Carl Sagan Took My Faith — and Gave Me Awe | OnFaith

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A research coordinator for the new “Cosmos” recounts his Sagan-inspired journey away from religion.

I was not always an atheist.

I was once a devout and sincere believer in the Christian faith. I am the son and grandson of pastors and missionaries. My family founded one of the country’s largest Bible colleges, Christ for the Nations, from which I earned a theology degree. For years, I contemplated, and began strategizing, a run for national political office under the banner of Christian reform.

I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith…until I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.

The longer a belief system—any belief system—remains in place, the more likely it is to become an unmovable fixture of that person’s identity. In my experience, most persons of faith who undergo a deconversion experience do so during their middle or high school years. But that is not my story. I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith until my mid-30s.

That was when I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.
 

Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author who became a household name in the early 1980s when his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” became the most watched program in PBS history. Before his untimely death in 1996, Sagan was the nation’s leading science communicator, a regular guest on both the nightly news and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

But in my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution.

“Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.

As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.

His mission was to build up, not tear down.

The closest I came to Sagan was in my mid-20s, when the film Contact, based on Sagan’s only novel, appeared in theaters. The story centered on a mysterious alien signal and the manner in which the globe’s many cultures processed the realization that they were not alone in the vast universe. I, like many people who saw the film, found it awe-inspiring. I can still remember returning home from the theater on a euphoric cloud, opening my Bible, and reading with wonder the majesty of God’s creative prowess.

A year or so later, I decided to read the novel, and while it entertained a certain ambiguity where matters of faith were concerned, the book initiated my first-ever crisis of faith.Contact raised and inspired questions that neither I nor anyone I knew could satisfactorily answer. I resolved that crisis of faith not by reconciling those quandaries, but rather by listening to those who told me that the questions themselves were either wrong to ponder or not even worthy of my time. I decided to ignore the questions, telling myself my faith was as strong as ever.

But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict. And when I finally turned to face them down a decade or so later, I found that all my years in church and all my academic training was not enough to halt their advance.

I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.

Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians—a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god—but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.

My newfound appreciation of science came, in no small part, from the writings of my old nemesis, Carl Sagan. What I discovered in Sagan’s elevated verse—particularly inThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and within the baker’s dozen of the series “Cosmos”—was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Here was a man who could stir both body and, if you will allow me a bit of poetic license, soul.

While Sagan’s personal views set him safely in the camp of atheism, he was more comfortable claiming the title of agnostic. He certainly never made it his mission to destroy anyone’s faith. His sights were always set on something far higher. His mission was to build up, not tear down.

As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.

Perhaps it was this very gentleness, warmth and humanity that made him so much more menacing than his ideological peers, then and now. He did not attack so much as elevate. He spent only as much time as was necessary dismantling those things that posed a significant threat to rational living, instead focusing most of our attention on the wonders science had revealed.

So it was with my own deconversion process. I had a mentor in the final years of my faith—a name with which everyone reading this is familiar—who never took my spiritual tumult as an opportunity to hack at the foundations of my religion, but who also didn’t turn his back when I came to him with my quandaries. He never attacked or belittled my faith. He merely redirected my gaze to the wonders that can be found within a scientific framework and let everything else take care of it itself. He simply showed me something unspeakably beautiful and inarguably true and then stepped back, trusting in a process he knew would ignite my brain and consume my body. Whether he knew it or not, he was walking in Carl Sagan’s footsteps.

Written By: by Brandon Fibbs
continue to source article at faithstreet.com

51 COMMENTS

  1. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times.

    It is an insult, isn’t it? When someone asks me what my faith is, my blood boils. How could they think I would be a person who accepts such a silly concept as god. I feel as though they are calling me stupid. It’s like asking someone where they keep their unicorn shrine or what architectural design did they use for their fairy-house at the bottom of the garden.

    • In reply to #1 by aquilacane:

      I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times.

      It is an insult, isn’t it? When someone asks me what my faith is, my blood boils. How could they think I would be a person who accepts such a silly concept as god.

      It is not an insult at all, if the universe is all that there is, ever was and ever will be, then there is no room for morality. So when someone asks you about your faith, they are assuming that you have a grounding for morality, which is not an insult at all. Assuming someone is a godless atheist is much more of an insult, imho.

      Remember, if there is no God then there is no real morality. The old atheists understood this all too well, the new, not so much.

      • In reply to #31 by olavisjo:

        It is not an insult at all, if the universe is all that there is, ever was and ever will be, then there is no room for morality. So when someone asks you about your faith, they are assuming that you have a grounding for morality, which is not an insult at all. Assuming someone is a godless atheist is much more of an insult, imho.

        I agree with you it’s silly to get upset if someone asks you an innocent question about your faith. But you are simply wrong when you say that religion is required for morality. I would refute the argument if you bothered to give one but of course you didn’t.

        Remember, if there is no God then there is no real morality. The old atheists understood this all too well, the new, not so much.

        Which old atheists are you talking about? Because looking back at people I consider the intellectual foundation for atheism, I don’t see that at all. On the contrary people like John Stuart Mill or Nietzsche were intensely interested in ethics and demonstrated that you could say a lot about the topic without the concept of God.

        I agree that religion provies an answer for ethical questions and i would also agree that ethics is one of those areas where we don’t know all the answers, we may not even really understand how to form the questions yet, from a scientific standpoint. But there is a long history of religion providing simple answers (actually it’s always the same answer: “God did it”) that are emotionally satisfying to lots of people but really don’t explain anything and eventually get replaced by actual scientific answers.

        • In reply to #33 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #31 by olavisjo:

          But you are simply wrong when you say that religion is required for morality.

          Where did I say that “religion is required for morality”?

          Your response tells me that you don’t understand the moral argument and it would be pointless to continue this conversation.

          If you are interested in learning something new, then send an e-mail to my user name at yho dot com.

          • In reply to #36 by olavisjo:

            Where did I say that “religion is required for morality”?

            You said ” if there is no God then there is no real morality. ” If you are saying that it doesn’t require formal religion, just the concept of God as interpreted by individuals then I see I misunderstood you but it seems to me a rather logical mistake to make and in any case either way you are wrong, it doesn’t take organized religion nor a concept of God. Plenty of atheists have concepts of morality and there are rational and philosophical foundations for morality that don’t require the concept of God.

          • In reply to #36 by olavisjo:

            Your response tells me that you don’t understand the moral argument and it would be pointless to continue this conversation.

            Your response indicates to me that you can’t defend your positions in the open with honest rational arguments.

      • In reply to #31 by olavisjo:

        olavisjo: … if the universe is all that there is, ever was and ever will be, then there is no room for morality.

        I don’t understand. What is to stop us simply inventing the concepts of right and wrong?

        olavisjo: … when someone asks you about your faith, they are assuming that you have a grounding for morality …

        Are they? I’ve always thought they were simply asking if I believe in some kind of ‘supernatural-ness’.

        But, assuming for the moment that you are correct, in what way would they not assume I have a grounding in morality? Let’s face it, the default appears to be that most of us are moral pretty much all the time. On the other hand there are plenty of ‘reverends’ in gaol.

        olavisjo: Assuming someone is a godless atheist is much more of an insult, imho.

        I can’t accept that as a humble opinion – it seems rather strident and shrill to me. It is an opinion worth discussing. We are all born atheists, so far we are equal. In what way does acquiring the badge of a religion make one so superior that one would be insulted to called an atheist?

        olavisjo: Remember, if there is no God then there is no real morality.

        I still don’t understand, and I would welcome an explanation?

        Peace.

      • In reply to #31 by olavisjo:

        In reply to #1 by aquilacane:

        Morality is a combined result of DNA encoding preprogrammed through evolution as innate emotional requirements for the survival of all living entities (otherwise known as instinct) and the personal experiences & environment of the individual entity .

        • In reply to #41 by AlGarnier:

          In reply to #31 by olavisjo:

          In reply to #1 by aquilacane:

          Morality is a combined result of DNA encoding preprogrammed through evolution as innate emotional requirements for the survival of all living entities (otherwise known as instinct) and the personal experiences & environment of the individual entity .

          What you are essentially saying is that morality is genetic. Which is either obviously false or trivially true. It’s obviously false if you claim that everything significant that can be explained about morality will one day be explained via genetics. Even a cursory review of the social sciences research or reading the book The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker will show that is false. Of course Pinker wrote his book to refute the opposite position but even he would recognize that some aspect of morality has to do with social causes that require explanations besides genetic ones.

          If you mean that some aspect (probably a major aspect) of morality can be understood via evolution and genetics then I agree with you but it’s not a very meaningful statement. The devil is in the details, nature vs. nurture and figuring out how much of which is an open and interesting question. But it’s not a question we make progress on by making blanket statements.

          • In reply to #42 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #41 by AlGarnier:

            Obviously Red Dog, morality is more than just genetic programming or we would all probably have the same morals. I did say that personal experiences and environment play an equal role.
            The basic instinct of survival is the concentric drive of morality. Good moral values consistent with the species promote improved survival rates among socially active groups within the species.
            Homosexuality is normally frowned upon by religious morals because it does not contribute directly to the specie’s survival rate but, nature is much smarter than humanity and uses homosexuality as natural birth control in order to better regulate population growth in times of austerity. Religious morality is inferior to natural morality in this respect and many others.

          • In reply to #43 by AlGarnier:

            Good moral values consistent with the species promote improved survival rates among socially active groups within the species.

            So you disagree with Prof. Dawkins and you believe in group selection?

            Homosexuality is normally frowned upon by religious morals because it does not contribute directly to the specie’s survival rate but, nature is much smarter than humanity and uses homosexuality as natural birth control in order to better regulate population growth in times of austerity.

            The people that I read are trying to understand religion from the standpoint of nature so statements such as “nature is much smarter than humanity” or than religion aren’t relevant. Religion can be found in virtually all primitive people so the thinking by most researchers is that there has to be some evolutionary explanation for it, even though on the face of it it’s a puzzle, or at least it is for those of us who don’t believe in group selection as you seem to.

          • In reply to #44 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #43 by AlGarnier:

            Good moral values consistent with the species promote improved survival rates among socially active groups within the species.

            So you disagree with Prof. Dawkins and you believe in group selection?

            Homosexuality is normally frowned upon by religious morals because it…

            Prof. Dawkins is one of the leading authorities on evolution in the world today and like all scientists, he is not infallible.

            It is feasible that isolated groups develop moral values along the same lines of social interaction as other isolated groups of the same species. Similar experiences by isolated groups are dictated by similar emotional experiences of the world and would produce many compatible moral views on survival. However, as with religions, there is always enough idiosyncrasies and variances between the groups to create conflict in moral beliefs.

            Einstein was definitely a genius! He said humanity does not have enough knowledge of science and the universe to disprove many possibilities.
            But, we have debunked a lot of previous science, including existing religions, and if there is a deity, it is beyond the imagination of mankind as devised to date. He believed that the universe itself is a living entity with a single purpose..survival! The term coined to describe this belief is Pantheism; a belief that the universe (as a totality of everything) is “equivalent” to divinity. Not necessarily a divinity. In other words, any entity with the complete combined knowledge of the universe would be equivalent to a god. Humanity may reach that level of knowledge if we can survive beyond this solar system.

          • In reply to #45 by AlGarnier:

            Prof. Dawkins is one of the leading authorities on evolution in the world today and like all scientists, he is not infallible.

            I never said he was. In fact I’ve disagreed with him on this site several times on several different topics. But he is one of the leading figures alive today in biology so if I disagree with him on a topic of biology I would have a good argument why. So what is your argument?

            It is feasible that isolated groups develop moral values along the same lines of social interaction as other isolated groups of the same species. Similar experiences by isolated groups are dictated by similar emotional experiences of the world and would produce many compatible moral views on survival. However, as with religions, there is always enough idiosyncrasies and variances between the groups to create conflict in moral beliefs.

            Was that your argument for group selection? How do you deal with the fact that a game theoretic analysis shows clearly that cheaters will end up dominating any such group? That is the reason that while group selection theories may seam “feasible” as an explanation for morality most serious researchers, not just Dawkins but even people who disagree with him in substantial ways such as Scott Atran don’t hold up group selection as a viable theory.

            Einstein was definitely a genius! He said humanity does not have enough knowledge of science and the universe to disprove many possibilities. But, we have debunked a lot of previous science, including existing religions, and if there is a deity, it is beyond the imagination of mankind as devised to date. He believed that the universe itself is a living entity with a single purpose..survival!

            Einstein did not believe that. He didn’t believe in any concept of a personal God or of God as some “living entity”. He believed in “the God of Spinoza” and Spinoza definitely did not think that the whole universe was “a living entity with a single purpose”. I actually think Einstein was really just an atheist but he was too polite to say it plainly. Although frankly, I also don’t see why people care so much about what Einstein thought on the topic. Especially given that you were lecturing earlier about how Dawkins isn’t perfect, neither was Einstein and Dawkins is an expert on biology and group selection so relevant to quote, Einstein was not a theologian or a serious philosopher.

          • In reply to #46 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #45 by AlGarnier:

            Prof. Dawkins is one of the leading authorities on evolution in the world today and like all scientists, he is not infallible.

            I never said he was. In fact I’ve disagreed with him

            I will have to bow to your superior knowledge of biology and your knowledge of the work of Prof. Dawkins et al. I agree that cheaters would end up dominating any such group. Religion pretty much proves that point. I also agree that Einstein may have been atheist.
            However, his beliefs leaned toward a pantheistic belief in Spinoza’s god. Spinoza believed that the mind and body are a single entity and contended that everything that exists in the universe is one reality with one set of rules governing the whole of reality which we are part off. His god, this universe and reality were one and the same.

            http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Albert_Einstein

            If this set of rules for all the universe have any purpose, it would certainly be the universal driving instinct in nature….survival. Another common driving force is knowledge. I contend that knowledge is equivalent to morality. Ultimate enlightenment equates to the ultimate in morality.

          • In reply to #49 by AlGarnier:

            If this set of rules for all the universe have any purpose,

            Why would you think that they do? By “the rules for all the universe” Einstein meant things like the laws of physics. They have no purpose in the sense that humans use that word when referring to things like the “meaning of life” from anything that I’ve seen and expecting that they should have such a purpose is just an example of the kind of hubris that also thought the Earth had to be the center of the Universe and that the creator of the Universe had to be someone who was just a bigger badder example of the kind of kings that rule humans.

            Another common driving force is knowledge. I contend that knowledge is equivalent to morality. Ultimate enlightenment equates to the ultimate in morality.

            I share the same intuition but I’m not as certain as you seem to be. I would never say “Ultimate enlightenment equates to the ultimate in morality.” it would imply that I think moral questions are mostly settled and well understood.

          • In reply to #50 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #49 by AlGarnier:

            If this set of rules for all the universe have any purpose,

            Why would you think that they do? By “the rules for all the universe” Einstein meant things like the laws of physics. They have no purpose in the sense

            I will have to agree to disagree!
            I am referring to the laws of physics as the universal laws for everything, and so did Einstein and Spinoza.
            I do not believe in a cosmic consciousness as an omnipotent entity but, cosmic consciousness is a model of the combined knowledge and consciousness of every living entity in the universe. If we are the only planet with life forms in the universe, then our cosmic consciousness is extremely limited but, I don’t believe that you or I agree with that assumption. And if it is true and we are unable to populate the universe or share or exchange knowledge with other life forms, then you are correct. There is no purpose and all of our recorded history and knowledge dies with us when we become extinct. Pretty bleak if you’re right. I contend that survival and intelligence are the spiritual incentive in discovering the laws governing the universe and as such are embedded within those laws.

          • In reply to #44 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #43 by AlGarnier:

            Good moral values consistent with the species promote improved survival rates among socially active groups within the species.

            So you disagree with Prof. Dawkins and you believe in group selection?

            Homosexuality is normally frowned upon by religious morals because it…

            “Religion can be found in virtually all primitive people so the thinking by most researchers is that there has to be some evolutionary explanation for it, even though on the face of it it’s a puzzle…”

            If you haven’t read Michael Shermer’s How We Believe I would definitely recommend it. It may provide some great insight. I’d like to provide a summary and some insight myself, but I’m afraid I’d give it short shrift.

  2. As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.

    This seams to be a common theme in many articles on the approaches to atheistic discussion. I would have to argue that there has been a far greater acceptance and higher rate of closet-coming-outings since the arrival of the Dawkins, Hitchens approach than that of the Sagan. Could be due to internet accessibility; however. Sagan has been relatively unknown in my life and, to a great extent, still is but I expect his work has had large, even though unknown, affect on me. Dawkins got my attention and provided this website but I have still not read a page of his work.

    I didn’t realize, until much later, that Richard was the very same person who got my back up with the selfish gene business. The minute I heard the title, I switched the channel in anger. “Genes aren’t selfish”, I thought. Should have heard him out. Never realized they were the same person.

    • In reply to #2 by aquilacane:

      As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the la…

      seams indeed

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. It is a terrific spot-on tribute to Carl Sagan, and I could relate to the author’s deconversion from faith, though for me it happened in my teen years. I already had a love for science when I was quite young, but Carl helped instill an added sense of wonder and awe. He was an incredibly effective communicator of science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has done a good job of carrying on the torch, and as I learned from the first episode of his new Cosmos series, he too was greatly influenced by Carl.

    • In reply to #3 by Billions and Billions:

      I really enjoyed reading this. It is a terrific spot-on tribute to Carl Sagan, and I could relate to the author’s deconversion from faith, though for me it happened in my teen years. I already had a love for science when I was quite young, but Carl helped instill an added sense of wonder and awe….

      oh, and more neologisms. now we can benefit from deconversion

  4. I was named for my endless curiousity and refusal to accept authority (and people think it’s funny to immitate my voice). unfortunately the similarity ends long before the bit about being nice and I doubt uncle carl’s curiosity ever resulted in a sunday night emergency gas engineer call out… anyway

    I left because I could no longer believe.

    this can’t be stressed enough. while religious groups demand special treatment for what they believe (out of choice or indoctrination), while ironically claiming sexuality is a lifestyle decision, the inability to believe is not a decision. we can (and most have) all pretend to believe, very convincingly if need be, we can accept the beliefs of others but when I read some of the hateful things people have to say about non-believers I feel it’s no differrent from hating someone because of their sexuality, skin colour or country they were born in.

    why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled.

    recently I’ve read things that american wingnut Alex Jones had to say about Sir David Attenborough, calling him a psychopath and claiming he’d demanded that africans be starved to death (he’d actually stated that the world was becoming overpopulated and we couldn’t afford to feed everyone). They like a soft target it seems

    • In reply to #4 by SaganTheCat:

      …curiosity ever resulted in a sunday night emergency gas engineer call out

      feline (domesticus, lol) Recently, a family had to call 911 on their indoor ‘cat gone wild’.

      Sir DA – overpopulation

      Who’s this Alex Jones – if true, what he says, let me at ‘em >(

      For general consumption – Population Matters is the organization of which Sir DA is a patron. Thank Thor there are common sense folk in the world!

      ♥Carl Sagan

      • In reply to #21 by bluebird:

        In reply to #4 by SaganTheCat:

        …curiosity ever resulted in a sunday night emergency gas engineer call out

        feline (domesticus, lol) – recently, a u.s. family called 911 on their cat. —- Curious to know the names Carl gave to his pets, if any.

        Sir DA – overpopulation

        Who’s this Alex Jones – i…

        imagine David Icke but without that endering ability to make everyone find him too funny to get really bothered about and a basement full of guns

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Jones

      • In reply to #21 by bluebird:

        In reply to #4 by SaganTheCat:

        …curiosity ever resulted in a sunday night emergency gas engineer call out

        feline (domesticus, lol) Recently, a family had to call 911 on their indoor ‘cat gone wild’.

        Sir DA – overpopulation

        Who’s this Alex Jones – if true, what he says, let me at ‘em >(

        For g…

        If you want to know what Alex Jones is like take a look at this from a serious political show in the BBC
        where he goes postal.

        As you can see the presenter thinks he is an insane idiot.

  5. “Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.

    His family and friends thought it perfectly alright to make fun of Sagan and his evidence -based science.

    … the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion.

    Atheists must be kind to the faithful! Huh!! I am glad that Mr Fibbs was led to disbelief by Sagan.Great stuff.
    However, I feel compelled to draw attention to the fact that Christians and other religious folk think it fine to hold antitheists in contempt but get awfully agitated when the tables are turned.I am aware that it is a relatively new state of affairs for religion to be questioned at all, but the times, they are a changing, and shining a light into the murky recesses of religion is healthy.

    The ‘nones’ are increasing in number and religious sensitivities are going to be subjected to more ‘stridency ‘ than ever before.This is good as the religious will adapt to the shifting zeitgeist, and maybe a few decades down the line,won’t even turn a hair when people speak their minds about religion.

  6. This is an impressive read. Such startling indoctrination does not usually yield so easily (relatively speaking; it took years, however circuitously) to the sway of science and reason. Sagan has obviously inspired many, including NDT, the new Cosmos host. I still find his treatise on the abortion issue (“Is it Possible to be both “Pro-life” and “Pro-Choice”?”, written with wife Ann Druyan) to be the most sober, rational argument for cogent limitations I’ve read. There is plenty of room however for both the more urbane pontificators of reasons as well as the rabble rousers. I look at it like comedy. One can enjoy Steven Wright as well as Robin Williams. Different strokes and all that.

  7. Like a scientist, he didn’t change his mind of his own volition, he had it changed by discovering reality; the world in which not everything is known, and not knowing everything is natural, rational and enabling.

    It should by now be known to everyone just how fatally dangerous it is to think religion can answer all questions; the mentality which thinks it knows everything led to nine eleven; and continues on a daily basis world wide to lead to tragedy.

    Were there a God it would be a most dreadful entity; one which brings to mind R D’s adjectival gallivant in TGD, which is funny, but the real thing would be no laughing matter.

    And what is so sad is that religion’s a human construct! Surely we could put our native intelligence to better use.

    That’s my daily rant done.

  8. Sagan never took my faith because I never had it in the first place. I did enjoy his Cosmos series and the novel Contact.

    At that time I never realised that he was treading such a tightrope by talking about the science of the universe without mentioning God. Hell, these American Christians are so bloody small minded ! To jeer at a man like Sagan, as the author’s family did, shows how pathetic their grip on reality was.

    • In reply to #8 by Mr DArcy:

      Sagan never took my faith because I never had it in the first place. I did enjoy his Cosmos series and the novel Contact.

      At that time I never realised that he was treading such a tightrope by talking about the science of the universe without mentioning God. Hell, these American Christians are so…

      Agreed. I was Catholic at the time and never thought about Cosmos being in conflict with religion — and never heard anyone bring it up.

  9. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion.

    Horses for courses. I cannot express the pure gratitude I have for Sagan, for his series Cosmos and his books. However, I feel exactly the same way about Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christopher Hitchens. These latter proponents are more vocal and I think the vocal voice of atheism has only received its prominence because they have been willing to risk offense. My father in law (an evangelical Anglican Minister) considers Sagan on the same level of threat as Dawkins, Hitchens et al. So his kind and gentle delivery may be lost to anyone who is so threatened that their ears are sewn shut anyway. I remember seeing a panel in which Sagan’s widow Ann Duryan gently chided Richard Dawkins for his approach I remember thinking this was wrong headed, Dawkins is not rude he is just forthright, the religious see any test to their faith as attack, and as most have never considered these questions and those that have tie themselves in knots twisting logic to hold on to it any challenge to faith is an attack. To the latter it would be more comfortable to have a dinner party with Sagan than Dawkins, but to the more blinded by faith there would be no difference worth noting, to them its like the difference between Hitler and Goebbels.

  10. I grew up inspired by the first series of Cosmos – I’m sure many of many generation were. In Europe at the time Evolution was was widely accepted as fact and creationism was pretty much unknown ( at least from my own recollection as an 11 year old ) so Sagan enjoyed a high standing. I remember meeting a Jehovahs witness who told me that man had been on the earth for 6000 years and I assumed he was just thick – not wilfully ignorant.
    Then a little later as a teacher when I was told I couldn’t cover Macbeth in literature lessons because I might offend Christians (the witches bit not the murder!) I experienced a similar cultural shock.

    Anyway my point is that Sagan was an advocate for science – not atheism.

    His passion was for teaching the subject he loved and along the way he subtly brought in topics that he knew would encourage rational ways of looking at the universe.
    Like the episode devoted to explaining evolution through Japanese Sumarai crabs or the episode showing the destruction of the library of Alexander and the warning from history about neglecting knowledge – or the fantastic recounting of Copernicus’s life.

    I watched all of this without once thinking about Atheism. Did it influence me when I became an atheist a few years later? Unconsciously quite possibly but I don’t remember it being at the front of my mind.

    I do think that people get heard when society is ready to hear them. The advent of the Internet has made it easier for the likes of Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitch to be heard and that audience grows all the time.
    I’m not sure Sagan would have got very far in Reagan’s America if he had taken such a full frontal approach. Maybe he didn’t want to. Nothing wrong with being an advocate for science in itself. That applies to the new host of Cosmos too. Good luck to the new voyage of the space ship of the imagination.

  11. Carl Sagan wasn’t such an in your face atheist because creationism was not on the radar back then, and his main subject was physics.
    I have never got this awe thing we are all supposed to feel for the universe, i couldn’t care less if we exist or not, sure as hell would be a lot less pain and suffering if we didn’t. However his cosmos series stimulated my interest, and he put the final nail in the coffin of any doubts i had about religion being valid without even trying to. for that i am gratefull. Thanks Carl.

  12. sagan was wonderful, and i’ve just seen the first episode of neil degrasse tyson’s cosmos, and found it very moving. some, it seems, had other views gathering from this usa today headline: ‘Cosmos’ host Neil deGrasse Tyson is no Carl Sagan you just can’t win!

    • *In reply to #17 by Net

      sagan was wonderful, and i’ve just seen the first episode of neil degrasse tyson’s cosmos, and found it very moving. some, it seems, had other views gathering from this usa today headline: ‘Cosmos’ host Neil deGrasse Tyson is no Carl Sagan you just can’t win!>

      I don’t think the New Cosmos suffers in comparison to the original. Audio clips from Carl Sagan, heard at the beginning and end of the program pay tribute to its origins and go a long way in keeping fans of the first series, on side. Technology has improved significantly so the show looks great as well, and the inclusion of animation for historical aspects was an inspired choice in my opinion. NdeGT has a magnificent voice that adds a sense of gravity and authority to the production.

  13. My kind of pointless, but dubiously fun, 10 Point Scale of 20th and 21st Century Atheism:

    1 (mild-mannered atheist-agnostic);
    3 (mild-mannered atheist);
    5 (usually mild though occasionally strident atheist);
    8 (militant though non-violent atheist);
    9 (passionately anti-theist);
    10 (violent atheist).

    1) Sagan
    2) NDeGT
    3) Pinker
    4) Dennett
    5) Krauss
    6) Dawkins
    7) Harris
    8) Hitchens
    9) Nietzsche
    10) Mao Zedong

    Who else would you include on this scale?

    p.s: It’s a shame that someone like Dawkins has such a harsh reputation for his (usually) mild atheism. The first of his books that I read was River Out of Eden, which is very sober-headed and hardly touches on religion. Most of his other books, too, are very sober and focus mainly on science. His bad-boy rep seems to be based purely on TGD, and on his tweets and recent TV interviews. Even then, Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, imo, is as hard-hitting on religion and superstition generally as TGD. I feel that if Sagan had lived a little longer, he, too, would have hardened in his anti-religious/superstition stand. That, or the Culture Warmongers at Fox News would have tarred him as well with the “militant-atheist-just-as-bad-as-the-fundamentalists” brush!

  14. I always worry about the plaques on the Pioneer and Voyager. It seemed to indicate a hopelessly naive attitude to extra-terrestrial life. Surely the history of our own planet told him that when technologically advanced society meets technologically less advanced society it never turns out well for the less advanced one.

    • In reply to #20 by mmurray:

      I always worry about the plaques on the Pioneer and Voyager. It seemed to indicate a hopelessly naive attitude to extra-terrestrial life. Surely the history of our own planet told him that when technologically advanced society meets technologically less advanced society it never turns out well for…

      all we know for sure is when technologically advanced human society meets less technologically less advanced human society it never turns out well for the less advanced humans.

      things to consider:

      1. if by slim chance an extra-terrestrial society finds a space probe. we don’t know how much more technologically advanced they’ll be, e.g. if it drifts into the orbit of a planet in its space age infancy it might just blow their minds but would they divert all their resources to sending deep-space minining/collonizing space craft to earth? probably not, for starters in this example they discovered an example of ancient earth technology, would you launch an attack on a new discovered country if you found out they were playing with fireworks 10,000 years ago?

      2. if it’s found by an intelligence way ahead of us, they probably knew about earths life sustaining abilities centuries before they find the probe. right now we’re able to map exoplanets and find out how much water they have on them but our own Oort cloud could be littered with old alien space probes and we don’t have the technology to spot them

      3. Is it worth it? depending on tuning of Drakes equation, it’ll probably be a very long way away. it could be costly just to build a transmitter big enough to send us a message that could take a thousand years to reach us never mind actually sending a physical visitor. If we’re talking about some sort of empirical force marching through the galaxy helping themselves to what they want, knowledge of intelligent life on earth will make no difference one way or the other to their ability to find us or decision to invade

      4. they didn’t evolve here. we don’t know for sure that there’s only one path to intelligence, i.e. evolved out of a competitive environmemnt. I accept it’s the most likely way but it could also be the most self-limiting way. I’m writing a book (yeah i know, who isn’t?) about a species of synthetic life that was created by an evolved species just to be curious, which evolves itself in the absence of its creators. maybe something like that could reach a high enough level of intelligence to ba capable of living long enough to plan its endeavours over billions of years rather than within the span of human life?

      5. Dude, chill. these craft travelling at around 100,000 mph for decades and only just touching the edge of our solar system. our sun has at best 5 billion years left. complex life on earth a fraction of that. humanity is a species more than capable of making itself extinct within a few decades. whatever the outcome, we’ll all be long gone before any visit that’s made as a direct result of our spececraft. We’ve sent radio messages out 100 light years and even they have barely begun to touch a small fraction of our galaxy.

      • In reply to #22 by SaganTheCat:

        I don’t disagree with your calculation of the odds. The odds of those plaques attached to the spacecraft leading to the destruction of humanity was pretty tiny. But why bother taking even that tiny risk? It still smacks to me of a bad dose of the irrational assumption that aliens will be ancient and wise and benevolent and probably walk around in white sheets with big heads. More likely, given that natural selection probably works everywhere, that they are are in competition with us.

        Michael

        • In reply to #27 by mmurray:

          In reply to #22 by SaganTheCat:

          given that natural selection probably works everywhere, that they are are in competition with us.

          competition for what though? if they’re so advanced they reached the point of traveling through the galaxy for natural resources then they already know we’re here and already on their way.

          if not, the cost/benefit ratio of sending an invasion/collony/trade deligate to one location based solely on a line drawing with no way of knowing any of the important stuff you’d need to know (like if the host star still exists). you can learn much more about a planet just by pointing a telescope at it and finding out if it could sustain your version of life. Before setting off on interstellar missions you need to be able to terraform staging posts. If you can do that to sustain your species’ needs there’ll be many other places to go first.

          This does assume one thing howevre which I’m becoming increasingly convinced of; life of some sort, is boringly common. I expect virtually every star that can hold itself together for a few billion years has got something orbiting it with some sort of mildew growing on it.

          intelligent life is a different matter though and I’d be careful assuming too much about what one intelligent species capable of interstellar travel would do if it encountered another. All we know about evolution is what happens when stuff made of the same basic replicators gets concentrated in the same environment and compete for the same nutrients. our bilogical evolution has grown from a single ancestor and competition is a given but a single species arriving here with possibly no physiological similarities? what’s it coming for? no need to desroy the planet, it’s not doing them any harm, no point trying to settle when there’s a species already hear that has enough weapons to wipe itself out.

          if there are phisiological similarities, that’s even worse. how can you tell which of our microbes will do a “war of the worlds” on it? This planet is not mostly harmless, it’s been evolving life for over a 3rd of the span of the universe. Remember that your example applies only to humans. Sure the ones with most technology tended to win but they always basically knew what they were dealing with, other humans. for the rest of evolution it’s not the smartest that survive (although you have to go a long time to evolve smartness) but the life best suited to the environment. right now some humans are losing a fight with japanese knotweed.

          my message to any alien who honestly thinks they could just turn up and outcompete me is “what you got?”

          Pioneer and Voyager are relics. if they get found any time within the next 100000 years, they’re already on their last leg of coming over. if not, it’s important to say “we were here” and give something a chance to find what’s left of where we were

  15. “science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied”

    I love that, LOVE IT!! What a beautiful explanation of what scince is and does… I must commit this to memory

  16. The Demon-Haunted World is a great book. Although one of my daughters is a biochemist, it’s my other daughter, with a degree in English literature, who tells me that The Demon-Haunted World is her favourite book.

    It took me ages to read it. Not only was it so densely packed with facts and perceptive insights that I constantly had to stop and think about what he just said, but I also imagined Carl reading it to me in my head, and audiobooks, whether real or generated on the fly by my brain, take longer to get through than normal books. And he wrote it while he was having bone marrow transplant therapy. Carl you were awesome.

  17. Your case simply proves that high educations can create either wisdom or ignorance. Many of the atheists I’ve known have never been beyond the 8th grade; yet they know theistic BS when they see it.

  18. It’s unfortunate that most Christians are not as intelligent and open minded as you. Otherwise, today’s constant exposure to a plethora of scientific proof that destroys biblical tenets would be enough to deter even the most faithful of the flock.

  19. It just seems so naïve to me when so many commenters seem to take for granted that science and faith are incompatible. Science is a tool for helping us understand the physical world around us. It’s not the touchstone which explains everything unless, that is, you want to make the jump from science to scientism which all too many are apparently willing to do.

    • In reply to #47 by david.graf.589:

      It just seems so naïve to me when so many commenters seem to take for granted that science and faith are incompatible. Science is a tool for helping us understand the physical world around us.

      I disagree unless you define the physical world in such a way that is so broad as to be meaningless. Saying that science is only to understand the physical world means you exclude things like linguistics and computer science. Most of what those fields study aren’t the “physical world” by any non-trivial definition of physical.

      It’s not the touchstone which explains everything

      I think that looking for a “touchtone which explains everything” is a sign of someone who is extremely naive and doesn’t understand much of the history of ideas. If we’ve learned anything it’s that there is no one touchstone and that attempts to find it will fail and result in lots of wasted words and time.

      unless, that is, you want to make the jump from science to scientism

      “Scientism” is one of those buzz words people from both sides throw around without ever giving a meaningful definition of the word. I’ve heard two definitions for scientism. One defines it as something that no sane scientist would ever agree with, for example things like “science is the touchstone that defines everything”. The other definition though is thinking that science can have something to say on topics that are often considered to be off limits to everyone except people in the humanities. (Interestingly it’s usually people with PhDs in the humanities who make the claim) That I think is clearly wrong. I think there is a lot of excellent science being done on the topic of human ethics for example.

  20. Great article. I felt compelled to comment as I have always enjoyed Sagan, yet it took a Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (among others) in order for my deconversion to take place. I watched Cosmos back in the day and thoroughly enjoyed the book by the same name. I’m currently reading Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience. My deconversion process didn’t take place until my 40s! – it took years. I had always had a transcendent experience while watching programs like Cosmos and absolutely enjoyed Connections with James Burke while in college. Contemplating the ideas and theories was something which always stirred something deep w/in me. However, my fairly strict Lutheran upbringing made me extremely hesitant to question something labeled as sacred. After reading a number of the new atheist books I was on my way. However, it wasn’t until I watched hours of Hitchens slaying theists in debates on utube did I finally gain the courage to completely deconvert. Religion definitely is a virus: it instilled a deep sense of fear in me and “thank god” it’s now cured. :)

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