Donate to RNS

Why atheists should follow Carl Sagan’s lead

What we celebrate when we recognize Carl Sagan Day is not only Sagan himself. We are really celebrating this amazing cosmos in which we live—and our capacity within it to experience beauty, make meaning, and find purpose.

Astronomer Carl Sagan. Photo courtesy of www.jp.nasa.gov.

Today’s Carl Sagan Day guest column is authored by James Croft, a leader in training at the Ethical Society of St. Louis and coauthor of the upcoming book The Godless Congregation.

Astronomer Carl Sagan. Photo courtesy of www.jp.nasa.gov.

Astronomer Carl Sagan. Photo courtesy of www.jp.nasa.gov.

Carl Sagan was special.

More than a popularizer of science, more than an educator and scholar, Sagan—born on this day (Nov. 9) in 1934—was able to convey the wonder and magnificence of the universe in ways most scientists and teachers cannot.

I think that was because of his approach to science. For Sagan, science was not just a technical pursuit, nor was it simply about the discovery of new facts.

Rather, it was a profound spiritual enterprise which had much to say about human beings, our ethical responsibilities toward each other, and our role in the cosmos.

In The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Sagan wrote: “I would suggest that science is, at least in my part, informed worship.”

Informed worship. And that was no rhetorical flourish: This sense that science is a spiritual endeavor runs through his work.

This may be surprising to some, but one of the foremost icons of today’s rationalist movement believed passionately that to preclude spirituality from a relationship with science was to demean science, as well as spirituality.

Just look at the words Sagan used to describe “Nature,” a word he tended to capitalize: reverence; awe; celebration; magnificence; intricacy; beauty; soaring; elation; humility; joining and merging with the Cosmos.

And that’s just on one page of The Demon-Haunted World. (Page 29 of the paperback edition.)

Sagan’s “spiritual” approach to science is important for atheists, skeptics, and Humanists to remember—because it offers a different view of the relationship between science and religion than the battleground it is so often portrayed as today.

Sagan, though a staunch naturalist and skeptic, had genuine respect for aspects of religious life: He respected religious stories, art, and music, and the existential questions religion raises. Sagan did not believe religion and science were inherently at odds, and even predicted that a “religion of science” would one day emerge to challenge the traditional faiths of the past.

This attitude of reverence and respect for the cultural aspects of religion affected how Sagan pursued his life’s goal of sharing his love for science. Rather than trying to change people’s minds primarily by debunking their most cherished beliefs—showing them that what they found wonder in was empty—Sagan sought to reveal the wonder in science, making it more compelling than pseudoscience.

He understood that people didn’t just need the truth, but also needed meaning, a narrative in which they could play a part—and he wove the most compelling Humanist narrative of any thinker ever. He was an exquisite storyteller, communicating through novels, films, and television shows in ways few scientists have been able to match. Humanists today would do well to follow his lead if they wish to have as great a cultural impact as he.

What we celebrate when we recognize Carl Sagan Day, then, is not only Sagan himself, totally awesome though he was. We are really celebrating this amazing, wondrous, vast, magnificent cosmos in which we live, and our capacity within it to experience beauty, make meaning, and find purpose—all of which Sagan helped us to appreciate.

Nothing illustrates this better than a scene from Sagan’s private life, related by his widow Ann Druyan—who, it is important to remember, worked with Sagan on many of his most celebrated projects, including Cosmos:

Carl and I fell in love…during the making of the Voyager Interstellar Record, which are these golden records on both Voyagers. They’re a mixture of world music, the sounds of earth, greetings in 59 human languages—and one whale language—118 pictures of life on Earth. But, at the heart of that record are my brainwaves, my rapid eye movement, my heartbeat. All of those electrical impulses turned into sound, while I meditated for an hour…two days after Carl and I told each other that we loved each other.

And so, the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands not only have a mother’s first words to her newborn baby; a kiss; but also the heart sounds and the brainwaves of a young woman madly in love. At that intersection of our best science, our best engineering, our best mathematics [and our best selves]…that’s what it is to be a human being. To have not just the brain, not just the eye, not just the ear, but the heart, and the soul, in one place—and that was Carl Sagan.

That is Humanism, too: The brain, the eye, the ear, the heart, and the human spirit all working together to better understand the cosmos and each other. That is what Carl Sagan taught us.

James Croft. Photo by Felix Rust Photographers, courtesy of Croft.

James Croft. Photo by Felix Rust Photographers, courtesy of Croft.

James Croft is a leader in training at the Ethical Society of St. Louis and coauthor of the upcoming book The Godless Congregation. A graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, he is currently finishing his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he studies the philosophy of human development and education.