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Our place in the ‘Cosmos’: Carl Sagan’s Humanism in 5 quotes

Carl Sagan is widely credited with inspiring a generation of scientists. But Sagan's humanistic words and actions also inspired many others. Here are five of his most compelling quotes.

Someone reading Carl Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot.' Photo courtesy lovelyemy via Flickr Commons.
Someone reading Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot.'

Someone reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot.’ Photo courtesy lovelyemy via Flickr Commons.

Astronomer Carl Sagan is widely credited with inspiring a generation of scientists—and with good reason.

In fact, when I recently asked Sagan’s first doctoral student David Morrison what Sagan’s legacy is, Morrison replied: “Carl Sagan inspired a generation of scientists.”

But Sagan’s humanistic words and actions also inspired a generation of other people to better understand themselves and others, and to work for a better world. Sagan was an agnostic, and openly shared his skepticism about religious claims—but he also offered a positive, vibrant vision for a humanistic society.

When Fox-TV launches the reboot of “Cosmos” tonight, a new generation will be inspired by Sagan’s legacy. To celebrate, I’ve compiled (out of many others) five of my favorite quotes from Sagan that represent his humanistic worldview. Please share your favorites in the comments.

May his words inspire you to love more deeply, find meaning in your own smallness, strive for understanding, and do more to help others along the way.

1. A reminder that every person deserves dignity—even those who disagree with us: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” —Cosmos

2. A reminder of our own smallness, and a call for humility: “Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” —Cosmos

3. A reminder of the importance of love: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” —Contact

4. A reminder that humans need to work together to solve our problems and expand the circle to see one another as more alike than different: “Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group… Groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together [is] surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.” —Cosmos

5. A reminder of our place on the Pale Blue Dot: Sagan’s writing was rife with reminders of human interdependence, and frequently spoke to the importance of working together to improve our world. This excerpt from Pale Blue Dot may be Sagan’s most popular quote—and among the most compelling, poetic, and succinct expressions of the Humanist conviction that it is up to human beings to care for our world and for one another. The world would be a better place if we all remembered this message more often:

From [the] distant vantage point [of deep space], the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.