How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
The series premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired Sunday night. It was beautifully shot and creatively written. As a continuation of the original 1980 Cosmos series, starring Carl Sagan, the new Cosmos did not disappoint, particularly in the special effects department. It successfully continues the grand and inspiring vision of the universe offered by Sagan. But Sunday’s premiere did disappoint in another area—its historical depiction of Giordano Bruno.
I recently wrote about Bruno for the anniversary of his execution a few weeks ago, so I was really curious to see how Cosmos would frame his story. In a beautifully animated segment, new Cosmos narrator and host (and Sagan’s protégé), Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells viewers how Bruno was persecuted for his belief in infinite worlds and his acceptance of Copernicus’s theory. Villainous characters abuse and insult Bruno as he courageously holds to his view of an infinite universe, responding to his persecutors, “Your God is too small.” Tyson explains how “Bruno just couldn’t keep his soaring vision of the universe to himself,” and bravely suffered death for daring to believe in a “grander vision of creation.” Toward the end of the segment, Tyson vindicates Bruno’s view as being a lucky guess, now confirmed by science, after an animated Bruno flies into space with his arms extended outward, his body in a cross position. The take away narrative is obvious–Bruno was a heroic martyr of reason and free thought who suffered at the hands of anti-science religious authorities.
It’s an inspiring story. But it simply isn’t true.
When I say it isn’t true, I don’t mean it’s grossly unfactual. The Cosmos writers got the basic facts of Bruno’s life, sentence, and execution right. But a story is much more than a set of facts strung together in chronological order. A story is how the facts are presented, which facts are presented (and omitted), and the setting in which the facts are framed.
In our case, Bruno’s story is framed within a science show about the universe and our place in it, and in particular, it’s presented in a segment of the show the writers call “heroes of knowledge.” So, right away, Bruno is portrayed as a hero of science and knowledge. The facts that are presented to support this narrative are that he believed in an infinite universe and was imprisoned and executed for this belief. But a relevant fact that was omitted is that Bruno was just as much a victim of his own caustic personality as he was a victim of the abuse of church power. He managed to offend and enrage just about everyone who offered to help him. And these virulent personal conflicts eventually led him into the hands of the Inquisition. This does not justify Bruno’s execution by any means. It was an inexcusable injustice. But omitting this part of the story casts Bruno as a courageous and innocent suffering hero, instead of the frustratingly acerbic and tragic figure he was.
Another omitted fact was that Bruno was a pantheist. He pretty much rejected all of the basic tenets of Christianity. So when Tyson narrates, “Bruno believed the God he worshiped was infinite, so why couldn’t his creation be too?”, or when Bruno tells his critics, “Your God is too small,” viewers don’t realize that Bruno had a totally different conception of God in mind. He didn’t believe in the monotheistic God at all. Rather, he believed the universe was God. Instead, viewers are given the impression that Bruno had a “grander,” more pious view of the biblical God than his persecutors.
I was glad to see that Tyson mentioned Bruno was not a scientist (even though it was more of a side note) and the executioners listed his other heresies. Still, the show made it seem like Bruno was executed primarily for his belief in infinite worlds. In reality, he was executed for a long list of theological heresies (of which the belief in infinite worlds happened to be one) and for his vitriolic personal conflicts. These would be important details to emphasize if historical objectivity were the goal. But I don’t think historical objectivity was the goal. The writers had something more in mind.
It’s fair to say that the version of Bruno’s story offered in Cosmos comes across as more mythological than historical. One writer described Bruno’s segment as a “Humanist parable.” In that sense, it is very effective. As a Christian, I certainly see the value in parables. They can be a powerful medium for conveying moral and spiritual truths. However, this parable is different in that it wasn’t presented as parable, but rather as history. And it was presented in a science program lauding knowledge, reason, and facts.
I would not have as much problem with the Bruno parable if it didn’t reinforce a larger cultural myth that originated in the 19th century–the “warfare thesis.” As I wrote previously, this view depicts the history of knowledge as a progressive battle between courageous scientific heroes and obscurantist religious villains. The warfare thesis persists in our culture today, albeit almost subconsciously, despite being repeatedly debunked by historians. The mythologizing of Bruno only perpetuates it. And that’s unfortunate.
I’m excited to watch the future episodes of Cosmos, and especially interested to see how the “heroes of knowledge” segments will be portrayed. I love that Tyson is the new host; it is truly meaningful, considering how Sagan mentored him. I’ve heard several writers say that having Tyson as the host brings things “full circle.” That’s true in a beautiful way. But there is another interesting connection I noticed while watching the premiere episode: One of the primary originators of the warfare thesis (and perpetrator of Bruno myths) was Andrew Dickson White. He was the co-founder of Cornell University, where Carl Sagan spent most of his academic career. It would be ironic if the new Cosmos, hosted by Sagan’s protégé, inadvertently helped perpetuate White’s (now debunked) legacy. Full circle indeed.
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