A Plastic Feast, Part 3

In the first two parts of this series I shared some reflections on the Fox-National Geographic Channel’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic science series, Cosmos.  While the show is a feast for the eyes with its stunning cinematography and computer animation, the feast turns out to be plastic upon a closer examination.  Last time I examined the historical distortions of the show.  The series butchers history, and casts the church as the enemy of all real scientific progress.

This observation helps to set up my final reflection on the show.  Tyson may be a great scientist, but he’s no historian.  He falls into the trap of many a modern, scientifically-savvy critic of the church.  He treats the Christian faith generally as the enemy of science.  The church, we are led to believe, has always been more concerned with maintaining doctrinal purity than pursuing the answers to big questions wherever the evidence happens to lead.

There are two problems here.  First, that charge assumes the evidence is going to lead in a direction that contradicts the claims and credibility of the faith.  This is not necessarily a good assumption to make and in fact making it can actually serve as a block to following the evidence wherever it leads.  What if the plainest interpretation of the evidence supports the claims of the Christian faith as does, for example, Big Bang cosmology which the secular scientific world resisted for a long time because of its theistic implications?  The philosophical naturalism of the show rules this out as an option a priori.  That’s not good science.  It actually represents a non-empirical presupposition, the likes of which the church is being maligned for having.

Second, the simple fact of history is that the church not only has not been the enemy of science, but in fact modern science would not exist without the church.   To be more specific, modern science would not exist without the Christian worldview.  Tyson argues at one point that the assumption that God (or the gods) made something tends to shut down further intellectual inquiry.  Now, with other non-Christian theistic worldviews this is the case.  For example, the ancient Islamic world produced some great scientists, but not science because the Islamic worldview openly discourages detailed inquiry into how Allah created the world.  The same applies for ancient Eastern pantheistic monism which, again, produced great scholars, but not scholarship because they believed the physical world to be evil, an illusion, or both, and why carefully investigate or encourage others to do the same something that isn’t real?  But, there is one worldview which had a sufficient philosophical basis for the founding of modern science.

Think about it.  Modern science arose in a specific place at a specific time.  It arose in Christian Europe after the invention of Gutenberg printing press.  Why does this matter?  Because the first book made widely available from Gutenberg press was the Bible.  With the publication of the Bible into the lingua franca, literacy rates in Europe soared.  And, as is always the case, when literacy rates rise, so does a curiosity about the world.  Indeed, once we have the words to adequately describe the world, we seek to find out what there is to describe. 

After Gutenberg’s history-shaping invention people were reading like never before, but there was generally only one book to read: the Bible.  Well, as more and more people began reading the Bible, more and more people had their minds shaped by the worldview expressed in the Scriptures.  One aspect of this worldview is that the good God who created the universe ex nihilo did so in an organized, explorable fashion.  We are told that all the heavens declare the glory of God.  The Genesis account of creation, however you happen to interpret it, suggests an orderliness to the process.  When you put just these two Scriptural observations together, the obvious conclusion is that orderly, detailed observations of the world are likely to yield greater knowledge of the creation which itself will lead to a greater understanding of the God who created it.  In other words, if you want to know God better, learn more about His world.  Accordingly, nearly all of the major figures of the so-called “scientific revolution” (which was no revolution at all, but a mere continuation of the work faithful believers had been doing to understand creation more thoroughly for years) were faithful, committed Christians (even if their theology sometimes ran in the direction of unorthodox) who saw their work as an application of their Christian faith.  Indeed, the truth is that far from acting as an impediment, only the Christian worldview could have produced modern science.

This at last leads to my final reflection.  Let me start with a compliment: the series has been beautiful.  If nothing else it has hopefully helped to kindle a sense of wonder at our remarkable world that did not exist before.  Tyson certainly helps in this endeavor.  He is obviously very passionate about it.  The question to ask here, though, is this: why?

If the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be, why bother exploring it?  Perhaps we can learn its inner workings, but to what end?  The fact is, given the atheistic worldview assumptions packed into Sagan’s original refrain, there is no purpose to the cosmos.  Indeed, the Darwinian mechanism for the origination of the various species of animals in the world peddled to viewers throughout the series runs on blind, undirected chance.  No purpose there.  In fact there cannot be any purpose when starting from such a place.  And, if there is no purpose to it, then really there is nothing to be discovered.  Marveling in wonder as Tyson does doesn’t make any sense.  At what is this marveling directed?  At the molecules?  Why?  They didn’t do anything other than what the forces of nature compelled them to do.  At the beauty of nature?  That’s illogical on his worldview.  The recognition of beauty requires a mind and absent badly circular reasoning, there is no plausible explanation for how molecules could have created the mind.  If the cosmos really is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be we could neither know it nor appreciate it.

In the end, while the world showcased on Cosmos certainly is beautiful, the worldview of the show doesn’t have the wherewithal to appreciate it.  Instead, it runs heavily on borrowed capital.  It borrows from the very Christian worldview it denies.  In spite of a compelling presentation, the hollowness of the worldview comes out in the scientific and historical problems.  What remains is a powerful argument in favor of the Christian worldview which is able to take both science and history as they are and offer an explanation of both that is at one and the same time aesthetically satisfying and true.  The cosmos is beautiful.  We should wonder at it.  But let us never forget that it was created.  This world is wonderful, but it is the God who created it who is really worthy of our praise.  If we miss that, eventually we’ll lose our ability to wonder and the beauty showcased in Cosmos will go unnoticed.

Jonathan Waits

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Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

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  • jim2703

    I share the sentiment that the cosmos would be pointless if that was all there was. Even the great physicist, Albert Einstein, said that his life’s work was to understand the mind of God. But what scientists such as Dr. Tyson are combatting is the determination of some to undermine the scientific discoveries and achievements, that have been established over centuries, by the misuse of Biblical texts in educational institutions. His statement that the cosmos is all there is, and all that will ever be is unscientific because there is no data to support it, but to insist that Genesis Chapters 1-3 is the literal way the earth came into existence is a comparable mistake.
    The Cosmos series is a marvelous story of how we have unveiled so many mysteries of the world in which we live. It seems to me that God desires for us to understand his handiwork, because he has left so many clues for us to discover. Just think about all of the fossils, some millions of years old, that are strewn around the globe, like a giant scavenger hunt, for us to find. The DNA that we can analyze to trace migrations of populations around the world is a veritable trail of bread crumbs that helps our understanding of human development. It would be a travesty to tell our children to avoid becoming scientists because what they might find could undermine their faith. Instead, we need to consider how to expand our understanding of Scripture so that it does not limit our faith.
    Since it was established by science that all of the elements, with the exception of hydrogen, were forged in the fiery explosions of stars, it is clear that we as carbon based beings, were made possible by the existence and destruction of those stars. On the next clear night, look up at the stars and marvel. As agents of God, they gave us life, but we give them meaning.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Thanks for your engagement, Jim. I couldn’t agree more with most of what you say. I think Dr. Tyson may have that as a secondary purpose, but given the tenor of the series, I think the larger purpose is to essentially do some evangelism for his atheistic worldview. That said, I also agree that insisting that Genesis 1-3 are a literal description of creation is not the best interpretation of the text. The errors are comparable in that they both represent expressions of faith without a sufficient body of supporting evidence. That is why I find the arguments of the Intelligent Design movement to be far more compelling than either Dr. Tyson’s scientism or the young earth creationism of many believers. The only difference, I suppose, would be that while I do not agree with the position, young earth creationism is consonant with the Christian worldview while scientism is not.

      I further agree, as I said in my blog, that Cosmos has been a beautiful series. It openly encourages awe and wonder at the marvels of our universe and the life filling our world. Paul’s declaration in Romans 1 that God has made Himself clearly known by observation of the natural world along with David’s declaration that the heavens declare the glory of God in Psalm 19 ring wonderfully true. This grand, universal testament to God’s existence and character should drive committed Christians into the scientific community, not out of it. In fact, we need more committed Christians to pursue careers in various scientific fields in order to combat the profoundly un-Christian worldview that holds so much sway there with a worldview that better accounts for the evidence. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • George Gantz

    Thanks for the post! Simplistic anti-religious rhetoric is thoroughly inculcated into the public mind and reflects a profound ignorance of history. I was astounded recently to hear two well-educated people berating religion for the travesty of the inquisition (this is a common “go-to” argument for secular advocacy). They were incredulous when I suggested that the 20th century secular movement of Nazism and Stalinism were far worse. The history has long since been forgotten. In the inquisition, some tens of thousands of individuals may have perished (largely at the hands of the secular authorities responding to mobs – and far fewer by edict of the Church), whereas the 20th century massacres of Hitler and Stalin counted in the tens of millions.