June 26, 2005

Can we please give Carl Sagan a break?

What’s the use in retiring a perfectly good whipping-boy? Carl Sagan is once more taking a beating from the anti-evolution crowd.

A recent flap at the Smithsonian has prompted ID proponents and their minions to again dredge up the opening line from "Cosmos,"
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."
Because the museum once screened Sagan's mini-series, and then just a few weeks ago tried to demur on showing the "intelligent design" creationist movie "The Privileged Planet," it seems we are justified in concluding there must be a conspiracy afoot. Both Jonathan Witt and Denyse O’Leary have opined about the horror and inequity of the National museum being willing to exercise such blatant militant naturalism (O’Leary has referred to the Smithsonian as the "Church of St. Carl").

Now even the rank and file are using this quote as if it proves something that doesn’t require an awful lot of unsupported assumptions (e.g. - definitions of ‘cosmos’ often begin with: "Everything that exists." If one accepts that God exists, then only by assuming Sagan did not intend this definition could he be accused of meaning to espouse atheism). But I haven’t seen anyone bother to go on to include the lines that immediately follow,
"Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us-there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries." - (Cosmos, p. 4)
Of course this doesn’t prove that Sagan wasn’t trying to deny God with those opening words, but it does suggest a willingness to appreciate the great vastness of what we do not know. As one critic notes, regarding Sagan’s words in context,
"Sagan borrows his excitement from a Christian worldview where the heavens declare the glory of God, which should produce a tingle in the spine and a catch in the voice."
Whether Sagan is actually borrowing this excitement from Christianity, or Christianity simply manages to sometimes reflect this emotion, which is innate within all of us, is a matter of (preferably unbiased) opinion. But the above quote does accurately capture the real similarity of spirit between Sagan’s words and a theistic worldview. It seems pretty clear that he is not as close to claiming a ruthlessly materialist outlook as many creationists seem to wish to believe. One cannot deny the spirituality of his perspective.

But as to whether Sagan meant to deny God, or even believes that this is possible, we need look no further than his own words,
"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 me 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, and considering the enormous emotional energies with which the subject is invested, a questioning, courageous and open mind seems to be the essential tool for narrowing the range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence of God." - (Broca’s Brain, p. 311)
I’d like to see the anti-evolutionists summon the steel to stop picking on a man who cannot defend himself. I’d like to see them stop trying to turn a thoughtful individual into a cartoon. I’d like to see the ID carnival barkers stop treating this debate as if the most hysterical hyperbole is what grabs the brass ring (Church of St. Carl, indeed).

Of course I’d like to see world peace too, but I’m not holding my breath on any of these things.


Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

Unfortunately it's just part of their general paranoia to label anything remotely 'naturalistic' as evil and religious. Of course, didn't the creationists already fail to make naturalism a religion? I have no idea why they keep on trying.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is that Sagan was not an atheist?

11:33 AM  
Blogger RLC said...

- Anon.

"So what you are saying is that Sagan was not an atheist?"

Of course I would not be so presumptuous. But if you read the quote from Sagan above again - especially the part where he describes an atheist, then denies that the view is empirically supportable - it seems likely that he might say so himself.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous bryankelly said...

Sagan did say so himself. He said, "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God." Washington Post

He's not an atheist.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carl Sagan was agnostic. He often said comments regarding the creation of the universe. For example, if God created the universe than what created God?

Carl Sagan also asked for decisive evidence regarding God. He just couldn't rule it out all together. Plus he was a huge skeptic, and hated pseudo-sciences. Creationism is no exception.

3:03 PM  

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