Guest post: Was Carl Sagan a militant atheist?

April 27, 2012 • 4:15 am

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

by J.J.E.

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 following excerpts are from Cosmos Episode 7: The Backbone of Night and Episode 10: The Edge of Forever.

The idea that the universe is knowable brings science into conflict with the gods:

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There might be a way to know the world without the “god hypothesis” [JAC: note how he, like Dawkins, frames it as a hypothesis]

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The suppression of ideas and the embrace of mysticism by Platonists and their Christian successors set back human civilization:

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God as an explanation causes an infinite regress:

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To pursue origins questions courageously, we must also question god:

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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.

90 thoughts on “Guest post: Was Carl Sagan a militant atheist?

  1. Those examples were pretty mild. They seemed suitable for a scientist. I get no sense of accusations but, rather, of a rational appeal to think about superstitions, religious claims and baloney. They all seemed non-confrontational to me.

    If anything, Sagan seems to set an example of rational skepticism — one which Neil deGrasse Tyson would do well to emualte (which he appears to be aware of).

    1. I’m curious to read your take on scenario. If Dawkins started referring to the clergy, or perhaps the religious in general, as practitioners of the dark arts (cf Harry Potter I suppose), would that be militant or mild? What do you suppose would be the outcry if he decided to give a public lecture on some worldwide threat to our existence and named it ‘on the day of the Lord’ while referring to the religious as the practitioners of the dark arts?

      I ask because Carl Sagan did *exactly* that with respect to the consequences of the US and USSR’s then nuclear program and arsenals. Oh, except Sagan was throwing in digs at the religious in a way that would be entirely invisible to the average Joe six pack in the pews, for those types of believers are quite largely wholly ignorant of the religion’s history. Have a look at Carl Sagan’s lecture titled ‘on the eighth day’ – early christian scholarship used that phrase to alternately refer to the sabbath, to the Lord’s Day – or even possibly the actual act of attending a church to worship ‘the Lord’. (happy to be corrected by anyone who knows more about that early scholarship – not my bailiwick)

      So, I’d appreciate your estimation as to whether that would be strident if Dawkins did that or something fairly similar to it, and if it is, then why was it not when Sagan did it?

      1. @Justicar,

        I don’t know the minutiae of Sagan’s every public utterance. I made clear in my response that what was presented in the OP seemed mild to me.

        If you want to take it beyond that, I’m not interested.

        1. Nor did I fault you for not knowing Sagan’s every word. I’m trying to figure out how you determine militant from not because it’s entirely unclear to me how you distinguish one from the other. Hence why I asked of your estimation as to whether it would be militant if Dawkins did that given that Sagan has. But if you’re not interested in either a.) answering the question I put to you, or b.) fairly representing what I actually put to you, then so be it.

          1. @Justicar,

            And I quote:

            “I ask because Carl Sagan did *exactly* that with respect to the consequences of the US and USSR’s then nuclear program and arsenals.”

            So . . .

            As I said, I’ve responded to the OP. I don’t wish to do the work necessary (research your point) to respond. It’s just not that important to me.


            1. Quote-mining is fun I suppose. I said: “I’m curious to read your take on [a] scenario. If Dawkins. . .” and then I explained WHY I chose those particular features for the scenario. Contra-your implication, that isn’t requiring you to know the ‘minutia’ of Sagan’s body of work. Nor does it require research to answer what I actually asked you. I could have left the explanation about Sagan out and the question remains the same.

              As a courtesy and for transparency, I explained what gave rise to the question I had at all.

              Again, if you don’t want to answer the question that was asked, fine. But you are free to stop misrepresenting what I in fact wrote to suggest that I’ve presented you with something I have in fact not.

  2. One small addition to the arsenal of Sagan’s militancy (from “Can We Know the Universe”, a brilliant short essay on science):

    A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians.

    I think Sagan is second to only a few in his outspokenness on matters religious.

    1. Ah, but even accomodationists are mostly happy to bash “some theologians,” of the fundamentalist type. Hence their eagerness to say that militant Gnus “are as bad as [insert name of fundamentalist here]”

      1. I’m not sure, though, that Sagan didn’t actually mean to tar pretty much all/i> theologians with the “weak-minded” brush. In any case, that word would have definitely earned him the attributes ‘strident’ and ‘shrill’.

  3. The interesting thing is that this was just before the Religious Right really got going in the ’80s. So the general assumption of methodological naturalism leading to philosophical naturalism was just what people assumed and it wasn’t a problem.

    Now the difference is the fundamentalists getting seriously upset when people dare state this obvious thing.

    1. You make a critical point. Sagan operated near the end of a period when religion had taken a back seat in public affairs. It has since risen to assail our public institutions, women’s rights, and to turn skyscrapers into rubble heaps. Gnu atheism has come to be in this new more religion-threatened world.

      1. Not so. Religion was already reasserting itself in the late 70’s when COSMOS was being filmed. In fact, that’s how they helped Reagan come to power.

        1. There is not a lot of point in getting into a “Not so”/”Yes so” back-and-forth. But if you are arguing that the political environments of 1980 and 2012 are not miles apart in terms of the dominant themes of the day, then I think you are nuts. Sure, the religious right was getting organized at that time. But it had not taken control of one of our (US) two political parties. The times are very different than they were then.

          1. If you look, you’ll find many none-too-subtle warnings about the radical right-wing movement coming to power at the time all through Cosmos. E.g., Sagan pointing out the fresco of Justice trampling Envy and Avarice in the Amsterdam Town Hall, and remarking that the Dutch Empire understood the dangers of unrestrained greed. Or the inclusion of “following leaders blindly” in the list of reptilian-brain-derived behaviors. Or his noting how Special Relativity’s abolition of privileged frames of reference was consonant with Einstein’s rejection of ethnocentrism and nationalism.

          2. Here’s an interesting benchmark re. the polico-fundagenicals:

            On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.
            I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
            And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

            Barry Goldwater, speech in the US Senate (16 September 1981)

            1. I like that quote, too. And one can find very interesting background reading Frank Schaeffer’s books. He was there at the birth of the religious right in the 1970s and 80s. Here’s his blog:


              (Frank is no longer a fundamentalist although he still holds unfair view of atheists… I’ve prodded him on this from time to time.)

        2. If you look, you’ll find many none-too-subtle warnings about radical the right-wing movement coming to power at the time all through Cosmos. E.g., Sagan pointing out the fresco of Justice trampling Envy and Avarice in the Amsterdam Town Hall, and remarking that the Dutch Empire understood the dangers of unrestrained greed. Or the inclusion of “following leaders blindly” in the list of reptilian-brain-derived behaviors. Or his noting how Special Relativity’s abolition of privileged frames of reference was consonant with Einstein’s rejection of ethnocentrism and nationalism.

  4. I have a 91 year old aunt who has been going to church for years, probably all her life. I have no plans to explain to her what science has to say about religion, and I am not going to buy her a copy of The God Delusion. Doing those things would just upset her, and would not change her mind. If she were to ask me my views, I would probably tell her.

    Our main job as scientists is to investigate nature and tell the truth about our results. The principal audience of our works will be young people with receptive and flexible minds, inclined more often than their elders to question authority and arbitrary decisions.

    To me this is a very hopeful situation. We need to take the long view. Religion is indeed a problem for science, and we need to confront the conflicting views where the facts are easiest to show. Time after time, religion has been forced to take a step back, and this will continue.

    Sagan adopted a bold stance, but wisely chose to focus on gods that nobody believes in today to explain the logic. In this, he was able to make his point without stirring up emotions in the naive audiences he was addressing. He counted on their wits to draw more extensive conclusions. How effective was he? It would be interesting to know.

    Tyson is operating in a different atmosphere, where there are a lot more aggressive voices. He is very much on view, and one of his chief platforms is PBS, a (partially) publicly funded broadcast network. This requires some circumspection. He is wise to stick to what science shows in detail, without being dishonest about his more general views.

    1. I have a 94 year old mother in a similar position. There is no point in giving her a copy of The God Delusion to listen to (she is blind now). But there is also no point in lying to her about my atheism. One way of respecting people is to be honest with them.

      1. I had a rather acerbic, vinegarish aunt who more than once said in response to probing questions from certain family members (but not from me), “Don’t ask too many questions.” Which of course is to say, “You may not like the answers.” (Re: Jack Nicholson’s U.S. Marine colonel’s “You can’t handle the truth!”)

        I had enough sense not to ask her probing questions, and tried to deal with her and a couple other relatives so as to avoid controversy. Were they not my relatives I would never have associated with them, and if I somehow got into some controversy with them, at least as an adult I could keep them at several arm’s lengths.

        My dear wife’s elderly parents and my wife and I live under the same roof. This is all to accomplish The Bigger Picture of optimizing my in-laws’ quality of life (versus their having to reside in an assisted living facility and our having to otherwise frequently trek there). (I’ve done my full share of this vis-a-vis my own blood relatives, but, for my wife’s and her parents’ sake, “Once more into the breach, dear friends.”)

        Of course, I knew months before that the day would come when my rather assertive (aggressive?) and self-regarding/self-entitled church-going father-in-law would attempt to pin me in the corner, his first question being, “Where do you go to church?”

        As a callow youth, I would have somewhat quaked in the face of such an interrogation. But not anymore. Upon my replying, “I’m not going anywhere,” he asked, “Why not?” He obviously had his speech rehearsed; so did I. I replied, “I’m all for everyone doing as they please about such matters without them having to hear the first word from me about it.” As deputy Barney Fife would put it, that seemed to “nip it in the bud.”

        To have been more “strident” and forthcoming in my response would seem to otherwise make our living under the same roof all the more problematic.

        From my experience and perspective, rightly righteous and pietistic religiosos are much more strident than their opponents.

    2. I suggest my girlfriend’s 92 year old grandfather read The Bible Unearthed and Misquoting Jesus, and he thoroughly enjoyed them, and in his old age, I think he’s largely given up on the idea heaven without being depressed about it. Older people can surprise you if you give them some credit.

      I’d also say that Tyson is operating in an atmosphere were it is much *easier* to be a open atheist than it was in the 80s and 90s when Carl Sagan was active. That he chooses to be wishy washy about it, and attack people like Dawkins the imagined harm they do to science says he’s not doing a great job Saganing.

    3. He is wise to stick to what science shows in detail, without being dishonest about his more general views.

      I like NDT just fine, and his behaviour regarding this issue does not change that, but I really think you are wrong here. On the subject of his belief or non belief in dieties, which is what we are talking about here, he does not just say “no comment”, or something to that effect, he misleads.

      Surely such an educated person, who is not at all ignorant about the current tensions between theists and atheists, knows very well what the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” mean. He can very easily stay out of the fight and be completely honest about his own god belief/knowledge when asked.

      The evasive manner in which he has handled these kinds of questions does a real, tangible, disservice to others who are more outspoken and direct than he is, and to the general “battle” against religion.

    4. Sagan’s Cosmos originally aired on PBS didn’t it?

      Older people are more resilient than they are given credit for. Remember, one way or another they’ve seen a lot of life. I’ve told many older people that I am an atheist and even jabbed at their gods. For the most part they seem to get through it without trauma.

    5. I think he was effective. I wonder if he influenced my friend who was raised by catholic parents and is now an atheist, as he said he was intrigued by the Cosmos series as a young boy. However I was raised by a JW mother who would have switched the TV off at the first whiff of trouble.

      1. ..what I meant to add was that it took me a bit longer than he did to accept evolution. Maybe another 10 years longer.

  5. just was rewatching Cosmos. Sagan’s ripping apart of the idiocy of astrology, calling it “pious fraud” and “dangerous fatalism” could be just as easily applied to religion.

  6. No, I don’t see Sagan as militant. I see him as open and honest about his disagreement with religion.

    I am not aware of Sagan criticizing a Francis Collins or a Ken Miller, or other scientist, and saying that they could not possibly be doing the science right because of their religion. I am not aware of Sagan criticizing NCSE or similar organizations. I am not aware of anything comparable to accusing Neil deGrasse Tyson of equivocation. I am not aware that ever tried to dictate to Christians, that their religion requires that they believe the Adam and Eve story was literally true.

    1. I am not aware of Sagan criticizing a Francis Collins or a Ken Miller, or other scientist, and saying that they could not possibly be doing the science right because of their religion.

      I’m not aware of anyone else, Gnus included, doing this either. I am however aware of how Gnus will go out of their way to praise the work and advocacy of Collins and Miller even as they criticize their methods and puzzle at their compartmentalization.

      I am not aware that ever tried to dictate to Christians, that their religion requires that they believe the Adam and Eve story was literally true.

      I have literally never heard anyone ever state this except people placing bad arguments in the mouths of Gnus. The Christians do a great job of this on their own, without outside help. Surveys indicate this time and time again. And, even within science advocacy discussion within evangelical circles, the literal interpretation of Adam and Eve can hold sway. You’d know this if you followed this website’s observations of how BioLogos discusses the issue amongst its own constituency.

      As for the other issues, it was a different time. As far as I know, the most prominent science advocates and agencies weren’t promoting the same sorts of soft thinking that are routine today.

      So, what was it you were saying again?

      1. I have literally never heard anyone ever state this [= tried to dictate to Christians, that their religion requires that they believe the Adam and Eve story was literally true] except people placing bad arguments in the mouths of Gnus.

        J’accuse that many times you have heard gnus say that biblical literalists are “at least” consistent, and thus more intellectually honest, compared to liberal believers. It’s a clear attempt by gnus to apply pressure to the latter with a threat of shunning from good intellectual society.

        Note I’m not making any claim (just now) about whether such gnu speech is never/sometimes/always horrible/neutral/wonderful (that’s 9 possible statements.. including the bold contention that such speech is sometimes neutral!). I’m just claiming that such speech exists, and you should be able to acknowledge it.

        1. As far as I can tell, you don’t disagree with me that Gnus don’t dictate what believers ought to believe. What you are talking about is something that I’m straining to put into the context you put it into. It is very clear that the very same inconsistent liberal religious believers you talk about are inconsistent not merely because they adopt a particular suite of beliefs, but because they themselves perceive the conflicts in an existing menu of beliefs and make post hoc decisions with the result that they almost exclusively modify only the empirically and/or morally problematic bits rather than letting evidence and reason be a guide in general. Hence the inconsistency.

          These types of are of the Methodist variety. UU people on the other hand (while quite diverse and hard to characterize concisely) tend to have a much more internally consistent disavowal of the silly bits of religious doctrines.

          1. Hey J.J.E., you made a claim starting with “I have literally never heard anyone ever state.. “, and I countered it.

            Your reply morphs “trying to dictate” into “dictating”. The former is a common way of saying trying to influence which arguments gain and which arguments lose favour in the public sphere, while the latter assumes some power of coercion.

            Your reply then moves sideways to a different discussion, one I explicitly tried to defer.

            1. O.K., to avoid ambiguity, I’ll restate it:

              I have literally never heard anyone ever state this except people placing bad arguments in the mouths of Gnus.

              Your comments don’t change that.

              Your response?

              1. And the “tried to dictate” versus “dictate” distinction is one without an iota of difference, and here’s why:

                Rhetoric designed to criticize, inform, or influence opinion is no more “trying to dictate” than it is actually “dictating”. Pointing out a suite of inconsistencies is nothing more and nothing less than critiquing an argument and pointing out flaws. It bears no connotation of dictation. On the contrary, it is merely dissecting what someone else has claimed for themselves. That it is inconsistent lies with the speaker, not the person analyzing the content of the what the speaker says.

              2. Originally the other Neil wrote:
                I am not aware that [Sagan] ever tried to dictate to Christians, that their religion requires that they believe the Adam and Eve story was literally true.

                So he’s hinting that gnus have done so.

                You say they have not.

                I say that indeed gnus have waved the ridiculousness of the A&E story in front of Christians many, many times, attempting to culturally “dictate” to them to tow the line of intellectual consistency.

                Here’s an example, from some guy on the internet:

                [T]here’s one bedrock of Abrahamic faith that is eminently testable by science: the claim that all humans descend from a single created pair—Adam and Eve—and that these individuals were not australopithecines or apelike ancestors, but humans in the modern sense. Absent their existence, the whole story of human sin and redemption falls to pieces.

                (Providing the link for the above is left as an exercise to the reader.)

              3. Well, it works really well if you’re willing to redefine what “dictate” means. I am not. I’m satisfied with the conventional meaning of the word.

                Let’s try this instead:

                [G]nus have waved pointed out the ridiculousness of the A&E story in front of Christians many, many times, attempting to culturally “dictate” to them to tow the line of intellectual consistency demonstrate why it is poor reasoning.


        2. I think its also a function of the fact that many liberal believers simply don’t know all the stories, rules, and history of their own religion. Growing up Lutheran, I didn’t hear word one about the Book of Job, the many and varied rules for murdering slaves, or that Luther was a raving anti-semite. So, its not just that the literalist are consistent with their belief… sometimes they just *know* the bible better, while, from my own personal experience, liberal church educates through a practice of omitting everything objectionable to make a white wash of everything. I think its thoroughly possible to not realize just how important, say, Adam and Eve and Moses and Noah are to earlier religious people, and that so much of the theology of Christianity that depends on them is just hanging in the wind with their nonexistence.

          1. A couple of years ago, I had a discussion of Ben Stein’s execrable movie, Expelled, with a Catholic. I said that Stein’s outrageous smear of Darwin in which he (Darwin) was supposedly responsible for having influenced the Nazis was all the more ridiculous and disgusting in light of Martin Luther’s raving anti-semitism. The guy had no idea what I was talking about. It isn’t just Lutherans who have whitewashed Luther’s history.

            1. I don’t think any religions consider it their role to teach actual history… especially Catholicism, for reasons which should be obvious.

              (I’m reading David Hume’s ‘History of England’ on my iPhone; I find that the religious controversies of the 12th Century were rather glossed over by Sellars and Yeatman)

    2. Its been a while since I’ve read the Demon Haunted World… did he ever mention *anyone* by name, even astrologers and faith healers? I feel like he kept to generalities specifically to make his arguments broad and as widely applicable as possible.

      And I’ve not really heard a Gnu Atheist say that religious scientists are doing science wrong by being religious. What you do hear is that a religious scientist is not applying their skeptical, scientific mindset to their entire worldview, and that implies a certain amount of intellectual dissonance. And I think Carl Sagan would be the first to agree with that pronouncement, since he wrote a whole book that lumps all supernatural claims, UFOs, Bigfoot, or Jesus, into the same dumpster.

      1. I just gave The Demon Haunted World a quick scan- I don’t think he mentions any particular names other than a few people who’d claimed to have had close encounters. I thought there might have been a reference to JZ Knight or Uri Geller in there, but neither one was listed in the index.

        1. Follow-up: there are some names mentioned, but they’re pretty much all historic figures. Very few (then) living people were mentioned.

  7. Jerry, if you want to watch Cosmos (and I heartily recommend that you do), the whole series is available on YouTube (with, I believe, the copyright holders consent – but don’t quote me on that). The first episode is available here.

  8. The bigger point is that Sagan was no accomodationist as is currently being portrayed by skeptical organizations.

  9. The world has changed much since Sagan was popular. The extreme conservatism and religiosity which started with the Reagan administration was just budding when Sagan was doing his thing on TV and all the venom and weaponry from that side was not in full force then like it is now. It wasn’t as organized and didn’t have the vocabulary, the money, the TV time, the fleas, the politicians, the religious nuts, etc. on short leashes to revile atheists as thoroughly either. Sagan came across primarily as a scientist, even though when looking back on it now, he was unmistakably an atheist. “Militant” is a derisive term so I avoid it when describing people like Sagan … or Richard or Jerry or Daniel or Sam or Christopher or …

    1. Yes, different world. Also, don’t forget that Sagan *was* reviled at the time by fundamentalist religious types, especially here in the south. But they didn’t have the public platforms to express those views: no intertubes, no cable TV, etc.

  10. Religion is stories for children, esp. stories about “creation”. There are at least scores of them, even after they’re categorized into the eggs and chickens. It’s what parents tell them when they ask “why” and the parents are too stupid and or ignorant to answer it sensibly, correctly, etc.

    1. Or simply unwilling to tell the truth and say “I don’t know.”

      Some kids will get to anyone’s ignorance point pretty fast.

  11. I did watch Cosmos back in the day and I have read all of Sagan’s books, some more than once, most recently The Varieties of Scientific Experience about a year or so ago. It’s been awhile so I don’t remember details, but I definitely recall the overall tone of his books: he always seemed to be “merely” asking questions. If followed to their conclusion by a thinking person the impact of those questions on religious belief was devastating. But how many people read those books? My experience is that most people are simply not interested in the kinds of books Sagan wrote. For religious people who did pick up one of his books it was probably easy to dismiss what he had to say as more ivory tower ramblings from an academic (you know those out-of-touch scientists, think Dr. Spock or Sheldon on the Big Bang). And how many people would invest neurons in following his questions to their conclusion? The first video clip above concludes with the statement”This was the first conflict, of which we know, between science and mysticism, between nature and the gods.” Now what do you think was the reaction of religious people to this? “Well of course science and mysticism are in conflict! Mysticism and the gods is all about that ancient Greek stuff, and of course it’s not true, it was supplanted by The One True God of the Bible and his son JC!” My point is that Sagan was not advocating outright public ridicule of religion as Dawkins is, and the whole tone of his books was much milder, and yes, less militant than the Gnu books. But like it or not, Tyson now lives in a post-9/11 world in which the threat of religion to Enlightenment values and Western civilzation cannot be understated. If Tyson doesn’t want to man the barricades with the Gnus, well OK, but he does a disservice to himself and science if doesn’t just admit that he is an atheist (“I don’t believe in things for which there is no evidence”). Then, if he wishes, he can simply move on to that lastest SuperNova explosion that ejected Dark Matter or whatever.

  12. I still think that the difference in public perception between Drs. Sagan and Dawkins is that Richard is an excited and exciting tenor who sounds like he’s just drank a pot of tea while Carl is a relaxed and relaxing baritone who sounds like he’s just smoked a bowl of pot.

    Oh — that, and 9/11. When Carl spoke of the destruction of Alexandria by religious fanatics a couple millennia ago on the other side of the planet, it was something restricted to the history books. When Richard speaks of the destruction of the Twin Towers by religious fanatics several years ago, it’s up close and personal. The emotions are a lot more intense as a result.



    1. Also, I’d suggest that Sagan being an astronomer/cosmologist, and Dawkins being an evolutionary biologist makes a huge difference in the number and insanity of the religious people you come into contact with. Dawkins was probably dealing with creationists for most his career (and rats, it would have been a great question to ask him… when did you meet your first creationist), and as such, he’s more used to dealing with them specifically, and seeing the harm they do to scientific discourse. Sagan probably met his fair share too, but I don’t think he was seeing his personal field under constant attack either.

      1. IIRC, Dawkins has said that he first became interested in popularizing science when, as a grad student, he was tasked with responding to some creationists. So, yes, you’re more right than you know.

      2. Actually Carl came under blistering attacks by the right at least as soon as COSMOS came out. But since the internet did not exist as such in 1980, those records remain in paper form, unlikely to be digitized. “Down the memory hole”.

        Still, you can see to this day regular derision heaped upon Sagan by the religious (or for that matter, global warming deniers). I have Carl Sagan new alerts sent to me from Google and I see such things at least once a month.

        1. That’s good to know, I was not terribly old when Cosmos came out, so I don’t remember the reaction to it, other than some guy saying ‘billions and billions’ was in pretty much everything for a while.

          But my point is that, in his daily scientific life, I’m not sure if Carl Sagan would have had to deal with the sort of creationist push that someone like Dawkins must have dealt with. Of course, this is an assumption… perhaps Sagan was always getting letters from people trying to explain how the Big Bang was really Jesus.

      3. Some of the correspondence and conversations Carl Sagan talked about at the beginning of The Demon Haunted World made it quite clear that he was used to dealing with constant attacks on his own field. I think the really big difference is that astronomy and cosmology have never really had organized resistance on a national level the way evolution has- not in the last century, anyway.

        When someone tries to campaign against the heliocentric model of the Solar System (for example), they’re generally regarded as crackpots by pretty much everyone who’s not already part of the cult. The anti-evolution crowd, on the other hand, can count on support from major politicians (including Presidential candidates) and the media, who will at the very least play lip service to their views and act as if there’s an equal amount of evidence for both sides of the argument in the name of “fairness.”

    2. The Day After was 1983 made-for-TV movie about the possible repercussions of a nuclear war. A panel discussion followed. The military’s position was something like, ‘Well, it might be like going back to the 1920’s, but it won’t be so bad.’

      Sagan followed immediately with this: “It is my sad duty to inform you, there_will_be_no_agriculture…”

      He spoke with the voice of authority, and it was damn intense and personal.

  13. But there is also no point in lying to her about my atheism. One way of respecting people is to be honest with them.

    Near the beginning of her talk, which begins at minute 99:00 in session 8 of the 2006 Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival, Ann Druyan tells a very poignant story of this very sort about the harmonius relationship of her atheist father with her deeply religious but, nevertheless, open-minded grandfather. Near the end of her talk (minute 116:00) she talks a bit about the Cosmos TV series and about Sagan’s powerful combination of skepticism and wonder in which the one was never compromised for the other.

  14. The very first line spoken in his TV series –  “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”
     – is criticized all over the place by the religious and is even described in one apologist book as as “a cult like mantra of scientism!”

  15. Without delving into the appropriateness of any given label for any given non-believer–and I think that understanding the ideas of a Sagan or a deGrasse Tyson is more important than which label to affix to them–I’ll just point out that if asked, or involved in a discussion with an anti-scientist, “The Demon-Haunted World” is the *first* book I recommend, as an unsurpassable explanation of what science really is and how it works.

    If any interest is shown, my next recommendation is either Why Evolution is True or The Greatest Show on Earth.

  16. 1) If you have only watched “clips” from COSMOS, what are you doing writing a science blog?!? 😛

    2) What on earth is a “Gnu atheist”?

    3) As for Carl’s accomplishments- did you get those from Wikipedia? Snort. His contributions are far more vast than that. Just saying.

    Sadly, Carl himself rejected the label of atheist, knowing that to the average person, the word “atheist” means “evil God hater”, rather than merely the literal “non-theist”. So he engaged in some PR and instead called himself an agnostic. I would have rather he used his fame to enlighten people as to what “atheist” actually meant. But he chose the softer path.

    Sagan was not an accomodationist, rather he was subtle and chose not to get people emotionally upset. He even was involved in getting religious groups to help with preserving the environment.

    I don’t think religion itself is the problem, but rather religion is a symptom of the human’s ability to believe, rather than think.

    1. Sagan apparently understood “atheism” to mean only “strong” atheism:

      In another 1996 interview, Sagan told Joel Achenbach: “An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.” [here]


  17. I’ve often wondered if Cosmos’s discussion of heike crabs (with its extravagantly produced 4 minute lead-in dramatizing the fall of the Heike Clan) wasn’t a subtle attempt at needling Christian Fundamentalists, by presenting them with a seeming Hobson’s choice between accepting the reality of evolution or accepting the validity of a “heathen” legend.

  18. “The series was enormously popular, although I have to confess that I didn’t watch it.”

    We aren’t mad, just disappointed.

  19. I’m wondering if the very lack of publicity for a strong atheist “movement” helped make Sagan more outspoken and in turn makes Tyson more circumspect.

    As the public perception of the atheist movement becomes more “loaded”, someone who just wants to promote science may be more likely to view an atheist identification as an albatross.

    Then again Tyson may really be just an agnostic.

  20. For me the one clip is interesting from a historical perspective – at the time (this is the later Sagan update, not the original), scientists had not observed the fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background – it wasn’t long after that film was made that instruments did measure the expected fluctuations.

    I always envied Sagan’s talent for remaining calm and explaining things. In many situations rather than attempt to answer someone on the spot, he’d ask them questions, make notes, go to the library, and then write a response.

    I do wonder how much Tyson will be edited and how much he will self-censor; over the years the broadcasters have worked harder and harder to gain an audience and avoid offending people – they serve up what they believe the largest audience wants to see rather than serving up something interesting or (ceiling cat forbid) educational. There seems to be another stream which works on attracting people via ‘shock value’ so you’ve got the shock jocks and ridiculously violent shows with plots that blow up or decapitate a child or pregnant person after each commercial break.

  21. “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.”

    Forgive me if I don’t see how these clips are “histrionic.”

    If I find I should ever need a dose of histrionics, I find that one can occasionally find it courtesy of NdGT. He’s very good at what he does, but I find that I keep reaching for the volume control.

    (Re: Roger Bingham’s get togethers, at one of which Tyson lectured Dawkins on the latter’s “stridency.”

    NdGT makes his own strident mark in harranging teachers about immersing themselves in American pop culture so as to engage students in STEM subjects, apparently as if those subjects do no sufficently contain their own numinous appeal.

    How many visitors to this website would say that they would never have become interested in science except for their teachers kowtowing and genuflecting to their pop culture interests? On the other hand, it’s likely that visitors here are not much interested in and motivated by the “bread and circuses” preoccupations of the majority of humanity.)

    I predict that the remake of “Cosmos” with NdGT will be more histrionic and “edgy,” just as contemporary life and pop culture is more “edgy” than it was thirty-plus years ago. (In contrast to Vangelis and Tomita, will the musical score include fuzz guitar riffs so as to get the attention of the younger set?) There will be a conspicuous reduction if not absence of Sagan serenity and tranquillity.

    But I very much look forward to seeing the new Cosmos, and hope it is very successful.

    1. Agreed, the blogger’s claim of “histrionics” is absurd. Doubly so when he admits to not having seen the series- only “clips”.

      And yes, Tyson gets too loud and maybe a tad overwrought.

    2. I too am nervous about the pacing and editing of the Cosmos sequel. Ann Druyan felt that Cosmos needed to be edited to be “quicker” when re-aired on 21st century television.

      I for one liked the slow contemplative pace of COSMOS. I think that timing helped people get their heads around the concepts. I guess we’ll see…

  22. I find Sagan a non militant, while Dawkings on other hand seems more fanatical.

    Occasionally Sagan could see that his baloney detector test also applied to his friends.

    “A theory if not testible is not worth much”. – Sagan.

    Life from non life? A fruit fly turning into a new sort of insect? What lab experiment verifies?

    Thought experiments, Dawkings does lots of these to back theories, many of them are farce if ever someone played skeptic.

    Example: “Dawkins states that the presence of the laryngeal nerve in girrafes is evidence of evolution and not a designer, because a designer would have gone ‘back to the drawing board’.”

    There you have proof that Windows XP and Mac OS X are not the products of intelligent design, but have evolved from chance, and natural selection. Lots of “code bloat” that completely dwarfs what is claimed about giraffe’s neck, due to reuse and stretching of old ideas.

    If a butcher chops off head of chicken or sheep, the animal may do some fairly complex behavoir for a while after the head is gone, I have seen a ram try to get up after his head was off. The brain does not do all the work, the nerves themselves help with common patterns of actions. – hard to judge what is even ideal if you don’t know exactly how system works.

    Humans do almost always “evolve” complex new designs rather than start from scratch, eg Model T was similar to a horse carriage and also close model of like a modern car.

    Richard Dawkings in Blind Watchmaker suggests software can evolve. Tuning level changes, yes, brute force can do that. But has anyone ever evolved new engineered methods in an SQL server using brute force AI, including natural selection? Easy to test any generation of an SQL server for “fitness”. The market for making a better SQL server is billions of dollars.

    Funny how SQL servers and dangerous new computer viruses all seem to have programmers behind them, despite abillity of computer cloud these days to run though a million or billion generations of software “natural selection” in under a day.

    1. Yay, more creationist BS by people who don’t actually understand the things that they’re complaining about.

    2. “Dawkins states that the presence of the laryngeal nerve in girrafes [sic] is evidence of evolution and not a designer, because a designer would have gone ‘back to the drawing board’.”

      Feel free to straightforwardly state why it should be preferable that the recurrent laryngeal nerve should take a circuitous route around a major vessel in the vicinity of the heart (approx. a 15-foot round trip in the giraffe) as opposed to taking a more or less direct route from the brain to the larynx.

      Do you consider this circuitous route evidence of a designer?

    3. That is really funny considering all what Sagan said on abiogenesis and evolution both, as well as cosmological origins as seen in the videos. He said much more than Dawkins in that sense.

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