Ethics & Public Policy Center

Carl Sagan’s Scientific Search for God, Revisited

Published in The Washington Times on March 18, 2007

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
By Carl Sagan, Penguin Press, $27.95, 284 pages.

Carl Sagan, the well known and articulate astronomer, has few peers in popularizing the rapidly unfolding developments in the heavens. The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a highly readable volume edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and longtime collaborator, marks the 10th anniversary of Mr. Sagan’s death.
The book includes his Gifford Lectures, delivered at Glasgow University in 1985, and his brisk answers to questions from the audience. In response to the question, “I thought science was a servant of mankind and not mankind a servant of science,” Mr. Sagan replied: “[If I had] left my science outside the door as I walked in, I would have appeared before you naked.”
The book’s title is a knockoff on William James’ influential The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Mr. Sagan admired James’ definition of religion as a “feeling of being at home in the Universe.” His widow said his scientific experience was characterized by “oneness, humility, community, wonder, love, courage, remembrance, openness, and compassion.” Quite a bouquet.

Actually there were three different Mr. Sagans — the disciplined scientist in search of verifiable facts, the confused pilgrim in search of God and the apocalyptic crusader.

As a popularizer of knowledge about the universe he had few peers. His language is vivid, convincing and, pardon the phrase, down to Earth. I can understand him. When students at Glasgow asked about the mysterious Bermuda Triangle or about those who believe the Shroud of Turin dates to the time of Jesus, he gave common sense, i.e. scientific, answers.

As a very young child, like Mr. Sagan and millions of others, I pondered the mysteries of the heavens. Was the universe always here? If not, where did it come from? Who or what created it? And is Earth the only place with intelligent life? All great questions that Mr. Sagan discusses, but which neither he nor science can answer.

Acknowledging the limits of the scientific method, Mr. Sagan says that astrophysicists convincingly assert that the universe is expanding, but admit they don’t know why. That question lies beyond the ken of verifiable science.

When Mr. Sagan ventures into these age-old and essentially religious questions he runs into trouble. The subtitle of his book, A Personal View of the Search for God, suggests far more than he is able to deliver. His approach is that of a confused pilgrim. He might even be called a “reverent agnostic,” a term Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once applied to himself after hearing a summer sermon by his friend, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. And certainly a reverent agnostic is easier to live with than an arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all “believer.”

Mr. Sagan never claims to have found God. But he toys with the idea. He rather likes Einstein’s view of God “as the sum total of the laws of physics,” over those who see God “as an outsize male with a long white beard, sitting in a throne in the sky and tallying the fall of every sparrow.” Repeatedly, he says the burden of proof rests on those who claim that God exists.

Brought up in a Jewish family, Mr. Sagan affirms the justice and compassion embraced in the Judeo-Christian ethic, but he does not believe this ethic needs to be rooted in a belief in God. He has no problem with “Jesus as a historical figure in the same sense as Mohammed and Moses and Buddha.”

He claims that “religions historically played the role of making people content with their lot,” faintly reflecting an unexamined Marxist postulate. But he doesn’t explain how religious conviction and zeal have frequently inspired efforts to better the lot of the oppressed, e.g., the enslaved, the poor and the hungry.

When Mr. Sagan ventures beyond science and religion to enter the arena of public policy he, like some other physical scientists (as well as politicians and preachers), succumbs to simplistic analyses and solutions. This is particularly true when he addresses the nuclear arms issue. In his chapter “Crimes Against Creation,” written during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War, he indiscriminately condemns the nuclear arms race, Star Wars and the entire U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. He cites Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mr. Sagan asserts that of the 55,000 nuclear weapons then in existence, 20,000 to 22,000 were “strategic” weapons “poised for as rapid delivery as possible.” The U.S. and Russia, then, could destroy every city on Earth, with 18,000 strategic nukes to spare. An editor’s footnote states that by 2006, the world’s total “nuclear arsenals had been reduced to about twenty-thousand weapons — still roughly ten times what would be necessary to destroy our global civilization.”

Mr. Sagan saw the nuclear arms confrontation essentially as a “quarrel between the United States and the Soviet Union.” He didn’t acknowledge Moscow’s superiority in arms and missiles and denounced President Reagan’s strategic defense initiative which, as it turned out, was a major factor in Gorbachev’s decision to join in nuclear arms reduction agreements with Washington.

Mr. Sagan did not understand that the buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under Ronald Reagan forced Moscow to change its policy. Instead, he came up with cliches such as “Religions can speak the truth to power.” He made common cause with liberal journalists such as Jonathan Schell, who in his book “The Fate of the Earth” said that nuclear weapons threaten planetary doom and our salvation requires a new man and a new politics: “There is no one to speak up for man. . . . We try to make do with a Newtonian politics in an Einsteinian world.”

Speaking up for man, Mr. Sagan applauded the Golden Rule. “Christianity says that we should love our enemy, not ‘vaporize his children.’” His guides for world politics are Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He didn’t live to see that Reagan’s more realistic approach ended the Cold War without a shot fired.

Mr. Sagan was also concerned by less dramatic threats of planetary doom, such as man’s failure to be a good steward of the Earth. But as a creature of the Zeitgeist nuclear annihilation, not global warming, was on the front burner of the global apocalyptics in 1985.

After briefly examining the cosmological, ontological and moral argument for the existence of a benevolent, omniscient or omnipotent God, Mr. Sagan could find no scientific proof that God exists, much less that God is active in human affairs. But he does acknowledges that many serious and intelligent humans take a different view.

He might have mentioned the faith of men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin. Or the Declaration of Independence: “[A]ll men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Or Abraham Lincoln: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us.” But he doesn’t say a word about them.
– Ernest W. Lefever, a senior scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is editor of The Apocalyptic Premise, published in 1982.

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