term they typically twist the word to mean something like:

Religion is: the institutional Christian church and Islamic radicalism, its members and their less than desirable actions today and throughout history.

These people ignore the central and most relevant aspect of the word and focus on secondary and less relevant meaning filtered through their biases. When you hear someone say “religion is dangerous” ask them to clarify what they mean by the word “religion.”  Or, just cut to the chase and ask if they are an atheist! If willing to answer; they will usually fall into one of three camps:

1.       “Yes, I am an atheist.” – Now I actually appreciate this answer because they are willing to step up to plate and with bold faith proclaim a universal negative (as if they have turned over ever stone in their multiverse.) So I can at least appreciate their misplaced conviction. On the other hand, if they are part of the “new atheism,” then see #3 as they are really closet-atheists masquerading as agnostics.

 

2.       Or..."No, I am a Christian [or Jew, or Muslim] but I think religion is dangerous when depraved man perverts it.” – This is not unreasonable. I agree; the institutional church is and has been the best and worst witness to the Gospel. Every time a TV-evangelist has an affair or flashes his gaudy jewelry; or every time a child is abused by a parishioner, unknown numbers of those seeking the Truth are steered away from it – Matthew 18:6 is an appropriate response from Jesus to these so-called leaders. But the key element of what “religion” means remains open: what do we believe about the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe?

 

3.       Finally..."I’m an agnostic” or “I believe we should be good to one another and tolerant” or “There is some higher power out there and we are all just working our way towards it,” etc. This sort of lukewarm, indecisive and incoherent position ought to be unfashionable; unfortunately it’s all too common. Some of these fall into the "I don't know and I don't care" self-absorbed crowd. Others fall into the "I took a comparative religion class in college" and now I have special understanding crowd. And there may be a few seekers out there who honestly do not know, but I have yet to meet one. Regardless, these are the people you have to drill down with and get them to clarify their position.

In conclusion, the next time you hear someone make a half-cocked generalization about religion, ask them to define the term. Help them to articulate something substantive. You will usually find a wholly different presupposition at the core. Ultimately Christianity is a system of truth, not a set of practices where we go through the motion every Sunday. Christianity is not the sum of behavior and actions of its adherents – especially those who are not acting according to its truth claims. Christianity, as a religion, does make certain claims about the cause, nature and purpose of the universe including: God physically raised Jesus from the dead putting a divine imprimatur on his proclamations about the way things are. From a Christian perspective, the truth of this proposition is paramount; today's twisted version of "religion" by comparison is irrelevant.

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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