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Science and spirituality: the gospel according to Sagan

Part II: A sensible god would approve of scientists

Martin Griffiths & Carlos Oliveira 9 February 2010

Expansive: the Universe feeds our wonder

Considering God as a bearded old man sitting on a throne constantly worried about what goes on in the everyday life of ‘evolved monkeys’ who live on a tiny dot makes no sense and shows only a tremendous lack of creativity

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the concluding half of an essay about Carl Sagan and his views on science and the spiritual world. Use the navigation bar at the top right to catch up on Part I.

Sagan and the God of religious geocentricism

Carl Sagan dedicated much of his time and many of his books to the interplay between religion and science. His views were not necessarily an attack on religion, but they are written in defense of science and of critical thinking. He argued that, in some senses, science and religion are compatible and have the same goals: they were two sides of the same coin. He draws a parallel between trying to understand the Universe and trying to understand ourselves – who we are, where our place is and what our role is in the great scheme of things – in short, a search for the meaning of life.

But the main problem he perceives with religion is that it reveals a restricted universe, where the god of most world religions is a very limited extraterrestrial being. It’s a god of micro-interventions, who responds to praying, who expects sacrifices, who is vindictive, who judges those who do not follow his rules, who expects us to feel small, who expects us to live in fear of Him, who becomes upset when things are not what he wants. It’s a god who wants us to be dependent on him. Sagan is not against the idea of a god, but for Sagan, God by definition must be above all these petty characteristics. God must be a fantastic being with enormous powers to create the universe; yet, a being like that would not be interested in ruling over a small speck in the universe – a planet so insignificant that we can’t even see it if we leave the backyard of our solar system.

Sagan’s point is a significant one with which religions have largely failed to grapple. In a universe fourteen billion years old, why would an incredibly powerful God spend his time occupied with a small piece of dust that has existed for only the last 4.5 billion years? It makes no sense for an omnipotent God to limit himself, in terms of power and radius of action, in space and in time. As Sagan says, “a general problem with much of the theology is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe” (Sagan 2006:30).

It makes more sense to think that the idea of God evolved out of the human character. We want to feel special despite being such small players in enormous universe, so it would bring comfort to think that a very powerful being is very interested in us – even more if we are so important that the only reason for the existence of an omnipotent God is to serve us. Why else would we think we are made in God’s image? This is an idea that is as limited as mankind.

The geocentric conceit was defeated by Western science about five hundred years ago, but it lives on in our religious subconscious. People continue to think that humanity and the planet Earth have a central position in the universe. For Sagan, considering God as an old white male with a beard sitting on a throne constantly worried about what goes on in the everyday life of ‘evolved monkeys’ who live on a tiny dot makes no sense and shows only a tremendous lack of creativity, a failure of imagination – a deficient comprehension of the idea of God (Sagan, 2006:224). Nevertheless a psychological anthropocentrism persists, and Sagan gives several examples, including modern versions of the anthropic principle that occasionally trespass onto scientific ground (Sagan 2006:53).

Sagan also believed that a creator God would surely prefer to have His “sons” live in truth and knowledge rather than in ignorance. Human leaders may hide information from their subordinates to keep them under control, but an omniscient and loving God would have no reason or place for such petty human characteristics, and thus would prefer to have His sons living in total knowledge and awareness of their surroundings. As he put it: “If a creator God exists would He (She?) prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy?” (Sagan 2006:31) Sagan then goes on to make a very penetrating point when he suggests that our science, our curiosity, and our intelligence are the tools provided by God, if He exists, for us to appreciate the universe He created for us. Conversely, they are the tools needed for us to survive, in case God doesn’t exist. Either way, curiosity, knowledge, intelligence and science will carry us closer to understanding the nature of the universe in any real sense.

Sagan sees the common idea of God as a paternal entity who exists due to human psychology – it makes us feel special, gives us answers when we don’t want to look for them in a rational way and provides a psychological security so that we don’t feel lost. In essence, it’s all about us. The divine idea exists because we exist and psychologically require that divine persona to exist. The problem Sagan sees here is a lack of understanding. People just don’t understand the role of science and the application of the scientific method. Without a scientific education, we are doomed to repeat our forefather’s dependence on religion and promote the intolerances inherent in their interpretations. Worse, this lack can lead to ignorance and a determination to leave threatening problems to posterity.

Constructing a theory of conviction

Sagan was also a frequent critic of UFO stories, especially of Immanuel Velikovsky and von Däniken’s theories about ancient aliens coming to Earth – and returning in the near future. To him, their ideologies are a thinly disguised form of Christ’s return, something promised to “save us from ourselves” and usher in a new world of peace and harmony. The UFO camps do not supply a ready spirituality. Instead they fall into the same traps as their religious counterparts. Sagan criticizes such moral laxity and religious turpitude when he says that such thinking is “an extremely dangerous doctrine, because the more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from the outside, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves” (Sagan, 2006:129).

When religious apologists do not understand a scientific problem, God is put into the mix to “explain” things. But such a retreat is also used by theologians and fundamentalists when scientists do not understand a certain step in a theory or when they make an observation which does not fit the pattern. Not to know or have a ready explanation for every single step is normal – it’s science. In evolution for example, if a step is not understood by scientists, the religious tend to arrrive at ridiculous conclusions: that the entire theory is wrong and/or that particular step is due to God. Again, this limits the idea and the power of God, because when that step becomes finally understood according to the principles of theory, God has to move from there to another place not yet totally understood. It’s very unsatisfying and illustrates the harm done by insisting on religious idealism in science.

Science is a work in progress, always evolving. At any given moment, it cannot know everything about everything. Both science and religion are human constructs but Sagan’s works encourage us by showcasing science, illustrating the extraordinary success it has had in explaining much of what we see all around us. Religion has never provided a similar level of choice and human understanding. Certain forms of strict religion want to obscure truth and close the world in the enveloping darkness of ignorance, blind faith and obedience to principles which are created, interpreted and regulated by man. In contrast, Sagan promotes our individuality and independence from religious ideology by encouraging us to have an enquiring mind, to look at all sides of an argument, to approach things rationally and to fit our experiences and choices into a credible and rational whole instead of blaming God for everything that we can’t explain, or waiting for him to solve our problems.

Sagan also comments on the central point demonstrated by many scientists and skeptics on religious idealism and religious, namely “truth”. Each culture interprets sacred texts in its own way, sometimes in completely opposite ways, and thus not every religion can be correct (Sagan, 2006:150). In fact, Western cultures interpret the sacred texts in different ways depending on the time frames. Once, slavery was seen as divine intention and justified by injudicious use of some passages of the Bible (Sagan, 2006:219). There was a time when people thought diseases were sent by God (Sagan, 2006:220). The major criticism Sagan levels against religion is when people have an ulterior motive for behaving in a certain way: they don’t behave just because it’s morally right , but because they want to get a reward in the end – a place in heaven perhaps. Many of course are motivated simply out of fear. Mainstream religion has always displayed a level of control that has not always had a beneficial effect on its adherents.

To promote scientific relevancy and informed ways of thinking, Sagan suggested the Catholic Church should include an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt understand the world, figure things out” (Sagan, 2006:217). Humans should not live in ignorance; they should question conventional wisdom and they should “challenge the prevailing wisdom” (Sagan, 2006:218). By doing, this Sagan argues, humans would be utilizing the potentialities given to them by “God”, using their brains, intelligence and reason. Humanity should not substitute its reasoning power in favor of fear. To ignore rational explanations for phenomena or becoming stuck in a system of rigid belief is, he claims, itself a sin in the eyes of God, because it is going against God’s will not to use the tools (the mind) that God gave. It is an argument that gets to the heart of any activity and illustrates the contradictory nature of any reasoning that takes recourse in a supernatural being.

Curiosity, exploration and discovery are part of what means to be human. Without curiosity, the human spirit dies. Humans should leave their spiritual childhood. Sagan believed in humanity and its capacities – he trusted that each human would look for their own answers instead of simply waiting for those that a divine being may reveal. To enable an informed view of the world, Sagan presented his famous “baloney detection kit” in The Demon Haunted World as a pattern for curious humans to discover the true nature of the universe around them without recourse to suspicious motives or brainwashing ideologies (Sagan 1997:189-206).

Religion and its role in the destruction of spirituality

To philosophers of science, answering “it was God” to a scientific question is not only a simplistic belief, but does not quantify as science since it is not falsifiable. To religious followers there is no place for doubt or alternative answers. While science has doubts, skeptical approach and competing theories, these generally lead to further development and progress. Religion assumes an answer to every unknown phenomenon and such answers strangle logical query. Sagan stood against this limited way of thinking, and utilized the tools of religious logic to make a point. If we assume that humans were created by God, then it would be a paradox to have a God creating an inquisitive, curious and rational humanity yet expect those same humans not use the intelligence given to them; it would be tantamount to expecting that they go against the objective for which they were created: to be curious and rational.

Sagan often criticized religious leaders that only wanted power and control over a population living in ignorance. He also applied criticism to religious people in general who didn’t follow the principle at the base of every religion: “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Sagan, 2006:209). Rather than being a religious rule, it is actually a moral one. Christianity goes even further and says: “love your enemy” (Sagan, 2006:208). However, Sagan (and other writers such as Dawkins) points out that religious persons that should follow these principles are generally the ones that start conflicts. Historically, political and religious leaders, supposedly “in the name of God”, have killed a lot of people. He points out the inconsistency of this position and its consequences when he states: “We kill each other, in part, I think, because we are afraid we might not ourselves know the truth, that someone else with a different doctrine might have a closer approximation to the truth. If I can’t convince you, I must kill you. You are a threat to my version of the truth” (Sagan, 2006:216). This is a psychological attitude that renders them moral and religious failures. How can a person be in favor of killing? How can a person hold grudges and prejudices? How can a person wrongly act with words and actions against others and at the same time think of themselves as religious people who follow the word and will of God? This, Sagan wrote, is a “worldwide closed-mindedness that imperils the (human) species” (Sagan, 2006:217).

Our stewardship of the earth is a temporary one, and we should not forget that evolutionary processes may have produced something other than us. In other words, we are just lucky to be here. Sagan closes Varieties by saying that the “real Earth” is the one seen from space – no boundaries, no separations between countries, no divisions. The air breathed by Russians and Zambians is the same. Earth is one and all the beings in it are mutually dependent. Their religions and creeds are not visible at a cosmic distance (Sagan, 2006:211).

Though he makes many penetrating points about religion, he does not criticize spirituality itself; on the contrary, Sagan sees spirituality as positive. For him, evolution by natural selection proposed by Darwin was not just great science but also “a deeper, more satisfying spiritual experience” than just reading the Bible (Sagan, 2006:x). Sagan criticizes religious leaders that misuse the basic principles of their own religion, the naïve notion of God, the religious fundamentalism of those who think they know everything about God, and the hypocrisy of some people who call themselves religious without following the rules of their own doctrine. He admits that he would like to see a better balance between science and religion, less hypocrisy, more actions in accord with the perception of “God’s will”, more critical thinking, more rational arguments and better imagination and intelligence.

Reason is the key

Sagan was respected by both scientific and religious institutions. He didn’t believe in the idea of a God as portrayed by the world’s religions, but he didn’t deny the existence of a universal and powerful being. He does, however, makes one point in this regard: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Sagan, 1980:339). To assume with 100% certainty God’s existence or non-existence is to fall into the traps of fundamentalism and irrationality. The burden of proof always falls on those who proclaim God’s existence. And above all, evidence is the key (Sagan, 2006:241).

The last word should be his (Sagan 1997:45):

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. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

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