Does a popular astrophysicist erode his credibility by publicly criticizing religion? This was, of course, an issue in yesterday’s post on Neil deGrasse Tyson. It behooves us, then, to consider a similar figure from an earlier time: the astrophysicist and science popularizer Carl Sagan.
Cosmos, the famous 13-part series with Sagan as presenter (written by him, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter), is now 32 years old. The original run was short: from September 28 to December 21 of 1980. Around ten years later, Sagan added some 2-minute addenda to bring the episodes up to date.
The series was enormously popular, although I have to confess that I didn’t watch it. I have watched the clips below, which, although a bit histrionic for my taste, nevertheless surprised me with the boldness of Sagan’s attack on faith. And that didn’t seem to have quashed his enormous popularity.
As Wikipedia notes:
As of 2009, [Cosmos] was still the most widely watched PBS series in the world. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 500 million people. A book was also published to accompany the series.
Reader JJE, who is watching the series, was quite impressed with how strong Sagan’s attack on religion was—at least for those times. He wrote an email to me about it, and I asked him to do a guest post, which I’ve put below.
Pursuing questions courageously
The internecine battles currently being waged between Gnu atheists and their accommodationist brethren and sistren continue to divide supporters of science who otherwise are natural allies. One front in this war is the issue of what and how we scientists, science teachers, and science boosters should communicate.
As much as I’m tempted to rehash old arguments and call out particular heroes and villains in this struggle, I’d like instead to promote the Gnu strategy from perspective I think most of can agree upon: in recent years, there have been few science advocates who have had the talent, success, and perspicacity of Carl Sagan. More importantly, Sagan’s arguments and methods remain sound and, I argue, will withstand the test of time.
I submit that, for the most part, we can all agree that Sagan’s many contributions to science advocacy were varied and effective. Among many other accomplishments, he was a long-time advisor to NASA, wrote many popular books and the novel Contact, co-authored many scientific papers, and perhaps most notably, co-authored and narrated the science program Cosmos. I am primarily using the widespread admiration of Sagan’s work as a bit of common ground between Gnus and accommodationists. But I want to avoid recruiting Carl Sagan the man as a Gnu for two reasons: 1) sadly, he’s not around to represent his own views; 2) his arguments and methods now have a life of their own and stand or fall on their own merits.
Below are several excerpts from Cosmos and The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark that illustrate what I think anyone who cares about the truth should be willing to do: pursue questions courageously. While Sagan communicated this bedrock scientific principle throughout his work, I want to draw special attention to how he dealt with religion and superstition.
On nearly every topic, Sagan was very measured and very careful. And while he was certainly not as confrontational as some atheists, those who would use him as a talisman against Gnu Atheist methods should make no mistake: Sagan didn’t shy away from criticizing religion when its flaws impact science. Before turning this over to Carl Sagan, I implore his successors (like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who will be featured in the remake of Cosmos) to take Sagan’s arguments seriously and heed his exhortation to pursue questions courageously, even if it may make some people uncomfortable. Without further ado, Carl Sagan:
The idea that the universe is knowable brings science into conflict with the gods:
There might be a way to know the world without the “god hypothesis” [JAC: note how he, like Dawkins, frames it as a hypothesis]
The suppression of ideas and the embrace of mysticism by Platonists and their Christian successors set back human civilization:
God as an explanation causes an infinite regress:
To pursue origins questions courageously, we must also question god:
The quotes below are taken from a UK edition of The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (ISBN: 0747251568, Headline Book Publishing, 1997).
Gods compared to aliens, p108:
The gods watch over us and guide our destinies, many human cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsible for the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve human needs. Even if they’re wholly fanciful, people feel better believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and call them aliens?
Gods compared to hallucinations (p 125):
Perhaps when everyone knows that gods come down to Earth, we hallucinate gods; when all of us are familiar with demons, it’s incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely accepted, we see fairies; in an age of spiritualism, we encounter spirits; and when the old myths fade and we begin thinking that extraterrestrial beings are plausible, then that’s where our hypnogogic imagery tends.
Skepticism threatens religion and religion discourages skepticism:
But the tools of scepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They’re hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent practitioner, although scepticism repeatedly sprouts spontaneously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising and religions (New Age and Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a sceptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.
Modern science casts substantial doubt on religion (p 37 of Chapter 2, Science and Hope):
Science, Ann Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.’ Despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion. Scripture is said to be divinely inspired – a phrase with many meanings. But what if it’s simply made up by fallible humans? Miracles are attested, but what if they’re instead some mix of charlatanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena and mental illness? No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.
But of course I might be wrong.
Religion contains many logical and rhetorical fallacies from (p 199, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”):
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.