‘Cosmos’ Features Cartoonish Churchmen as Cartoon Villains

You’d think a show whose mission is to explore the unimaginable vastness of time and space wouldn’t waste a big chunk of its first episode on an obscure 400-year-old incident of negligible scientific significance. But hey, there’s always time to beat up on the church!

“Cosmos,” the new 13-part reboot of the old Carl Sagan show airing on Fox and the National Geographic Channel, is supposed to be “a celebration of wonder and awe.” But so far, it’s been predictable – especially in its politics. Viewers learn that “ancient forests grew and died and sank beneath the surface, their remains transformed into coal. 300 million years later, we humans are burning most of that coal to power and imperil our civilization.” And on Venus, “runaway greenhouse effect has turned it into a kind of hell.” (Damn you humans!) (video clips below the jump)

But “Cosmos” got right to portraying Christianity as childish, reactionary and brutal. The stance is unsurprising, given the involvement of “Family Guy” creator and liberal atheist Seth MacFarlane. Besides, according to series host Neil deGrasse Tyson, the goal of “Cosmos” is to get its audience to “embrace science.” What better way to do that than introduce a villain in the form of religion?

So a full 12 minutes of the first hour of “Cosmos” is taken up with a cartoon telling the story of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was executed in 1600 by (what else?) the Inquisition in Rome. Bruno – who lived after Copernicus and died a few years before Galileo’s discoveries with a telescope – believed the Earth revolved around the Sun and, apparently, wouldn’t shut up about it.

Of the Catholic Church’s view, Tyson told viewers:

There comes a time in our lives when we first realize we’re not the center of the universe, that we belong to something much greater than ourselves. It's part of growing up. And as it happens to each of us, so it began to happen to our civilization in the 16th century.

Get that? The Church’s view was infantile. And furthermore, Bruno lived at “a time when there was no freedom of thought in Italy,” Tyson said. “The Roman Catholic Church maintained a system of courts known as the Inquisition, and its sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs.

So the Church imprisoned, tried and burned Bruno at the stake for his heresy. It’s a horrible incident. But here’s the thing: According to Tyson:

Ten years after Bruno's martyrdom, Galileo first looked through a telescope, realizing that Bruno had been right all along. The Milky Way was made of countless stars invisible to the naked eye, and some of those lights in the sky were actually other worlds. Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong. 

“Bruno was no scientist.” No he wasn’t. His ideas were based on some reading and a dream he had. (Really.) Copernicus and Galileo were far more pivotal to proving the heliocentric nature of the solar system.

So why spend valuable broadcast time on Bruno? Because his case shows the church in the worst possible light, and if you’re looking to show cartoonish churchmen rendered in cartoons, it’s the obvious choice.

And they say nobody expects the Inquisition.

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture