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Cosmos Revives the Scientific Martyr Myth of Giordano Bruno

Jay W. Richards

Earlierbruno.jpgSome of us had speculated that the new Cosmos series, being a reboot of the series by the same name hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980, would be a paean to materialism. The premiere episode, featuring astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, laid the speculations to rest. Casey Luskin, our resident speed typist, has already given a detailed blow-by-blow of the episode, so let’s focus a bit more on the lengthy discussion of Giordano Bruno. This, more than anything, shows that the series is not just concerned to give a materialist spin to the evidence of science, but to the history of science as well.

Many viewers may have been baffled that so much time would be spent on Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar born in 1548 who was neither a scientist nor credited with any scientific discovery. Why is that? It’s because he’s the only one with even a passing association with a scientific controversy to be burned at the stake during this period of history. As a result, since the 19th century, when the mythological warfare between science and Christianity was invented, Bruno has been a leading character.

But there’s one problem: Bruno’s execution, troubling as it was, had virtually nothing to do with his Copernican views. He was condemned and burned in 1600, but it was not because he speculated that the Earth rotated around the sun along with the other planets. He was condemned because he denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and transubstantiation, claimed that all would be saved, and taught that there was an infinite swarm of eternal worlds of which ours was only one. The latter idea he got from the ancient (materialist) philosopher Lucretius. Is it any surprise, then, that, as a defrocked Dominican friar denying essential tenets of Catholic doctrine and drawing strength from the closest thing to an atheist in the Roman world, he might have gotten in trouble with the Inquisition? Yet a documentary series about science and our knowledge of the universe fritters away valuable airtime on this Dominican mystic and heretic, while scarcely mentioning Copernicus, the Polish guy who actually wrote the book proposing a sun-centered universe.

The reason is obvious once you see that Cosmos is not just good ole science education, but rather a glossy multi-million-dollar piece of agitprop for scientific materialism. As such, the biography of Copernicus, whatever its scientific significance, provides precious little fodder of the desired kind. Copernicus died peacefully in his bed just as his book, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, was hitting the bookstores (such as there were in 1543). And his most famous disciple, Galileo, despite being censured by the Holy See, died peacefully as well. So it falls to Bruno, who had no scientific achievements, to stand in as a martyr for science. I’d venture that virtually no one other than scholars of Christian history would even know the name of Giordano Bruno but for the propaganda machine of scientific materialism, which needed a martyr for its metanarrative.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does include a few hedges. While wandering the streets of modern-day Rome, he admits that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his view of a sun-centered solar system was a "lucky guess." And during the animated dramatization of Bruno’s sentence, the dark and menacing judge finds the brave Dominican guilty not just of being a Copernican, but of various theological trivialities which are never otherwise mentioned or explained. Despite these hints at nuance, not one viewer in a thousand could miss the real message: Christianity has been the enemy of science, and its henchmen tried to kill off the first brave souls who ventured a scientific thought.

What’s most stunning is that the facts about Bruno are not exactly well-kept secrets. The Wikipedia entry for Giordano Bruno gets its more or less right (h/t Steve Greydanus). What that means is that the materialist bias of the producers, editors, and writers of Cosmos is so complete that they couldn’t be bothered even to check Wikipedia. One wouldn’t want to let the facts get in the way of a good propaganda. The irony is that that makes it not-so-good propaganda.

Image: 18th-century engraving of Bruno/Wikipedia.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow, Assistant Research Professor, Executive Editor
Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, Executive Editor of The Stream and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute where he works with the Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality. In addition to writing many academic articles, books, and popular essays on a wide variety of subjects, he edited the award winning anthology God & Evolution and co-authored The Privileged Planet.  His most recent book is The Human Advantage. Richards has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a B.A. with majors in Political Science and Religion. He lives with his family in the Washington DC Metro area.  



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