Science & Faith
5/3/14 at 03:37 PM 3 Comments

Tyson Promotes Naturalistic Spirituality in Cosmos TV Series

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Neil Tyson and the Cosmos TV series crew are to be congratulated for their contribution to science education, but they have also made many unsubstantiated scientific, historical, and theological claims that do not bear up under close scrutiny. I'll focus on Tyson's promotion of naturalistic spirituality.

Tyson proclaims "Our ancestors worshipped the sun. They were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and stars because we are their children." Just because all life is built out of elements cooked up in stars, does not mean that reverance for stars like our sun is appropriate. Furthermore, the recipe for life is much more complicated than "just add water" to heavy elements cooked up in suns.

Casey Luskin notes:

We've already dealt with Tyson's failure to recognize that producing a life-friendly planet like our own -- whether from "stardust" or something else -- requires an incredible amount of fine-tuning. And that fine-tuning by itself won't even get you life. I'm sorry, but supernova explosions don't produce -- in any way, shape or form -- the conditions necessary for generating the complex and specified language-based code that underlies all life on Earth.

Tyson takes no notice of the reality that we live on a privileged planet, and instead has throughout Cosmos opted to subtly promote a position ultimately more like that of Bill Nye, who said:

I'm insignificant. ... I am just another speck of sand. And the Earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. Nothing special about the sun. The sun is another speck. And the galaxy is a speck. I'm a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.

Tyson spins this human insignificance story differently than Nye. He finds a subtle uplifting spritiuality within it. Here is how Tyson explained it in his column in Natural History Magazine, April 2007.

Back in February 2000, the newly rebuilt Hayden Planetarium featured a space show called Passport to the Universe, which took visitors on a virtual zoom from New York City to the edge of the cosmos. En route the audience saw Earth, then the solar system, then the 100 billion stars of the Milky Way galaxy shrink to barely visible dots on the planetarium dome.

Within a month of opening day, I received a letter from an Ivy League professor of psychology whose expertise was things that make people feel insignificant. I never knew one could specialize in such a field. The guy wanted to administer a before-and-after questionnaire to visitors, assessing the depth of their depression after viewing the show. Passport to the Universe, he wrote, elicited the most dramatic feelings of smallness he had ever experienced.

How could that be? Every time I see the space show (and others we've produced), I feel alive and spirited and connected. I also feel large, knowing that the goings-on within the three-pound human brain are what enabled us to figure out our place in the universe.


Again and again across the centuries, cosmic discoveries have demoted our self-image. Earth was once assumed to be astronomically unique, until astronomers learned that Earth is just another planet orbiting the Sun. Then we presumed the Sun was unique, until we learned that the countless stars of the night sky are suns themselves. Then we presumed our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the entire known universe, until we established that the countless fuzzy things in the sky are other galaxies, dotting the landscape of our known universe.


The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it's more than just what you know. It's also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe. And its attributes are clear:

    • The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it's not solely the province of the scientist. The cosmic perspective belongs to everyone.
    • The cosmic perspective is humble.
    • The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious.

Neil Tyson thinks that science educators and science popularizers should offer the public what he calls “the cosmic perspective.” It is an alternative to theistic religion. Tyson's essay cited above appears as the foreward to a popular astronomy textbook: J. Bennett, et al., The Cosmic Perspective (Boston: Pearson, 2014). So it appears that some astronomy educators are dishing up Tyson's brand of spirituality that essentially says "I'm special because I'm smart enough to figure out that this huge uncaring cosmos was not created by a loving God."

Casey Luskin chronicles this atheistic spirituality in Cosmos and beyond:

New Atheist Iconography

At one point in episode 6, Tyson enters a cathedral, and for what feels like many seconds, an atom with orbiting electrons is portrayed overlapping with the stained glass windows of a cathedral. Why the strange emphasis on this imagery? If you follow new atheist thinking and literature, the answer is simple. An important component of new atheist thinking is their realization that science lacks the spiritual inspiration that religion provides for people. They are desperate to find ways to make science into a new form of human spirituality to replace religion. Thus, in this episode, Tyson gives us woo-ish statements like:

    • "Neutrinos from creation are within you."
    • "Go deeper into the wonder"
    • To explore this we'll need both "science" and "imagination."
    • "atomic reincarnation"

Similar comments have been found in other episode of Cosmos, and if you read the literature of new atheists, these subtle elements of the show instantly make sense. Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado has said, "If anyone has a replacement for God, then scientists do." Writing in What's Your Dangerous Idea? [see how Ball State University Misrepresents the Anti-Religious Chapters in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? as Religion-Friendly] she longs for the day that "science and formal religion will come to an end when the role played by science in the lives of all people is the same as that played by religion today." Porco envisions "Einstein's Witnesses going door-to-door or TV evangelists passionately declaring the beauty of evolution." She concludes by stating that the new "sacred" shrines will be "astronomical observatories, the particle accelerators, the university research installations, and other laboratories where the high priests of science -- the biologists, the physicists, the astronomers, the chemists -- engage in the noble pursuit of uncovering the workings of nature." Porco hopes that "today's museums, exposition halls, and planetaria may become tomorrow's houses of worship," thereby who replacing "formal religion." She ends by predicting, "'Hallelujah!' they will sing. 'May the force be with you!'"

And that's exactly what we see in Cosmos episode 6: today's sacred cathedrals become monuments not to God who creates atoms that build the cathedral, but to the atom. If that doesn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, I suppose I don't know what will.

Atheistic spiritualists (or atheists who reject spirituality) might have been encouraged if Tyson and Cosmos had given compelling reasons for thinking that the cosmos could have been fine tuned for life (or that life could originate from non-life) by purely unintelligent unguided processes. But this is not what you will see demonstrated in the Cosmos TV series or anywhere else. See Stephen Meyer's bestselling Darwin's Doubt for a strong case both against naturalistic origins and for intelligent design.

Photo credit: Fox TV.

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