Best of Doublethink Flashback: Carl Sagan’s Religious Vision

Editor’s Note: Matthew Continetti explained in the following profile that noted religious skeptic Carl Sagan had his own unique religious vision.  Continetti’s piece is the sixth installment of a two-week series recalling ten of the best contributions to Doublethink. This item originally ran on July 8, 2007. Many thanks to the three former Doublethink editors — Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, James Poulos of The Huffington Post, and Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman — who assisted in compiling this list. — Joel Gehrke

They brought in the children at the end, just before he passed. It was December 1996, and Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, was lying in a bed at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It had been more than a year since Sagan was first diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a rare cancer of the bone marrow. Since then he had undergone several rounds of treatment, including multiple bone marrow transplants, radiation, and chemotherapy. But the disease was persistent and unforgiving. This most recent trip to Seattle — the Sagans lived in Ithaca, New York, where he taught at Cornell University — would be his last. Sagan had contracted an aggressive pneumonia, a complication stemming from his treatment. His immune system was powerless against the disease. Lying in his bed, Sagan told his writing partner and wife of fifteen years, Ann Druyan, “This is a deathwatch. I’m going to die.”

Druyan was Sagan’s third wife. He had fathered three children with his two previous wives. In Druyan’s retelling of Sagan’s last moments, however, only their two children — Sasha and Sam — were at the hospital during those final hours. Sasha and Sam, both young, said their goodbyes to their father one at a time. These were painful, terrible, and solemn moments. The children were brave and loving. So was their father. And then the moments slipped away, and the children left — it was the end — and on December 20, 1996, Carl Sagan died. He was 62 years old.

Druyan tells the story of her husband’s final days in the epilogue to Billions and Billions, a collection of essays published posthumously in 1997. Druyan is a graceful, lyrical writer, and her narrative is gripping. There’s a moment when she strikes a jarring note, however. It occurs after Sagan and five-year-old Sam have said their goodbyes. “Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists,” Druyan writes, “there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better.”

This introduction of polemic into an otherwise apolitical story about loss, grief, and hope comes without warning. Also, as polemic, it is half-baked. Druyan never identifies any “fundamentalists.” Nor does she provide even one example of these nameless fundamentalists’ claims about “deathbed conversions” and the like. And her attribution of values to her late husband — “what mattered most was what was true . . .” — seems incomplete.

Remember, the subject of her narrative is the most famous American skeptic of the twentieth century, a man known for saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” For Sagan, there had to be evidence for him to accept a certain conception of the afterlife as true. However, one further supposes, the same standard would apply for Sagan to accept a certain conception of the afterlife as untrue. Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.

All the same, Druyan is surely right about her husband’s views on the afterlife, as anyone who’s read even a few pages of The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a posthumous Sagan lecture collection published last November, would realize. That particular book does more than establish Sagan’s skepticism about the afterlife, God, and a whole host of concepts associated with traditional religious belief. It shows that Sagan’s reputation as a popularizer of science is misbegotten. What Sagan was really popularizing in the books, television series, and movies under his name was unbelief. Carl Sagan was more than a famous astronomer who wrote bestsellers and often appeared on television. He was the most prominent and compelling skeptic of religion — both traditional and New Age — of his time.

Among skeptics, Sagan’s reputation as an opponent of religion is well established. Earlier this year a former student of Sagan’s, planetary scientist David Morrison, published a long and heartfelt tribute to his late teacher, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Sagan’s passing. Morrison didn’t publish his essay — “Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic” — in Scientific American or Discover magazine. He published it in Skeptical Inquirer. In recent years Ann Druyan’s work has been less concerned with science and planetary astronomy than with those nameless “fundamentalists.” She, too, publishes most of her articles in Skeptical Inquirer. Besides presiding over the Carl Sagan Foundation and running Cosmos Studios, Druyan sits on the advisory board of the New York-based Center for Inquiry, a 501©(3) organization that, according to its website, is “interested in providing rational ethical alternatives to the reigning paranormal and religious systems of belief.”

If the general public largely overlooks Sagan’s atheism today and focuses more on his passion for scientific discovery, it’s because the nature of American debate about God — about everything — has changed in the years since his, Sagan’s, death. It used to be that open minds were celebrated above all things. And Carl Sagan had one of the most open minds of all. He refused to accept the reality of any phenomena unless it could be verified by experiment. Yet he was also willing to accept that something — telekinesis, telepathy, UFOs, the traditional conception of the Judeo-Christian God — might be true until it could be disproved by experiment or by his “Baloney-Detection Kit.” The central tool in Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit was his version of Occam’s Razor, the medieval philosophical principle that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Sagan took this to mean that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is probably the correct explanation. Occam was a religious believer, by the way.

Today it is the closed minds that are celebrated. We have armies of bloggers who wall themselves off into online ideological ghettoes. We have popular talk show hosts who assume their political opponents act in bad faith. One of America’s most famous journalists publishes a book that sits atop the bestseller lists for months arguing that first impressions are often more correct than reasoned conclusions. The current crop of atheist books — Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation — assumes the most radical materialist view of the universe to be true and charges religion with despoiling all things. These nonbelieving authors hardly engage with the deep spiritual and philosophical traditions that inform the world’s great religions. Instead they wear their boorishness as a badge of pride.

In such an environment, Sagan’s skepticism comes across as a lukewarm leftover from the Summer of Love. “He took the idea of God so seriously,” Druyan writes of her husband, “that it had to pass the most rigorous standards of scrutiny.” Can’t we all get along? he seemed to ask, treating religious believers as equals . . . while also ready to dismiss religion as untrue because science cannot verify its claims.

This was the approach Sagan took in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, which collects his 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow. Sagan delivered these lectures at the height of his fame. It had been five years since Cosmos, his award-winning, record-breaking PBS television series and bestselling accompanying book. It was the year his bestselling novel Contact, for which he had received a $2 million advance, was published. Sagan appeared regularly on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And he was involved in all the great scientific and political controversies of the day. He championed a nuclear freeze and opposed missile defense. He predicted that “nuclear winter” — an ecological disaster characterized by global cooling — would occur in the wake of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Sagan’s politics veered left. In 1999 the writer Michael Shermer went through Sagan’s c.v. and found that a third of all Sagan’s writings — not counting the astronomer’s numerous op-eds — dealt with “nuclear war, nuclear winter, environmental destruction, women’s rights, reproductive rights, social freedoms, free speech, and the like.” During the Reagan presidency, Sagan routinely turned down invitations to the White House for dinner. During the American war in Vietnam, he resigned from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and returned his security clearances in protest.

The Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology have a long association with freethinkers and progressives. Endowed in 1885 and first delivered in 1888, the lectures are meant to foster discussion of religion without reference to revelation or the supernatural — hence the phrase “natural theology.” Before Sagan, previous lecturers included the American philosopher William James, the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and German émigré Hannah Arendt. More recent Gifford lecturers have included Michael Ignatieff and Noam Chomsky.

“I would like to suggest that superstition is very simple,” Sagan began. “It is merely belief without evidence.” By “evidence” Sagan meant empirical data verified by experiment and reproducible under various conditions. It is a definition that constricts the boundaries of what might be considered “evidence” of a phenomenon. It’s reductionist in that it removes the possibility of magic and spirit from the world at the outset. Thus it places humanity on an insignificant chunk of rock in a backwater of a commonplace spiral galaxy in an undistinguished area of the cosmos. For Sagan, “God” was just one “hypothesis” among a seemingly infinite number of other hypotheses. “I will attempt to use those skeptical strictures to apply more directly to the more conventional God hypothesis,” he said.

“Those who wished for some central cosmic purpose for us, or at least our world, or at least our solar system, or at least our galaxy, have been disappointed, progressively disappointed,” Sagan said. “The universe is not responsive to our ambitious expectations. A grinding of heels can be heard screeching across the last five centuries as scientists have revealed the noncentrality of our position and as many others have fought to resist that insight to the bitter end.”

For Sagan, science had exposed the nullities behind most traditional human cosmologies. During an exchange with an audience member, Sagan raised the “concept of God as an outsize male with a long white beard, sitting in a throne in the sky and tallying the fall of every sparrow.” “For that kind of god,” Sagan said, “I maintain there is no evidence. And while I’m open to suggestions of evidence for that kind of god, I personally am dubious that there will be powerful evidence for such a god not only in the near future but even in the distant future.”

Sagan’s Gifford Lectures are filled with such statements. Reading through them, however, you are struck by an odd juxtaposition. Sagan spent the lectures heaping criticism on orthodoxy — but he also spent ample time discussing the search for extraterrestrial life. And here his tone seemed altogether unskeptical. Discussing extraterrestrial intelligence, Sagan said, “We have to be extremely careful.” We must “demand the most stringent and rigorous standards of evidence precisely because we have profound emotional investments in the answer.”

The phrase “profound emotional investments” is a clue to the paradox underlying Sagan’s Gifford Lectures in particular and his worldview in general. That is because, while he never stated so publicly, Sagan believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life. He didn’t believe there was the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the position he took in his writings and public appearances. No. He believed in the fact that there are extraterrestrials. And not Unidentified Flying Objects — tales of which he worked actively to debunk — but “superior beings in space, creatures so intelligent, so powerful as to resemble gods,” according to his biographer Keay Davidson. These beings in whom Sagan believed inhabited societies “millions of years old,” wrote Davidson. They had “developed technologies unimaginable to us.” They did not know war and were willing to share their knowledge of the cosmos freely. “In short,” Davidson continued, they were “all powerful, all knowing, all loving.”

It was this faith that fueled and sustained Sagan’s involvement in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The main instrument used in the search is radio astronomy, pointing radio telescopes at the heavens and listening for signals from intelligent beings. At a SETI conference held in Soviet Armenia in the fall of 1971, Sagan speculated that signals from extraterrestrials might be hidden inside the intense radiation emitted from pulsars. What a scientist might consider naturally occurring phenomena could possibly be evidence of extraterrestrial activity. Lasers propelling starships across the cosmic wastes could show up on spectroscopes as “fluctuating x-ray sources.” Quasars, colliding galaxies, and black holes could all be intergalactic extraterrestrial cosmic engineering projects.

In his nonfiction books Sagan was given to speculation about what contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would look like and what humanity might learn in the process. Keay Davidson quotes a passage from Sagan’s 1979 book Broca’s Brain. “It is possible,” Sagan wrote, “that among the first contents of such an [alien] message may be detailed prescriptions for the avoidance of technological disaster. . . . It is difficult to think of another enterprise [besides SETI] within our capability and at a relatively modest cost that holds as much promise for the future of humanity.”

Revelation! Salvation! What glorious opportunities might await humanity should our civilization gain some sense and dismiss traditional religion, embrace science and all its cold hard truths, and hunker down with a bunch of radio telescopes. An honest critic of Sagan’s legacy — a skeptic, dare one say — must point something out, however. Namely: There is absolutely no evidence to support claims of extraterrestrial life, much less extraterrestrial intelligence. Not a lick. By Carl Sagan’s own standards of evidence, a belief in extraterrestrial life is equivalent to a belief in a throne-sitting, “outsize male” God with a long white beard. Both are “belief without evidence.” Both are “superstition.”

Once you grasp the nature of the Sagan paradox — this most famous of skeptics believing, against all evidence, in little green men living far away in the dark — you start appreciating the audacity of Sagan’s intellectual project. For atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, human noncentrality in the universe is evidence of the absence, the nonexistence, of God. For them, it’s the end of the argument. They stop there. But Sagan wants to replace the sense of wonder and awe at the universe that religion provides with the sense of wonder and awe at the universe that he thinks science provides. He’s substituting one teleology, one metaphysics, with another. It’s nothing less than a new religion.

“Perhaps the most wrenching by-product of the scientific revolution has been to render untenable many of our most cherished and most comforting beliefs,” Sagan wrote in one of the essays in Billions and Billions. “The tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors has been replaced by a cold, immense, indifferent Universe in which humans are relegated to obscurity. But I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of a magnificence, and intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined.” Sagan devoted page after page of mellifluous prose outlining this elegant, intricate, beautiful, complex universe that ought to satisfy, in his view, every man’s hunger for wonder, awe, and spirit.

At times Sagan would distort the boundaries between revelation and science by dotting his books with epigraphs drawn from religious texts and remarking on science’s ability to provoke a feeling of the numinous. At other times Sagan would assert science’s primacy over revelation. “Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy,” he wrote in his 1995 The Demon-Haunted World. “Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?” In her essay “Carl Sagan: A New Sense of the Sacred,” Ann Druyan writes that “the unmistakable message of our expulsion from Paradise is that happiness can only be achieved in a state of thoughtless obedience and ignorance.” But in the new Genesis, the new paradise, the “new sense of the sacred,” one can be happy — one can only be happy — by being disobedient, constantly questioning, exploring the universe, and challenging orthodoxies — the right-wing and theological sort in particular.

The Druyan essay is illuminating. It’s about the primacy of science, but it uses explicitly religious language. “In some sense,” she goes on, Sagan’s “arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience at the Nevada Nuclear Test site after Gorbachev’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, his briefing of the Central Committee of the USSR, the U.S. Congress and the Pope on the possible climactic consequences of nuclear war, his early and frequent sounding of the alarm on global warming, and his indefatigable combat against the hydra of the Star Wars missile defense scheme (whose many heads have grown back once again, only this time, lamentably, in a world without a Carl Sagan) were a scientist’s acts of redemption.” Ignore the political diatribe and focus on the final word in that sentence. Redemption is a concept foreign to science. It’s a concept without empirical basis. There is no way to verify “redemption” by experiment.

The attempt to replace religion with a science capable of provoking the religious sense was a concern of Sagan’s in 1973 in his first book, The Cosmic Connection. The cosmic connection is every human’s physical relationship to the universe. “All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star,” Sagan wrote. “We are made of star stuff.” In place of a Creator, Sagan imbued ancient stars with spiritual properties. He postulated a fundamental connection between human consciousness and supernovae. It’s an alternative creation story meant to spark good feeling, a sense of the numinous — the uncanny — among believers. That the story is in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry only affirms its power.

The novel Contact took on these questions most directly, however. Here Sagan most clearly treated his conception of science as a quasi-religious act. Reading his treatment, it is clear he understood the limits of his atheism, and perhaps the limits of his own faith in extraterrestrial life. The novel’s protagonist, Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, portrayed by Jodie Foster in the film version, is a clear stand-in for Sagan and Druyan. (Druyan convinced Sagan to name the character after one of her heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Arroway/Sagan/Druyan character discovers a radio message sent from an extraterrestrial civilization, uses the tools of science to decipher it, and is sent on a mission to encounter the intelligence face to face. Throughout the narrative Arroway must argue with the representatives of traditional, even fundamentalist, religion who think the message is ungodly and the intelligence behind it is nefarious. Arroway has no patience with theists.

“Your trouble,” she tells the fundamentalist Reverend Billy Jo Rankin, “is a failure of the imagination.” Biblical “prophecies are — almost every one of them — vague, ambiguous, imprecise, open to fraud. They admit lots of possible interpretations. Even the straightforward prophecies direct from the top you try to weasel out of — like Jesus’ promise that the Kingdom of God would come in the lifetime of some people in his audience. And don’t tell me the Kingdom of God is within me. His audience understood him quite literally. . . .

“But imagine that your kind of god — omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate — really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of Moses. It’s easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce commandment that they be passed on unchanged . . .

“. . . Where are the burning bushes, the pillars of fire, the great voice that says ‘I am that I am’ booming down at us out of the sky? Why should God manifest himself in such subtle and debatable ways when he can make his presence completely unambiguous?”

Whereupon another reverend, the moderate Palmer Joss, interjects and says, “But a voice from the sky is just what you say you found.”

This causes a moment of silence and reflection.

A few pages later the dialogue continues. Arroway says, “I resent the idea that we’re in some kind of faith contest, and you’re the hands-down winner.” But then she proceeds to engage in exactly that sort of contest. “So far as I know you’ve never tested your faith,” she says. “Are you willing to put your life on the line for your faith? I’m willing to do it for mine. Here, take a look out that window. There’s a big Foucault pendulum out there. The bob must weigh five hundred pounds. My faith says that the amplitude of a free pendulum — how far it’ll swing away from the vertical position — can never increase. It can only decrease. I’m willing to go out there, put the bob in front of my nose, let go, have it swing away and then back toward me. If my beliefs are in error, I’ll get a five-hundred-pound pendulum smack in the face.”

This is likely to strike some readers as chest-thumping. It seems like just another way of saying My God is bigger than your God. The passage is important, however, not only because it treats science and religion as independent, equal, and opposing belief systems, but also because it asserts — flatly — that science, or rather Carl Sagan’s vision of science, is a belief system, a better belief system even.

Is it? Toward the end of Contact, Arroway and a few other scientists from around the globe make a journey in an alien machine across time and space. And, at the end of this journey, they have a vision. Nowhere else in his writings does Sagan lay out so completely his vision of the numinous, of a universe of awe and wonder that only science can illuminate. In her vision Arroway sees “a prodigy, a wonder, a miracle. . . . It filled half the sky. Now they were flying over it. On its surface were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of illuminated doorways, each a different shape. Many were polygonal or circular or with an elliptical cross section, some had projecting appendages or a sequence of partly overlapping off-center circles. She realized they were docking ports, thousands of different docking ports — some perhaps only meters in size, others clearly kilometers across, or larger. Every one of them, she decided, was the template of some interstellar machine like this one. Big creatures in serious machines had imposing entry ports. Little creatures, like us, had tiny ports. It was a democratic arrangement, with no hint of particularly privileged civilizations. The diversity of ports suggested few social distinctions among the sundry civilizations, but it implied a breathtaking diversity of beings and cultures. . . .

“The vision of a populated Galaxy, of a universe spilling over with life and intelligence, made her want to cry for joy.”

Imagine: overlapping off-center circles, polygons and illuminated doorways, docking ports and elliptical cross sections, intergalactic democracy, diversity! A universe “spilling over with life and intelligence.” . . . Breath-taking beauty. . . .

Anyone who reads this passage ought to understand why Carl Sagan, “contrary to the claims of the fundamentalists,” had no deathbed conversion to theism. In his own way — on his own terms — he was already a believer.

When Matthew Continetti first published this piece, he was associate editor of The Weekly Standard and recently the author of the K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine. Continetti is now editor of The Washington Free Beacon. UFO image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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