“Cosmos” and the Bruno Flap

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s rebooted “Cosmos” series spent a chunk of time relating a version of the life of Giordano Bruno, including his interactions with the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent burning at the stake.

This has proven unpopular with the heirs of the Inquisition and other nit-pickers.

From the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” blog, one finds the following:

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.


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.

Among others, Becky Ferreira concurs in part:

On top of that, his support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated. His opinions on theology were far more pyrotechnic. For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn’t think Jesus was the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” He even publicly disputed Mary’s virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There’s no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.

The second liberty last night’s episode took was animating Bruno like some well-mannered guy who just wanted people to revel in the immensity of Creation. The cartoon depiction of him was manga-level emotive, with soulful eyes and an earnest body language. That could not be farther from the truth.

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges. He constantly ranted about how idiotic his fellow friars were, calling them asses and lamenting their adherence to Catholic doctrine.

So, basically, we have folks quick to complain that “Cosmos” deploying Bruno as a scientist who got burned for doing science is misleading, and that just plain heresy and being annoying account for the Inquisition doing what it did.

I think, though, that these apologies of varying sincerity for the torch-wielding set missed the point. I’ve transcribed the passage with Tyson talking in “Cosmos” that I think lays it out. This comes just before the segment describing Bruno’s time in the hands of the Inquisition and his subsequent execution.

Giordano Bruno lived in a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state, or the notion that freedom of speech was a sacred right of every individual. Expressing an idea that didn’t conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble. Recklessly, Bruno returned to Italy. Maybe he was homesick, but still he must have known that his homeland was one of the most dangerous places in Europe he could possibly go. 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. It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police.

Was Bruno a good scientist, a notable scientist, or a scientist with novel ideas never seen before? None of those are relevant to the point above.

Was Bruno an annoying jerk? Again, this isn’t relevant to the point above.

Sure, one could decide that one wants a lot of historical nuance about the particulars of why the Inquisition behaved the way it did. And I myself would criticize the “Cosmos” animators for the cheap route of making the Inquisitorial characters have standard sinister/villainous features. I think part of the horror of the Inquisition was not that it was infested with villains, but rather that it was run in large part by people who surely thought of themselves as sincere and caring sorts. They were just massively in the wrong. But I, and many others, digress. The point “Cosmos” was making was more basic. At the level of telling people about science, we don’t need a lot of historical nuance about the Inquisition: what they did was so far out of bounds of the way discourse needs to be handled that simply noting the historical divergence is sufficient. “Cosmos” did that, plainly told people they were doing that, and, sadly enough, a lot of people of otherwise lofty intellect managed not to take the point. In the words of Tim Wilson, I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

7 thoughts on ““Cosmos” and the Bruno Flap

  • 2014/03/14 at 6:41 am

    The point that I took from the animation was that Bruno had a “dangerous idea” even though he had no science to back up his ideas. and because it challenged the notions that had been developed up until that time that God was the clockmaker and keeper of the key all was in regular order with the Sun at the center. He spread his idea and it was later verified.

    The animation does make the inquisitors out to be evil-looking, which may underlie the visceral reaction that Catholics have towards the shirt, but more importantly it illustrates that science starts with imagination to propose answers and from there testable hypotheses are formed. If Cosmos is going to use a “ship of the mind,” it ties in nicely to that concept.

  • 2014/03/14 at 12:14 pm

    I had not heard of Bruno before, and I was led to believe by the presentation that his “dangerous idea” was his cosmology. Even a casual Wiki search revealed he was condemned for his other teachings, not his cosmology.

  • 2014/03/14 at 12:42 pm

    Gooc to see that someone else actually listened to what Tyson said.

  • 2014/03/14 at 2:14 pm

    As noted in the post, the quote is a transcription of the “Cosmos” commentary. It really is quite clear that “Cosmos” was more generally interested in expressing ideas that were at variance with traditional belief. A lot of people apparently missed the import of that, so you have company.

    ETA: But it is false that Bruno’s cosmology did not give him difficulties with the Inquisition. His idea that infinite worlds existed was one of eight charges laid against him.

  • 2014/05/08 at 1:55 pm

    I amstudent at CAT. Do you think having any views on cosmology is dangerous today?

  • 2014/06/09 at 9:26 pm

    It depends. Do you live in an area controlled by the Taliban? Is your livelihood dependent on the continued approval of people who believe that the universe is closer to twenty thousand years old than 15 billion? If not, you likely can hold whatever cosmological view you want without repercussions.

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