Our magazine is a year old this week. And in that year, we have not mentioned the series Cosmos. Not even once. This is odd for several reasons, not the least of which is that we share the beginning of our name with the program. It also, however, happens to be one of most familiar cultural touchstones for science and religion from the past few decades.
Cosmos, for those of you who don’t know, was a PBS series that first aired in 1980. Written by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, the series launched Sagan into a stratosphere of scientific celebrity unmatched during his day. The thirteen-part series, subtitled “A Personal Voyage,” followed Sagan as he embarked on a quest to understand the mysteries of the universe.Cosmos was rebooted last year, this time with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as the host. The new series largely follows the format of the original, while updating both the science and the computer graphics of the 1980s version.
Much of the press surrounding the 2014 version of Cosmos has highlighted the series’s tendency to portray science and religion as eternal foes, locked in a war that science is ultimately destined to win. Criticisms on this point have come from both the right and the left, with conservative critics viewing Cosmos as a cog in the liberal secular machine and liberal commentators arguing that the series “bungles” the history of science and religion. The most thoughtful piece was written last spring by historian of science Elizabeth Yale in Religion & Politics. In her editorial, Yale points out that throughout its run, Cosmos associates religion with “fear, superstition, and a reliance on authority,” whereas science is portrayed as “a curiosity-driven enterprise that expands our knowledge of the universe.” During the third episode, Isaac Newton is held up as a paragon of this open-minded skepticism, free from dogmatic authority and mystic superstition. However, as Yale points out, someone clearly forgot to tell Newton that these were the qualities he was meant to embody. Newton was a devout Protestant and had a well-documented fascination with alchemy—features that trouble his status as a hero of contemporary scientific skepticism.
Newton was a devout Protestant and had a well-documented fascination with alchemy—features that trouble his status as a hero of contemporary scientific skepticism.
It’s not as if the creators and host of Cosmos were unaware of these Newtonian qualities. Tyson is a noteworthy devotee of Newton. In 2006, at a conference called “Beyond Belief” at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, he called Newton the “greatest genius to ever walk the face of this earth.” In his talk, titled “The Perimeter of Ignorance,” Tyson explained why even the “unimpeachably brilliant” Newton had to reference God occasionally in his explanations of the mechanical universe. According to Tyson, when Newton had a sound mathematical explanation for the motion of planetary bodies he abandoned reference to God; it’s only when Newton doesn’t understand something that he falls back on divine explanations. For Tyson, Newton’s Christianity is not a comprehensive worldview, but a stopgap until science can extend its reach into new territory. Religion is only ever a mystical story that retreats in the face of the predictive capacity of secular science.
Tyson’s view of science and religion frames the discussion on Cosmos. But I still haven’t explained why we haven’t talked about the program until now. It’s largely my fault. Cosmos kicks me into public historian mode: I want to explain why, how, and where the series gets the history of science wrong. But two things have held me back from writing. First, I don’t think that the series really cares if it gets history wrong as long as it believes it gets science right. And second (and more importantly), I am still puzzling over why this view of science and religion is so strong, persuasive, and persistent.
Let me explain it this way. When I talk to students or to friends—in other words, people who have lives outside of obsessing about these categories—they often have a very clear idea of what science and religion are. In fact, their sense of these categories is often much clearer than mine. My students will confidently assert to me that science is objective, rational, apolitical, experimental, predictive, and so on. My friends will do the same. When I go about explaining that science is not necessarily those things and that some of these features weren’t even considered desirable or essential parts of “science” in other times and places, I’m met with puzzled frustration. But half the frustration comes from me, because it’s so much harder to make my point than to make theirs. Maybe I’m a bad debater—but this is more than that.
Our tacit understandings of science and religion are culturally and temporally bound. The words themselves are shorthand for a common language that quickly expresses a whole package of characteristics, values, institutions, communities, and practices that we tend to ascribe to one or the other. What history gives us is a method to pull apart this package and see how and why these associations came to be the way they are. Looking at the categories through a historical lens renders them far messier than how we usually talk about them. The point is not to complicate things (though historians love doing this), but to show the processes that made it possible for us to talk about these categories at all in the ways we do.
Looking at the world historically, we begin to see many immovable things—society, culture, scientific knowledge, religious traditions—as contingencies that can be made and unmade.
It takes training to understand the past in this way, and I don’t simply mean the specific route of academic history. Last month, I wrote about Gayatri Spivak’s exhortation for the literary training of the mind as a mode for encouraging social justice. Spivak believes that reading literature is a way of teaching ourselves to care about the lives and perspectives of people who are very different from ourselves. History is also a way of training the self. Doing and reading history gives us access to people who are very different from us: they are not the others of our imagination, our unimpeachably brilliant Newtons, but individuals who arise from the pieces of evidence that we gather from the past. They lived real, complex lives, in which they held numerous views and beliefs at once similar and alien to our own. Looking at the world historically, we begin to see many immovable things—society, culture, scientific knowledge, religious traditions—as contingencies that can be made and unmade.
But it takes a great deal of work to understand people and places that are far away from us in time. When Cosmos and Tyson talk about Newton anachronistically, it’s akin to going to a foreign country and insisting on using only your own language and customs in all circumstances. If you do this, everything will seem extremely coherent, because you’ll interpret the country using a framework that already makes sense to you. But you’ll miss vast swaths of life—made invisible to you by your preconceptions—and you’ll most definitely annoy and offend the locals. When Cosmos portrays science and religion in the seventeenth century through the language of the twenty-first, of course we’re persuaded. The show takes our own contemporary understandings of these categories and lays them onto the past. Suddenly, Newton is a “scientist” and a “secularist” in a way that makes sense to us. But this would have puzzled and dismayed Newton himself.
There is also an expertise gained in the experience of historical research, in sifting through archives, deciphering old linguistics, and collecting oral histories. But this is not simply a matter of spending time with dusty papers and books. Historical thought is a skill that itself needs to be honed—it is a way of understanding the myriad complexities of the past as they continue to shape and inform our present. And just as scientific methods have changed through time, so has historical research. Entire fields of history are created as we work to understand the connections and evidence of the past in different and better ways. Atlantic World history came about because researchers realized that the regions surrounding the Atlantic Ocean were meaningfully connected by the movement of people, goods, and knowledge for centuries after 1492. Cultural history focused our attention on the lived experiences of people whom accounts of elites in politics and society had largely ignored, and scholars focused on labor history in order to understand the influence of capitalism on social relationships. These new fields are generated for many of the same reasons that give rise to new areas of scientific research, including funding, institutional and national politics, new empirical evidence, and intellectual fashions. As with all knowledge-making, history is an inevitably social process that nonetheless seeks better knowledge about the world.
We are still convinced of the need to publish this kind of critical work and of the need to tell the story of science and religion in a way that both Tyson and that pious, intelligent alchemist and theologian, Isaac Newton, would recognize.
Historical writing is an attempt to convey this immersion in the past—the lessons learned, the evidence discovered—to readers who dwell in the past only for the time it takes to travel the space between the covers of a book. Historians, like scientists, ask their audiences to trust that the evidence and interpretation they present is reliable and worthwhile. When scientists lament the lack of scientific literacy, they often take it upon themselves to do something about it. So if there is a dearth of historical literacy, professional historians should address this. Cosmologics is our attempt at involving our readers in our perspective—often historical, but also philosophical, anthropological, or sociological—on science and religion. We don’t mean that every view in the magazine is the same or even in agreement. But after a year of publishing, we are still convinced of the need to publish this kind of critical work, of the need to bring new voices into public discussion, and of the need to tell the story of science and religion in a way that both Tyson and that pious, intelligent alchemist and theologian, Isaac Newton, would recognize.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is Editor-in-Chief of Cosmologics and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University.
Image of Orion’s Nebula from Flickr via astrorom.