ASTRONOMY Magazine Contributing editor Bob Berman, in an article in the latest issue (August, p. 11, God and Astronomy) , literally steps into a cultural quagmire almost as treacherous as lax pundits have done in the political minefield of the JFK assassination. That is, he interjected the issue of God in trying to literally tone down empirical and observational science and its claims for confident knowledge, while seeking some kind of putative accommodation with America's vast population of God believers. (And creationist know-nothings.)
Hence the stage is set already for strife and much debate, argument. He starts out by describing how the very first COSMOS episode, with the animated segment on Giordano Bruno, irritated hordes of believers (mostly devout Christians) when Bruno - while being tortured - turned his head away from a crucifix in disgust. Well, uh duh! You are getting some delicate parts roasted and broasted with assorted fiery implements and what do you expect him to do? Smile and shout, 'Thank ye, Jeezus!" Come on!
Moreover, Sagan is wrong that an "atheist is someone who knows there is no God." This is the cartoon version of atheism. What we atheists actually say is that the whole idea of God is redundant – logically unnecessary – because it doesn’t help us to model any physical systems or make verifiable, empirical predictions. (The closest to what Sagan identified as atheism relates to the explicit atheist who maintains there can never be any evidence for a God because the natural sciences can have nothing to do with the supernatural.)
Another cartoonish error Berman makes is when he claims (like ol' Pastor Mike used to) that “atheism cannot prove God’s nonexistence” (i.e.. cannot disprove God’s existence) but as anyone who’s studied logic knows, you cannot prove a negative anyway. Once again, atheism doesn't claim to prove God's nonexistence, only point out that the concept is superfluous to the advance of empirical science - which like it or not is inherently materialistic. This is the very emphasis that Neil deGrasse Tyson made in repeated episodes of COSMOS.
What Berman reveals here is a tacit fear that science will alienate the American yahoo masses if it too explicitly declares its naturalistic basis in the approach to scientific inquiry. But know what? Tough shit! That is the way science works, like it or leave it - and go back to statues, crosses, and King James bibles. Moreover, I fail to understand why Berman is trying so desperately to appease and appeal to the American believer masses, when most educated Europeans have long past moved into a post-Christian era. (See above).
This unfortunate strain of timidity and unwillingness to upset the little godly believers also explains Berman's recalcitrance in acknowledging science' advance even when the probability is overwhelming that such advance is real. He states we need to more often respond "I don't know" to a lot of areas of inquiry like dark energy, etc. Which is true, but you can't be saying that ALL the time, or even most of the time, just because you're intent on projecting false humility to not scare away the religious masses!
This is also why he declares that the Big Bang is not the birth of the universe - as many cosmologists have described it - but "the birth of the observable universe" - which seems like extreme hair splitting to me. If one uses the cosmic microwave radiation to trace back the thermodynamic conditions in time, as Steven Weinberg shows in 'The First Three Minutes' - one definitely comes to a super dense, hot state with the cosmos the rough size of an atom. If this isn't a 'birth' I don't know what is!)
As for Bob Berman's claim that “the majority of the world regards the universe as suffused with intelligence” let’s bear in mind that popularity alone has never led to objective truth. At one time, the majority of the world also believed that the world was flat and that the Earth was actually the center of the universe. I am not saying here that the cosmos is not imbued with intelligence, it well might be (as I indicate in my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God'). What I am saying is that you cannot arrive at objective truth by means of assessing a poll or a vote then saying a "majority" decided it. This also means the IAU Pluto vote - to dethrone that small orb from proper planethood - was off base and wrong-headed.
Science, including astronomy, proceeds by a certain methodology and is inherently naturalistic. The problem will always be that this delimitation will never satisfy those who espouse a supernatural domain or alternate supernatural “universe”.
The sooner Bob Berman and other popularizers understand that, the quicker we can allow scientific inquiry to proceed without fretting over public alienation or loss of funding because a certain segment of the populace will go ballistic if their magic realms are marginalized. Look at it this way: an advancing nation on the road of progress embraces the REAL. A backward, declining nation - one heading toward oblivion and collapse- embraces the UNREAL.
That's the choice we have, and it ought to be easy, though after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, I am not sure it can be. Those five Justices have clearly shown not even they can discern the real from the unreal. And if they can't, how many millions of others (many clapping and cheering the decision) are in the same unreal boat?