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Science and spirituality: the gospel according to Sagan

Part I: Is there a religion within science?

Martin Griffiths & Carlos Oliveira 24 January 2010

Expansive: the Universe feeds our wonder

Religion limits itself to spiritual subjects, while science aggregates spirituality with religion

Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.

- Carl Sagan

In the International Year of Astronomy, it is fitting to honor outstanding astronomers who have brought science to the public. Few had such a worldwide impact as Carl Sagan (1934-1996), whose writing, media appearances and TV series opened science to the masses, enabling them to revel in the wonders of the universe in a way that rarely had such influence. In an age where religious and scientific subjects are often intermingled, he lent depth and scientific clarity to discussions, broadening debates and conferring a penetrating insight to extra-scientific arguments – and all this, in a climate that was becoming increasingly hostile to science, especially over issues of religion and its place in science classes. A man whose work encompassed science, fiction and pseudo-science, he was in a singular position to comment on the interface between science and society.

On the tenth anniversary of his death, Sagan’s widow Anne Druyan published a book based on his ideas in these fields. Entitled The Varieties of Scientific Experience – A Personal View of the Search for God, it is a compilation of talks that Sagan gave at the famous centenary Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, Scotland in 1985. It is a revealing insight into the relationship between religion and science and how one scientist views it. Instead of being a disconnected or stentorian book in the vein of some modern texts, it is rather the voice of a reasonable man grappling with big questions. His authorship of bestsellers such as Cosmos (which promoted astronomy), The Demon-Haunted World (which promoted reason over beliefs, fallacies, and pseudoscience), and the science fiction romance Contact placed him in a position astride the two cultures of CP Snow. His enthusiasm engages the reader in a life of constant query, probing the most diverse themes. Ann Druyan ends the introduction to Varieties by repeating Sagan’s dictum: the trick to be a good scientist, an informed citizen and a knowledgeable decision-maker is to never stop questioning (Sagan 2006:xvi).

Belief and reason

Sagan’s books cover a variety of subjects, including cosmology, physics, psychology, literature, mythology, culture, philosophy, nuclear weapons, anthropic principle, creationism, origins and evolution of life on Earth, potential extraterrestrial life, the Drake Equation and UFOs in equal measure. These diverse themes were examined under the rubric of an underlying message: an appeal to oppose fanaticism, radicalism and fundamentalism wherever it is found. The goal was to defend reason, knowledge, logic, and intelligence – things which are naturally bound in our sciences. According to Sagan, in the modern world we inhabit, only literacy in science can give us the necessary knowledge to understand the world and to make decisions that may radically alter it for the good of all (Sagan, 2006:248).

In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan says that we should always use reason and intellect. To Sagan and to most practitioners of science, evidence is always superior to belief. This raises an interesting dichotomy, as Sagan believed in extraterrestrial life without really knowing it exists, even going as far as to suggest, rather optimistically, the existence of one million advanced civilizations in our galaxy (Sagan, 2006:114 & Sagan & Shklovskii, 1966:418). The difference between his faith in the existence of extraterrestrial life and mainstream religious belief is that he utilized the methods of science. His “faith” was based on a solid foundation of scientific analysis and discovery, fusing scientific evidence from various fields to promote the logical and scientifically consistent idea that the necessary chemistries and physical constraints for life are widespread in the cosmos. It was a belief based on discernment and rational processes, not blind, unquestioning faith in things lacking evidence.

Sagan often conceded that belief may be inherent to humans, a psychological trait that characterizes who and what we are. It would appear from a cursory glance at systems of belief, he thought, that there is a widespread need to believe in something superior to ourselves. But he also made careful distinctions which lead to the following question: is it possible to differentiate spirituality from belief?

The pleasure of finding things out

Sagan often transmitted the notion that we are a speck of dust in a vast universe, yet our science is not overcome or rendered helpless by this observation. Despite being insignificant we have an understanding of the universe and our place in it. There is no need to worship the unknown. Sagan peppered his texts with beautiful pictures of the varieties of objects in the universe. Reading his books, one is filled with feelings of goodness, confidence and optimism, and with a sense of awe and wonder that almost feels like a religious experience – perhaps suggesting that our appreciation for the cosmos and the factors impelling others to worship some aspect of it, stem from the same emotional wellsprings. The major difference most scientists perceive between the two experiences (scientific and religious) is that science permits and encourages a fascination for the unknown and inspires us in the search for answers, providing the pleasure of discovery and the stretching of the imagination, whereas religion limits itself to the first point, but posits that the answer to the vast unknown is encapsulated in one statement: “it was God”. Such a limit does not provide a platform for the other two points that science can provide.

Without scientific thinking, we would still assume that thunderstorms, for example, were produced by the god Thor; we would continue to see them as something magical, mystical and supernatural. Scientific understanding does not detract from the beauty of the phenomena nor take away the sense of wonder, but rather complements feelings of majesty and admiration with a rational scientific explanation. An example of the apparent magic of science is the fact that you are reading this article on the internet, a provision of science. It’s not magic, it’s not supernatural, it’s not due to gods; it's an amazing feat of the perseverance, creativity, intelligence, and scientific thinking of human beings.

That we can scientifically arrive at explanations of the phenomena found in the universe is astonishing; the fact that we can keep searching for finer detail to increase our knowledge is almost a spiritual achievement. Sagan plays to this spirituality when he states: “Science opens the way to levels of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible to us” (Sagan, 2006:xv).

Sagan also offers an alternative to religious beliefs based on scriptural interpretation, concentrating instead on the spiritual within nature. Religion, he claims, limits itself to spiritual subjects, while science aggregates spirituality with religion. This is not perhaps an ideal way of delineating these stances, but he allows a kind of “informed worship” (Sagan, 2006:31). This approach to science and spirituality is a notion shared by others, such as Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein, both of whom considered nature a deity and formed a principle of “cosmic religious feeling” as being the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research” (Sagan, 2006:2). Einstein once said: “The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, the fear of death and blind faith but through striving after rational knowledge” (Einstein 1949:25). This ideal was taken further by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (see LabLit's interview here), who examined similar mystical feelings in the Beyond Belief 2006 Conference (TSN, 2006). In short, scientists experience an awe and astonishment just as transcendent as any religious vision; it’s just not credited to some old man in the sky.

The wonderful unknown

Our fascination with the unknown stems from examining humanity’s role in the universe. In former ages, that search for knowledge made us feel special because we assumed we had a central importance in the big scheme of things. However, we now know that this logic is flawed and arrogantly anthropocentric. Ever since Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, science has demonstrated that one of the fundamental principles of the universe is the Principle of Mediocrity; we have no special position either in time or space, as evidenced by the evolution of life on Earth and the chemical evolution of the elements across 13.7 billion years of time since the Big Bang.

We live in a universe where darkness is the rule and the stars are the exception; we live on pieces of rock that are leftovers from the formation of the solar system, because the “real" planets are the giant ones; and we orbit a typical star in the suburbs of the galaxy, in a universe made of trillions of stars. No religion has ever truly taken account of the enormous scale of the universe (Sagan, 2006:27). The goal of Sagan’s writing was to demonstrate that we are small and almost uninteresting in an enormous universe; or as Sagan put it, “The world that we live on is a tiny and insignificant part of a vast collection of worlds” (Sagan 2006:11). And yet acknowledging this insignificance is a basis of humility that leads to a new understanding, a new scientific approach, a new spirituality.

In 1990, Sagan prevailed upon NASA to turn the camera of Voyager 1 back towards Earth. Initially skeptical as the resolution would be negligible, NASA was bowled over by Sagan’s poetic use of the image. He illuminates humanity’s insignificance in arguably one of the most emotionally charged passages (Sagan 1994:29) ever written:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

If reflecting on the emotions raised by that passage is not the equivalent of a religious experience, then we are missing something. And this is a point Sagan repeatedly made about beliefs; if only we could tap into the wonder felt by ordinary people when confronted with the cosmos, we would be on to something. To reflect on the fact that we have not and seem incapable of doing so says something fundamental about religious organizations and their beliefs.

To conclude in Part II

References to both parts of this essay:

Einstein A. (1949) The World as I See It. Philosophical Library Press, New York.

Sagan C. (2006). The Varieties of Scientific Experience – a personal view of the search for God.New York: The Penguin Press.

Sagan C. (1997) The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books.

Sagan C. (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House.

Sagan C. (1980). Cosmos. New York: Random House.

Sagan C. & Shklovskii, I.S. (1966) Intelligent Life in the Universe. San Francisco: Holden-Day.

TSN The Science Network (2006). Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival. Retrieved March, 20, 2009 from