Like Carl Sagan before him, Neil deGrasse Tyson is constructing a cult of personality. Also like Sagan, that personality is not his own. In both its versions, Cosmos has had to serve a number of masters — they’ve both had to educate, to entertain, and to bring in advertising. By far their most defining goal, however, the one that most differentiates them from both the Planet Earths and Bill Nyes of the world, is ideological. Cosmos was, and very thankfully still is, an unabashed attempt to exalt the scientist and to advance the scientific worldview in its entirety, with as few tactful omissions as possible. The series’ educational and awe-inspiring content ultimately serves to illustrate and support the real mission: straight up ideological conversion.
In many scientifically inclined circles, that’s a borderline offensive accusation, and the nervousness has only become more acute since Sagan’s day. Science is, to many people, the antithesis of ideology and totally apolitical — to suggest otherwise would be to threaten the sort of diplomatic immunity that scientists have cultivated for so long. These people worry that science will become a loose nail in need of hammering down by more powerful societal groups. Since the time of Bertrand Russell, this view has been giving way to one summed up quite succinctly in a recent quote from Tyson himself: “Some myths deserve to be broken apart out of respect for the human intellect.”
Both Sagan’s Cosmos and Tyson’s are explicit and unmoving on the issue of faith: belief without evidence is the antithesis of reason, and irreconcilable with a scientific understanding of the universe. When Sagan pleads with the audience for sanity on science funding or nuclear weapons, or when Tyson insists that evolution is a fact or warns of a coming climactic apocalypse, they are cashing in on a deep-seated, school-born public trust. It’s a point best laid out in the title of episode three: “When Knowledge Conquered Fear.” Both Sagan and Tyson are bullish in their commitment to always specify which modern trends correspond to which of those two ancient camps.
Neither ever tries to sugar-coat its view of the facts or their implications, because ultimately the views and implications are the point, rather than the facts themselves. Cosmos, both the new and old, is an editorial effort first, and an educational one second. Terms like “atheist’s Bible” get thrown around in a pejorative sense, but if we were to try to imagine what a humanist Bible might actually be like, we’d arrive at something remarkably like Cosmos. If that were the goal, to lay out a holistic worldview not totally unlike a religion, what would you need to do first?
Sagan was one of the first to meet with widespread success in saying that science can largely replace faith in providing that feeling. Arguably, nobody’s been able to command the necessary level of respect as both a scientist and an emotional thinker to take up that cause again — until Tyson himself. That’s the crux of Tyson and Seth MacFarlane’s success in creating a worthy successor to Sagan’s classic: throughout the lessons on history, physics, and biology, A Spacetime Odyssey never forgets that it is still ultimately a philosophical treatise at heart. Never forget that Seth McFarlane is the sort of atheist who made this. (Watch to the end for Seth MacFarlane’s riff on Cosmos itself.)A sense of meaning seems like a good place to start, and religion has shown us very well the power of a strong sense of place within a larger narrative. That’s probably at least part of the reason for the show’s almost obsessive return to the Cosmic Calendar, which gives people a sense of scale and significance. Listen to the emotional and transcendent language both Sagan and Tyson use to describe the oneness of the universe – it’s not so different from how religious thinkers describe the unity of God’s creation. Both are attempts at fulfilling the same basic longing that people seem to have, to be humbled or enraptured.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many religions center around great men. You need that central personality to be your embodiment of virtue, your Buddha, your Jesus, your Captain America. Science by its nature can’t hold up any one person though, and so it holds up the concept of the scientist. Cosmos sets out to create a Great Man out of the amalgamation of thousands of men and women, a meta-character roughed out by an untold number of sidebar biographies. That’s why the show spends so much time on its animated history lessons, and why it goes into such detail about their personal lives. The scientist is a combination of virtues bundled with endearing character flaws or scandalous zest, references to violence and sex and pot smoking.
Books like the God Delusion are often referred to as being like the Bible for atheists, but this misunderstands what holy texts are;Cosmos is the best approximation of an atheist’s Bible because its central reason for existing is emotional, not intellectual. It presents a Genesis story, and a narrative of human development that ties us to the struggles of our ancestors. It gives us a framework in which we can contribute to the future and understand the importance of such actions. It’s not really about teaching you science any more than the Bible is really about teaching you geological history.
This all, of course, comes in a complex contextual package. Notably, this version of the show did not premiere on PBS but on Fox, re-aired across a huge array of affiliates; for a show designed to change as many minds as possible, any platform that can let you reach that many otherwise unreachable people will affect quality. This Cosmos also got an introduction from the President of the United States, which left many arguing that its attacks on popular but discredited ideas like Intelligent Design are now unduly connected to government power. I’m a bit conflicted on this, since I do think critics have a leg to stand on when they claim that Cosmos is government-sponsored social engineering — I just think it’s well-made and positive government-sponsored social engineering.
Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen such unbelievable contortions from members of the press, as they try rather heroically to argue thatCosmos is friendly to religion. They go so far as to interpret a piece on the lynch-murder of a scientist by a religious mob as arguing that science and religion can coexist. Some have come to the more logical conclusion, however, and identified the show for what it truly is.
Ultimately, both version of Cosmos are so effective in achieving their central goals that Tyson’s version becomes the superior one almost by default; since they’re both inherently competent, the one with the most up-to-date science, presentation, and lines of social commentary will be superior every time. It’s pointless to argue about whose voice hits a better breathy timbre, or whether Giordano Bruno is better than Hypatia or any other historical figure.
Here is a prediction: Within five years, Neil deGrasse Tyson will release a spiritual successor to Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. That book was another explicit argument that science can be a “candle in the dark,” a valid and fulfilling alternative to faith of all kinds, a way of finding order in the universe — and maybe even meaning, too.