Cosmos’s Assault on Religion

Whoa boy. I know what some of you are thinking, and I want to rein that in before this gets off on the wrong foot. I’ve never considered myself to be a frothing at the mouth anti-science sort of a chap. Yay science. I believe evolution. I believe in the scientific method. So if you’re here to have some bobble-head reassure you that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs are imaginary or whatever, move along to the next blog, thank you. And if you’re here to yell at me because SCIENCE, same thing.

I want this to be a rational, polite discussion.

Why? Because like many of you, I was really excited to hear they were running a new version of Cosmos. And like (I assume) many of you, I’ve seen the first two episodes. (Streaming on Fox’s iPad app, since I like watching them with my kids, and I like being able to watch when and where I want). I love fostering my children’s love of exploration and knowledge, and this seemed like a great way to do that.

What I wasn’t expecting was for a full third of the first episode to be focused on how awful the Catholic church (and religion in general) was, historically speaking. And then in episode 2, the continued subtheme about how fundamentally flawed religion is didn’t go over too well with me either. Let me take each of those on one at a time.

First, I don’t think any sane person is going to argue successfully that religion has a perfect track record over the years, especially when it comes to nurturing inquisitive minds. Point taken. But I’d expected Cosmos to be about the wonders of the universe. The marvels of discovery. To spend so much time focused on the story of a monk who’s constantly oppressed by those evil evil churchy types . . . seemed like the wrong place to put your focus. It’s a missed opportunity. There’s so much awesome out there to focus on. That 15 minutes or whatever you spent focused on that meant that I got 15 minutes less of black holes or string theory or god particles.

I get it. Science feels a need to get back at religion for what’s been done to it over the centuries. And many sciencey types like to do a bit of chest thumping about how awesome science is and what a fairy tale God is. To me, you don’t make your point by rubbing people’s noses in what you aren’t. There’s no need to muck rake here. If you’re so awesomely right, then show us that, and let us figure out the rest on our own.

The same thing about the presentation on evolution. Yes, I know it’s a hot button topic. Yes, I realize that there are people out there who want to dismiss it as a whole and talk about “theory” this and “incomplete” that. But at the same time, the show made such a big deal about how great science is because “It’s okay for us to admit we don’t know something” (I don’t have the exact quote here, sorry–it’s along those lines), but it seems to me science is often unwilling to allow people of faith the same leeway.

I am fully confident that there are things being presented as fact today in schools and by science that will one day be deemed over-simplistic, misguided, or just plain wrong by scientists in future. Science is far from infallible. So let’s follow that bit about glass houses and stones, eh?

I’m watching the show with my kids, as I said. And I paused it after the big talk about how evolution happens over billions of years and how it can all function without any guidance whatsoever. How things are all just random, and how yada yada yada. And I asked my son what he thought of that. He wasn’t sure what to say. The kid’s only 9, after all. So I asked another question. “Does God exist?”

“Yeah,” he said. It was the safe answer.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

He thought about it some, still not sure what to say.

“Have you ever prayed?” I asked.

He nodded.

“And were your prayers answered?”

Another nod. He and I have had numerous talks about prayer and faith and finding out for yourself what to believe. It was nice to be able to draw on that experience during this talk.

“There you go,” I said. “Your prayers were answered. You know from personal experience that prayer is real, that God hears you and helps you.” I went on to talk about how I don’t understand everything, but I’m a firm believer in the scientific method–with the disclaimer that I don’t believe it’s the only way to acquire truth and knowledge. If we all went about insisting on using the scientific method all of the time, none of us would get anywhere. At some point in time, we have to read what other people have discovered. Learn from their truths and not just our own. Yes, we can and should put those truths to the test, but one of the big ways we’ve advanced so far scientifically is that science is a team sport.

The same holds true for religion. If there’s a God, and He hears and answers prayers, there should be a way to put that to the test. For me, it’s been following the doctrines and teachings of the Mormon church. Certain promises are made to the faithful. I’ve seen in my personal life and experiences that those things really work. Prayer is a fact for me, not a theory or a new agey puff of incense.

I went to college at BYU, a church owned and operated school. Evolution was taught in my biology class. It wasn’t dismissed or ridiculed. It was accepted as-is. How does evolution match up with what I know of God? I don’t know. I’m not God, and I’m also not smart enough to be able to know everything about evolution. But again, it’s okay to admit you don’t know something. There are tons of mysteries science has to do the same thing with: shrug its shoulders, say “I don’t know” and work on figuring out what the solutions might be.

Why does evolution have to exclude a creator? Why does it have to be random–what’s to say it isn’t guided by someone or some thing?

I don’t know. And I’m okay with that. I’m going to keep watching Cosmos. I love learning new things, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the explanations on the show. I’ll keep having my kids watch it. I’m not threatened by truth and the search for truth. I’m confident that one day it will all make sense. For now, I’d just appreciate it if Cosmos played to its strengths (the awesome presentation of the potential of the universe) and left the interpretation and spin control out of the picture. People like me don’t need it, and people who are frothing-at-the-mouth aren’t going to listen to it.

3 thoughts on “Cosmos’s Assault on Religion”

  1. Thanks for your article, Bryce. It bothers me when scientists get smug. It shows that they don’t know their history, as you mentioned in this article. It is wonderful to see so many LDS scientists, like Brother Eyring and his father, who see no conflict between science and religion, but seem them both as ways to gain knowledge and wisdom.

  2. At first I also felt like the first episode was a little heavy handed with the “evil church” theme, especially in the voice acting of the church hierarchy. But then when I thought about it, I kind of think it’s a good idea. The religions of the time were a huge reason scientific research didn’t go anywhere for centuries. They DID stifle, murder, and generally squash dissenters for various reasons, one of which was simply to maintain power. I think it’s important for people to learn about the detriments to society that happen when we let faith or fear rule all. Millions (if not billions) of people suffered and died because we didn’t advance in science sooner due to the refusal of the churches at the time to admit they were wrong. I think it’s important to teach that. To me, that episode wasn’t just about learning facts about science; it was about learning science’s place in society, and learning how to train our minds to accept scientific fact even when it conflicts with something we think we already know.

  3. I guess I just have to disagree. The segment on the monk was more appropriate to a history video, and even if it had been in that, I would have objected to the way it was handled and portrayed. The more I think about it, the less I think it was anywhere near the realm of okay.

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