I don’t know where I got this idea, but I’ve always thought that Carl Sagan, the astronomer whose popular show “Cosmos” incited interest in the heavens, did not believe in Heaven. Nor, I thought, did he believe in an Almighty God, who lives in the aforementioned Heaven.
I am gratified to report that I was at least partly wrong. Perhaps his most famous quote from “Cosmos”–after the iconic “Billions and billions of stars”–is what’s come to be known as the Sagan Standard:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
But just as he found the evidence for Christianity (at least as far as he understood it) to be wanting, so, too, did he find atheists’ refutation of faith as unpersuasive.
* * * * *
I was doing research for an article over at Aleteia regarding the Vatican astronomer, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who was accepting the prestigious Carl Sagan Award. The American Astronomical Society, in announcing the award in July 2014, said that Consolmagno
“…occupies a unique position within our profession as a credible spokesperson for scientific honesty within the context of religious belief.”
Anyway, I learned that Carl Sagan most definitely was not an atheist, although he would fall into the “agnostic” camp. To be sure, he mocked the idea of God as “an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow.” But I would argue that the anthropomorphic view of a wooly-white God the Father is only a tool for the imagination–that humans benefit from mind-pictures, even while they know that their artistic depictions are woefully inadequate.
In fact, Sagan had some serious criticisms of atheism. “An atheist,” he said,
“…is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists.
To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”
But while Sagan stopped short of embracing Christianity, he believed that Faith and Reason were partners, and he openly acknowledged the existence of mystery. He said,
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
And in January 1990, Sagan joined 22 other scientists in signing “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth,” an environmental statement by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. In it, he avers that
“The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment… Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science.”
Asked directly about his religious views in 1996, Sagan explained, “I’m agnostic.” He’s been called “pantheist”; but he seems to ascribe to Spinoza’s view of “God” as a singular self-subsistent substance, with both matter and thought being attributes of such.
Later that same year, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62. By now, he’s had all his questions answered.
Image by Michael Okoniewski 1994