God and Carl Sagan: Is the cosmos big enough for both of them?

From the archives: To know what scientists think of belief, there is no better witness than Carl Sagan.

Carl Sagan has been described as America’s “most effective salesman of science.” A colleague at Cornell University, where Sagan is professor of astronomy and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies, has compared him with academic scientists: “He is very often right and always interesting. That is in contrast to most academics, who are always right and not very interesting.”

He is, above all, the best-known science teacher in the country, the embodiment of science. His now-familiar face is watched by millions of viewers of “Cosmos,” the celebrated series on public television. Sagan’s audience of readers as well as viewers is formidable and his books, among them The Cosmic Connection, Dragons of Eden, and Murmurs of Earth: Voyager Interstellar System Studies, have sold millions of copies and have been translated into a dozen languages.

Sagan insists that “there is nothing about science that cannot be explained to the layman.” In his books and in his television series, this Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist, author, and teacher proves his point. No one makes science come alive so clearly as does this 45-year-old astronomer who is at home in TV studios, classrooms, laboratories, and even the U.S. space program.

For religious believers, he is particularly interesting. In one personable and exciting individual, the believer can encounter the thinking, the attitudes, and the views of modern science. No one elected Carl Sagan, the boy from Brooklyn who dreamed of studying the cosmos, to be spokesperson for science. He did not seek the title. But he has it and if a religious believer wants to know what scientists think of belief and believers, then there is no better witness than Carl Sagan.

In a Sunday sermon you once gave in Sage Chapel at Cornell University, you commented that the confrontation of religion and science has “eroded” traditional religious views, “at least in the minds o many.” What is happening between science and religion today?

Broadly considered, a religious attitude and often some religious content is part of virtually every scientific investigation. If we look at the universe in the large, we find something astonishing. We find a universe that is exceptionally beautiful, intricately and subtly constructed. Whether our appreciation of the universe is because we are a part of that universe, evolved in it and by it, is a proposition to which I do not pretend to have an answer. But there is no question that the elegance of the universe is one of its most remarkable properties. It is very hard to look at the beauty, intricacy, and subtlety of nature without feeling awe. I don’t think even the word reverence is too strong.

Where does God fit into this view?

When people ask me after one of my lectures, “Do you believe in God?” I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by “God.” The term means a lot of different things in a lot of different religions. For some, it’s an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the falloff every sparrow. To others—for example, Baruch, Spinoza, and Albert Einstein—God is essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I can’t imagine anyone denying the existence of the laws of nature, but I don’t know of any compelling evidence for the old man in the sky.

In the cosmic context, the very scale of the universe—more than 100 billion galaxies, each containing more than 100 billion stars—speaks to us of the inconsequentiality of human events. We see a universe simultaneously very beautiful and very violent. We see a universe that does not exclude a traditional Western or Eastern god, but that does not require one either.

Still there is the question of a “first cause” that is of concern to religious believers, particularly in the Christian West.

I would say the question of a “first cause” is only a speculation. It’s perfectly possible that the universe is infinitely old and therefore uncaused. In fact, there are detailed cosmological models that hold such a view and that are consistent with everything we know. To my mind, it seems not fully satisfactory to say that there was a first cause. That seems to postpone dealing with the problem rather than solving it. If we say “God” made the universe, then surely the next question is, “Who made God?” If we say “God” was always here, why not say the universe was always here? If we say that the question “Where did God come from?” is too tough for us poor mortals to understand, then why not say that the question of, “Where did the universe come from?” is too tough for us mortals? In what way, exactly, does the God hypothesis advance our knowledge of cosmology? What predictions does it make on which the hypothesis will stand or fall?

That seems to leave the question up in the air as far as you are concerned.

Those who raise questions about the God hypothesis and the soul hypothesis are by no means all atheists. An atheist 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 be to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible. Considering the enormous emotional energies with which the subject is invested, a questing, courageous, and open mind is, I think, the essential tool for narrowing the range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence of God.

Then, am I correct in finding you open on the matter of God? You appear to feel that the jury, particularly the jury of scientific experts, is still out. You seem intent on finding natural explanations for things that might be ascribed to the religious and the supernatural.

Yes, except I would say that there is no deeper religious feeling than the feeling for the natural world. I wouldn’t separate the world of nature from the religious instinct. Einstein, among others, made that point very strongly in his appreciation of the depth and beauty of the universe, which he described as a religious experience. To quote him: “In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of the devoutly religious men.”

How then do you feel about believers and nonbelievers?

I have some discomfort both with believers and with nonbelievers when their opinions are not based on facts. I am extremely uncomfortable with dogmatic atheists, who claim there can be no God; to my knowledge, there is no strong evidence for that position. I’m also uncomfortable with dogmatic believers; to my knowledge, they don’t have any strong evidence either. If we don’t know the answer, why are we under so much pressure to make up our minds, to declare our allegiance to one hypothesis or the other?

What is your reaction toward the various accounts of life after death by people who have clinically died and were revived?

Well, it’s all anecdotal. We have people who have had near-death experiences and have been resuscitated. For all I know, these experience may be just what they seem and a vindication of the pious faith that has taken such a pummeling from science in the past few centuries. Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death—especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others.

It is really quite striking. People in very different cultures, with different religious assumptions, still report remarkably similar near-death experiences about rising towards a brilliant light and having some glorious figure waiting for them. My guess is that there are just too many cases of that sort—cross-culturally homogeneous—for these experiences to be just conventional descriptions or useful figures of speech.

What is your guess?

My guess is that there has to be some deeper explanation. But that doesn’t mean the explanation has to be what the people themselves report—that they went to heaven and saw a god or gods. In my book Broca’s Brain (Random House, New York, 1978), I tentatively propose an alternative explanation. It’s only a speculation.

It centers on one experience that every human being shares that is truly cross-cultural: the experience of birth. You have spent nine months in utter darkness and now for the first time you have a hint of light—it must be absolutely dazzling, transforming. I cannot imagine a more spectacular transition. Usually, there is someone waiting for you, the midwife, the obstetrician, or the father.

It seems at least possible to me and to some others that in a near-death experience you reach for your earliest and perhaps your most profound experience, birth. I think the recollection of birth at a moment of near death may explain the stories of going to heaven. Incidentally, isn’t the entire concept of baptism widely considered a symbolic rebirth?

Where does all this leave religious beliefs that run through all cultures?

The general acceptance of religious ideas, it seems to me, can only be because there is something in them that resonates with our own certain knowledge—something deep and wistful, something every person recognizes as central to our being. One such common thread, I propose, is birth. I think that the mystical core of such a religious experience is neither literally true nor perniciously wrong-minded. It may be rather a courageous, if flawed, attempt to make contact with the earliest and most profound experience of our lives.

In listening to the voice of science embodied in your response to religious beliefs, I am now wondering about what you regard as the relationship between science and religion.

In my view, they nearly don’t communicate at all.

Should they?

Of course.

In your view, what do they have to say to each other?

I think religion has something to say to science about the social underpinnings of the enterprise of science, something about the goals of science, the human values that should always be in mind when we do science. There is also what Oppenheimer said late in his life about the development of nuclear weapons: Scientists have known sin.

I also think science has a fair amount to say to religion mainly about the nature of evidence. The idea of putting faith in an ancient argument from authority which is not to be questioned seems to me to have dire and dangerous implications for politics. I am concerned that the authoritarian aspect of religion poses real dangers for our survival.

In all this, I find the deep human need for transcendence missing?

You’re in favor of mystification?

No, I’m in favor of transcendence.

What does that mean?

It means going beyond the tangible, the empirical, because as long as you limit your view of the human condition to the empirical you don’t satisfy deeper human needs.

I don’t agree. I think the things we call myths are made deeper, more relevant, and more compelling when they resonate with our natures, when they are based on truth, when they reflect external reality. We evolved in an environment where those of our ancestors who were not well adapted died off. Our scientific way of viewing the world has been selected because it works.

There is no question that humans all over the planet have a deep feeling for myths, so myths must serve some purpose—to give us some understanding of our context in a larger framework. Imagine our ancestors looking at the moon, the planets, the stars and making up stories to answer their need to understand. In many cases, the stories involved deities, such as the moon as a god.

Now is that myth about the moon deeper because it was wrong? Should we waffle, and say, “Well, if we can redefine what we mean by a god, then we can still call the moon a god?” No. Let’s admit that the moon is not a god and move on. It seems to me that it is a much greater achievement to understand what the moon is really about—4½ billion years old, cratered by enormous explosions in its earliest history, a desolate world on which life never arose.

So the important thing it to take the mystery out of the myth.

You can always go deeper. If you pick any topic and keep asking questions, you will always reach a place where knowledge runs out. Our powers are limited. They will always be. There are real mysteries enough, without inventing new ones.

What do you do at that point? Become a believer, a nonbeliever, or an agnostic?

Why would you want to do anything but say we haven’t penetrated beyond this step yet? There are painfully many cases in the history of human inquiry when people committed themselves prematurely and just got the wrong answers. In such a case, many people can suffer. We should learn from history.

But can human beings live by doubt alone?

No, but I don’t think that’s the right way to phrase it.

Then you phrase it.

Let me say not what the question is, but what I think the answer is. What we need for survival is a well-tuned mix of creativity and doubt. In every subject, all sorts of ideas are proposed or should be. Some are impassioned, some are inspired, some are brilliant. But none of that guarantees they’re right. Many of those ideas turn out to be just dead wrong, 100 percent wrong.

Where does that leave us?

You must be skeptical; you must ask for verification. If someone claims a thing happens in a certain way, you do the experiment to check it out, to see if, in fact, it works as claimed. You examine the internal coherence of the idea. You test its logical structure. You see how well it agrees with other things which are reliably known. And only then do you start accepting new ideas. This is standard practice in science. I wish it were more widely applied.

Is it fair to say that you are standing on shaky ground when you stand on skepticism? After all, skepticism stands ready to doubt even skepticism itself.

I don’t think that’s a contradiction. The mix of creativity and skepticism is at the heart of science. We can tell it works by looking at the advances science has made. We have performed practical accomplishments which would have left our ancestors openmouthed. Our abstract ideas, even our mathematical musings, have some validity; they really are connected with the external world. We made those advances by throwing away at least some trust. I’m afraid religion doesn’t throw away enough trust. When there is insufficient skepticism, every idea is as good as every other. That’s the same as having no ideas at all. It’s essential to winnow the good ideas from the bankrupt ones, and skepticism is the tool.

What then is—or can be—the link between religion and science? Are they total strangers?

If you look into science you will find a sense of intricacy, depth, and exquisite beauty which, I believe, is much more powerful than the offerings of any bureaucratic religion. I would not even object to saying that the sense of awe before the grandeur of nature is itself a religious experience.

What about the scientist who professes belief in God, in heaven and hell, and in formal religion?

I would ask, “What’s your evidence?” If he says it’s a matter of faith, I would say he’s forgotten the tested method of science at the moment. If he presented evidence, I would certainly pay attention.

Again, where religions teach us that we must accept, without challenge, a body of tradition, such religions are doing a very serious disservice to the human future. I think the only way to survive the next 50 years will be by seriously challenging the conversational beliefs—not just in religion, but especially in economics, social structure, and politics. If we’re taught from our mother’s knee that we must not challenge the conventional perceptions, we’ll never get from here to there.

In the final analysis, what does Carl Sagan, scientist, explainer of science, and embodiment of “creative skepticism” believe?

My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of our species.

From the U.S. Catholic archives (May 1981)

Image: Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash