With its theme of “Possible Worlds,” the third season of Cosmos was awkwardly timed. The series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, concluded last week on Fox and the National Geographic Channel. It conjures dreams of interstellar travel at a moment when most people are much more concerned about whether they can make it to the grocery store and back without contracting COVID-19.
The backdrop of a pandemic was, of course, unique to this season. It probably contributed to a lower-than-hoped-for viewership. But as writers for Evolution News have demonstrated in recent weeks, Cosmos 3.0, as we call it, is in other ways right in line with its predecessors. Like the 1980 original with Carl Sagan and the 2014 reboot with Dr. Tyson, this Cosmos series advances numerous myths about the relationship between science and faith.
Here is the final narration from Cosmos 2020:
Stars make worlds, and a world made life. And there came a time when heat shot out from the molten heart of this world and it warmed the waters. And the matter that had rained down from the stars came alive. And that star stuff became aware. And that life was sculpted by the earth, and it struggles with the other living things. And a great tree grew up, one with many branches. And six times it was almost felled, but still it grows. And we are but one small branch, one that cannot live without its tree. And slowly we learned to read the book of nature, to learn her laws, to nurture the tree, to become a way for the cosmos to know itself, and to return to the stars.
Tyson ends his summary of cosmic history since the Big Bang with this soaring narrative focused on earth. It sounds like the exalted prose of the book of Genesis — minus God. It is a worldview-shaping narrative, a myth in the anthropological sense.
Interpreting the Myth
When connected with earlier Cosmos episodes that give details (typically without sufficient evidence), this narrative answers profound questions. Or it seeks to answer them. Where did we come from? Answer: we are star stuff shaped by the branching tree of evolution, powered by unguided material processes. What is our purpose (teleology)? Answer: to be one of the ways, along with extraterrestrial civilizations, that the universe knows itself through science. Where are we going (eschatology)? Answer: our destiny is to become connected with civilizations located around countless other stars, and thereby be liberated from terrestrial religions and scientific infancy (Tyson earlier held a baby to make this point). Six times terrestrial life worked hard to avoid total extinction and succeeded, but in the seventh period we will enter our cosmic rest of extraterrestrial enlightenment.
While resting in the lap of ET we will read the Encyclopedia Galactica, Tyson suggests. This book represents the fantastically advanced accumulated knowledge of cosmic communal intelligent life, an idea that Carl Sagan helped transfer from science fiction to “documentary” film back in the 1980 Cosmos series. We’ll enjoy heavenly bliss while reading the good book. That’s a key message from the Cosmos franchise.
Seven Wonders of the New World
The season finale is titled: “Seven Wonders of the New World.” In Biblical terms, seven symbolizes completion. Are we uncovering Team Tyson’s numerological opium for the masses? The Cosmos storytellers invented a 2039 New York World’s Fair with seven theme park attractions that celebrate cosmic history and life’s heroic accomplishments. The year 2039 would be the centennial of the 1939 New York World’s Fair that helped awaken Carl Sagan’s scientific-materialist imagination (also depicted endearingly in this final episode). Sagan’s legacy grows with each multimillion-dollar retelling.
Such World’s Fair science-fiction storytelling works well as it builds upon a certain measure of legitimate science. There are five widely recognized mass extinction events in our planet’s history. Throw in human-caused global warming as the sixth catastrophe (allegedly in the making in our own time) and you have a great recipe for cosmic mythology. Let’s save our Mother Earth in act six and join the extraterrestrial choir of enlightened ETs in the triumphant seventh act. Hey everyone, make sure you oppose those fanatically religious geocentric, flat-earth-believing, climate-science deniers who are destined for extinction. Science is our only salvation. (See my historical analyses of Christianity as being responsible for flat-earth-belief here and unthinking resistance to Copernicanism here).
Prophets and Preachers
The makers of Cosmos wish to reach your heart with their message. It’s a materialistic imitation of biblical religion and eschatology. Mother Nature is god and Tyson is her prophet. “Learn her laws,” he declares, echoing Moses. Nurture the Tree of Life she has mindlessly created. Countless times in the series Tyson says “Come with me,” imitating Jesus’ call for disciples.
The grand story is dressed up to look scientific, but at heart it is mostly materialistic mythology. Its bipolar identity teeters between atheism and pantheism. I make a rigorous case for this conclusion in my book Unbelievable, which includes the chapters “Extraterrestrial Enlightenment” and “Preaching Anti-theism on TV: Cosmos.” In the Cosmos chapter I discuss Cosmos 1980 and 2014. Cosmos 2020 dishes up more of the same. Many will swallow it.
Back Down to Earth Day (or Easter?)
Did you notice the timing of the season finale, on April 20? It aired two days before Earth Day, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. Many now celebrate Earth Day within a Deep Ecology worldview that owes much to pre-modern pagan earth worship. Easter, which also falls at this time of year, had long ago largely displaced the old earth-worshipping holidays in Europe. Do the makers of Cosmos hope that Earth Day will win back this time of year from Easter? It sure looks that way when you combine my analysis here with this critique of the flimsy Cosmos treatment of global warming. It is no surprise that the National Geographic Channel blasted Cosmos viewers with many Earth Day-related TV advertisements (I lost count of just how many).
Meanwhile, after celebrating or ignoring Easter and Earth Day, many coronavirus-besieged earthlings toggle between anxiety and quarantined boredom. Cosmos 3.0 doesn’t seem to be helping much. But for some people false hope is better than no hope at all. For some, futuristic dreams via Cosmos might bring comfort. Team Tyson envisions how in the near future a person’s neural network (connectome) might be resurrected. In this future world, maybe with ET’s help (or so the story goes), we will be able to recreate a deceased person’s connectome. It’s your own personal techno-Easter, if you will (provided that others in the future approve of your reappearance). The details for how this could happen are not provided. Sci-fi is under no such obligation. The constraints on this kind of storytelling are minimal.
Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, is the key figure who made the Cosmos series rise again (twice now). She had this to say about her team’s storytelling:
Every story that we tell has to satisfy different criteria. It has to be a way into a complex scientific idea or an important scientific idea…. We’re aiming for your brain, your eye, your heart, your senses, your ear … via effects. Everything has to be working together in concert to give you a consummate experience, and to attract you to want to know more.
Referring to traditional religions, especially the one that celebrates Easter, she finally says in the same interview: “I think we have a much better story to tell than they do.” I doubt this even if both were treated as fictional narratives. Of course the truth or fiction of each story is the subject of the main debate.
More on “Telling the Story”
Seth MacFarlane (a Hollywood atheist worried about the influence of intelligent design) introduced Ann Druyan to atheist Brannon Braga, who helped Ms. Druyan produce the two reboots of Cosmos. Here’s a sample of how I treat Braga’s key role in the Cosmos franchise. It’s from the Cosmos chapter of my book Unbelievable. The materialist agenda of Braga is documented below and in my book’s footnotes (omitted here).
The executive producer of Cosmos 2014 says that he has spent most of his professional life creating myths for the greater truth of atheism. His name is Brannon Braga. Speaking at the 2006 International Atheist Conference, he celebrated his part in creating “atheistic mythology” in more than 150 episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation. He summed up his mission — which violates the original Star Trek “prime directive” of not altering native culture — as showing that “religion sucks,” “isn’t science great,” and finally “how the hell do we get the other 95 percent of the population to come to their senses?” These are remarkable confessions. As we saw in Chapter 8, Kepler helped establish sci-fi as a way to promote very different ideas: “God rules the cosmos,” “isn’t science great,” and finally “how for heaven’s sake do we get the other 99.9 percent of the population to come to their senses so they can embrace Copernican astronomy?”
According to Braga, teaching atheistic myth is the work of sci-fi films and TV documentaries like Cosmos. Indeed, he said that Cosmos 2014 was designed to combat “dark forces of irrational thinking.” He emphasized: “Religion doesn’t own awe and mystery. Science does it better.” But as we have seen, rendering Christianity as the historical enemy of science is itself an exercise in unreasonable and reckless historiography. Myth, not science, recognizes the cosmos as “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Sagan knew this statement would inspire awe because it imitated the biblical description of God. No doubt, Braga and his team of like-minded creators were delighted to rerun this mythical mantra at the beginning of Cosmos 2014. It served well the greater good of anti-theism.
There’s much more where that came from: It’s Unbelievable!
Editor’s note: Find further reviews and commentary on the third season of Cosmos, “Possible Worlds,” here:
- “Clever Move — Cosmos Pushes Pantheism”
- “Tyson and Cosmos Sound the Climate Alarm Again”
- “Cosmos Franchise Loses Viewers, While Pumping for Materialism”
- “Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos Peddle the Myth that Copernicus Demoted Earth”
- “Another Cosmos Episode, Another Sermon from Pastor Tyson”
- “Medicine, Religion, and Cosmos — Was Andrew Cuomo Wrong to Invoke God?”
- “Cosmos Episode 6 — That’s Entertainment! (But Is It Science?)”
- “The Biggest Myth So Far in Cosmos 3.0 — Baruch Spinoza as Science Hero”
- “New Cosmos Episodes: Only Part of the Story”
- “Counterprogramming for Cosmos 3.0: Two New Videos from Science Historian Mike Keas”
- “Cosmos 3.0 Revisits Themes of the Past, with Familiar Historical Mythmaking”
- “Cosmos 3.0 with Neil deGrasse Tyson Arrives Tonight at 8 PM, Somewhat Dented”
Image: Host Neil deGrasse Tyson in a screenshot from the trailer for Cosmos 3.0, “Possible Worlds.”