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How Cosmos Does Religious History Badly

Why on earth did the producers of Cosmos decide to repeat this doubtful story about the origin of Christmas?

Advance publicity for the FOX and National Geographic series Cosmos ran so hot that the ratings were bound to disappoint. After all, this is a science documentary stuck in the same time slot as Masterpiece Classic, The Good Wife, Duck Dynasty and River Monsters.

Still, as an inveterate viewer of science documentaries, I haven’t missed an episode. I hoped to see the very latest astronomical images and cutting-edge CGI used to explain arcane scientific concepts, and have not been disappointed. When it’s describing the inner workings of atoms and stars, or telling the story of how scientists came to decipher starlight, Cosmos is terrific.

Unfortunately, the series is sullied by the unscientific agendas of its producers.

This may have been inevitable. Cosmos is a reboot of the 1980 PBS series of the same name, hosted by late astronomer and atheist evangelist Carl Sagan. The Cosmos redux is hosted by American astronomer and Sagan disciple Neil deGrasse Tyson, with help from Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane, creator of the vulgar animated series Family Guy and American Dad! The atheist MacFarlane is one of Christianity’s not-so-cultured despisers, so I expected a lot of bad materialist philosophy and shots at Christianity and religion. What I did not expect was the mistreatment of history.

The Cosmos historical interludes are always presented in flat cartoon animation, reflecting MacFarlane’s role in the production. The format is fitting, since the treatment of history is so often cartoonish.

The producers spent one fourth of the first episode telling a misleading story about Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth century Dominican burned at the stake for a laundry list of unrepentant heresies. He wasn’t a scientist and had virtually nothing to do with the history of science. But Cosmos needed a martyr for science, and since there were none available, Bruno would have to do. The tale of Bruno cost the episode valuable airtime, however, so it had to give short shrift to trivial figures such as Copernicus and Galileo, who inconveniently died in their beds, unmartyred.

Cosmos’s discussion of Bruno was so bad that even those who might be expected to give the series rave reviews had the good sense to object. If the producers had simply checked the Wikipedia entry for Giordano Bruno, they could have been spared the embarrassment.

In later episodes, Tyson claimed that the deeply religious Isaac Newton replaced God with gravity, and presented the ancient Chinese philosopher Mo Tze as an early skeptic who was apparently “against faith.” (His religious views were actually much less cartoonish.) And so it has gone, with a rotten historical Easter egg in many of the episodes.

So I was eager to find out what Sagan’s widow, MacFarlane, and Tyson would do on April 20, Easter Sunday. Maybe they’d take a brief excursus to explain that science has determined that the resurrection of Jesus was a myth. Or maybe they would serve up the old chestnut about Easter being a lightly christened pagan fertility festival. (Not true.)

But they were far craftier. In the Easter Sunday episode about how modern scientists determined the true age of the earth (and about the tenuously related twentieth century controversy over leaded gas), they inserted a segment about Christmas. We learn that the holiday celebrated by a couple billion Christians is really a camouflaged take-over of Saturnalia, the High Holy Day when ancient Romans celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture. How is this relevant? Well, Saturn is also the name of a planet, which is part of the solar system, which is part of the cosmos.

Like several of Cosmos’s previous detours into history, this one also leads off a cliff. Perhaps for the writers, the notion that Christmas is really a purloined pagan festival is one of those claims that is too good not to be true. And too good to need verification.

As the story goes, there was a Roman celebration of the end of the autumn growing sowing season—corresponding to the winter solstice—when people treated each other kindly, helped the poor, and so forth. Various church fathers and Christian figures needed good branding for their new religion, and decided to gussy up Saturnalia with Christian garb. Perhaps they thought that the drunk Saturnalians would eventually forget what all the commotion was about and find themselves raising a glass to the birth of Jesus.

As it happens, there was another Roman celebration that competed for the same slot on the calendar, Sol invictus, the birthday of the unconquered Sun. By invoking Jupiter and a Sun King, later Roman emperors hoped to use this holiday to further their claim to divinity.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sol invictus was sometimes identified as the ancestor of Christmas. But this is now widely disputed by historians (again, Wikipedia has the story). In fact, there’s some evidence that it may have been an attempt to create a Roman, and pagan, alternative to Christmas.

Most likely, the dating of Christmas has a prosaic theological explanation: it’s when early Christian thinkers thought Jesus was born. For reasons that aren’t important here, they inferred that Jesus’s conception took place on March 25. As Matt Salusbury explains in History Today, “Early ecclesiastical number-crunchers extrapolated that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.”

Of course, this leads us quite far afield from the obvious question: Why on earth did the producers of Cosmos decide to repeat this doubtful story about the origin of Christmas? My guess is that Christianity is one of their targets, and, for beating some dogs, any old stick will do.

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is author of many books including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012), and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.

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