Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cosmos and Giordano Bruno

Has the Christian Church been anti-science? That was the clear message promulgated during the premier episode of Cosmos, a remake by Neil Degrasse Tyson of the original series by Carl Sagan. The information presented in Cosmos is interesting, the visual effects are well-done, and it is a stylish vehicle to bring scientific discoveries of the universe to viewers in a manner that is accessible to every educational level. However, the inordinate amount of time spent in episode one with Giordano Bruno’s censorship, repression, and ultimate martyrdom by the church was surprising. How much did that contribute to our understanding of the universe? It appears the producers of the show view past religious repression of scientific freedom to be a serious issue that needs to be addressed today.

So, who was Giordano Bruno? First, he was not an astronomer, nor a scientist. Even this was admitted in the show. Furthermore, Bruno’s ideas of the universe were not based on scientific measurements. He was a Jesuit monk who promulgated the notion that the universe may be infinite – like God – and the sun did not revolve around the earth. The show Cosmos portrayed Bruno as being martyred for this belief, among others, by the Roman Catholic Church. Cosmos mentioned that Bruno was shunned or excommunicated by the Lutherans and Calvinists as well, thus indicating that basically all of organized Christianity in Europe at the time sought to repress the scientific discoveries of this man.

So, was Bruno killed because the church wanted to silence astronomers whose ideas were derived from scientific methods rather than religion? That’s the idea that was portrayed in the show, but it would be inaccurate to state that was the primary reason. Bruno preached several doctrines that were much more heretical: He denied the trinity, the divinity of Christ, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and he publicly disputed the virginity of Mary. That last one probably really ticked off the Roman Catholic Church. For the record, I don’t believe in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has had many problematic doctrines (e.g., purgatory, indulgences, papal infallibility, perpetual virginity of Mary, and penance, just to name a few). Some of these are discussed in more detail on this website. So, this article is by no means an apologetic for the Roman Catholic Church. The bottom line is that Bruno, who was part of the clergy, preached a number of doctrines that were contrary to the Church’s teaching and were much more heretical than heliocentrism.

The excessive amount of time spent by Tyson and Cosmos on religious persecution of Bruno could have been much better used to detail actual scientific discoveries of the time, such as those of Thomas Digges, a real scientist. Digges promoted the idea of Copernican heliocentrism in published works a quarter century before Bruno was executed. In 1573, Digges published a mathematical treatise, Alae seu scalae mathematicae, which detailed movement of a star that exploded the prior year, Tycho Brahe’s supernova. He translated part of a work by Copernicus and added his own ideas of an infinite universe. In 1676, Digges published A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes in which he continued to promote the views of Copernicus, which was eight years before Bruno wrote of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Rather than suffer persecution from the church, Digges went on to become a member of parliament and had a successful military career.

Does the show have an agenda in addition to the advancement of scientific discovery? To answer that in the words of Cosmos Producer Seth McFarlane, creator of The Family Guy, in an interview with Esquire magazine: “We have to. Because of all the mysticism and stuff that’s gotten so popular … It’s like the civil-rights movement. There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.” And, spokesperson Neil Degrasse Tyson told CNN: “ "I find it odd that we live in a time where people who are strongly religious want to make everyone else the same kind of religious way they are, and break down the door of the science classroom to put their religious philosophies in there." Fair enough. So, let’s present the scientific facts about the universe. Cosmos is a terrific show and it would be a shame to waste the potential to present the many fascinating scientific discoveries of the universe in order to promote a heavy-handed anti-Christian agenda.

Robert Pogge, “The Folly of Giordano Bruno”, Ohio State University, , accessed 14 Mar 2014.
J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, biography of Thomas Digges, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, accessed 30 Mar 2014.
Stacey Grenrock Woods, “Hungover with Seth McFarlane”, interview in Esquire Magazine, 18 Aug 2009.
Todd Leopold, “’Cosmos’ dazzles in debut”, CNN, 10 Mar 2014.