Sagan, Carl Edward (9 November 1934 – 20 December 1996)
Sagan, who was the director of Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies, once wrote,
- The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by "God" one means the set of physical laws that are found in the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying. It does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
His publications include The Dragons of Eden (1977), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1980 he created and was host of the public-television science series “Cosmos.”
Sagan’s essay, “Real American Patriots Ask Questions,” written with his third wife Ann Druyan, is included in Challenges to the Enlightenment, Essays in Defense of Reason and Science (1994).
In The Demon-Haunted World (1996), Sagan protested against superstition and people’s uncritical acceptance of pseudo-scientific claims.
Richard Lewontin has pointed out that Sagan regretted the fact that most of us do not have control of the intellectual apparatus needed to explain manifest reality in material terms. In place of scientific (i.e., correct material) explanations, we substitute demons. Religions, Sagan wrote, are the “nurseries of pseudo-science.” “I worry,” he added, “that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us–then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” He was concerned about doomsday asteroids that are rumored to soon hit the Earth, although he admits there is always the possibility. Reports of alien abductions are complete nonsense. He also writes about repressed memories, creationism, belief in miracles, and the claims of tobacco companies that cigarettes have not been shown to be harmful.
Sagan's Secular Humanism
In 1981, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year. Also, he was a Humanist Laureate in the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism.
In a March-April 1996 cover story for Skeptical Inquirer, Sagan recommends science as a source of spirituality. “It has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment,” he explains. At the same time, he laments the fact that “superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheapening the experience.”
In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996), he commented on a variety of topics:
- If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. . . . Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. . . . If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. . . . Try science. . . . Since World War II, Japan has spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the supernatural. . . . In Thailand, diseases are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized sacred Scripture. “Witches” are today being burned in South Africa. . . . The worldwide TM [Transcendental Meditation] organization has an estimated valuation of $3 billion. For a fee, they promise to make you invisible, to enable you to fly. . . . It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money, so long as you have got it.
Memorial in a Cathedral for an Atheist
Journalist Warren Allen Smith wrote about covering the memorial in a cathedral for an atheist.
Sagan’s memorial service was held in New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the structure that features a statue of God (a bearded Caucasian with His arms outstretched) on the front.
Church officials referred to “Carl the great atheist” and explained that the site was chosen because of Sagan’s record of having successfully worked with national church leaders on environmental matters.
Speakers included MIT physicist Philip Morrison; Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould; the former director of the USSR’s Space Research Institute, Ronald Sagedeev; Vice President Al Gore; and Sagan’s daughter, Sasha; son, Jeremy; and third wife, Ann Druyan, who is secretary of the Federation of American Scientists.
Druyan told of his and her exuberance at having included an interstellar message along with Bach, Beethoven, and other composer’s music in two NASA Voyager spacecrafts now beyond the outer solar system. At a speed of 40,000 miles per hour, the objects are traveling in space and have a projected shelf life of a billion years. How, they mused, would some finder in the distant future interpret all this, perhaps even after Earth no longer had humans.
The memorial ended with Sagan’s recording of an excerpt of “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.” The powerful and life-like voice resounded eerily throughout the immense Gothic structure.
(See “A Battle-Cry for Reason and Rationality,” Skeptical Inquirer, July-August 1996).
- Carl Sagan & Jonathon Norton Leonard & The editors of Life. Planets. New York: Time, Inc., 1966
- Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovskii. Intelligent Life in the Universe. New York: Random House, 1966
- Carl Sagan ed. Communicaton with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1973
- Carl Sagan. The Cosmic Connection, An Extraterrestrail Perspective. New York: Doubleday, 1973
- Carl Sagan et. al. Mars and the Mind of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1973
- Carl Sagan. Other Worlds. New York: Bantam Books, 1975
- Carl Sagan. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Random House, 1977
- Carl Sagan et. al. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. New York: Random House, 1977
- Carl Sagan. Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. New York: Random House, 1979
- Carl Sagan. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980
- Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Comet. New York: Random House, 1985
- Carl Sagan. Contact: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985
- Carl Sagan et. al. The Nuclear Winter: The World After Nuclear War. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985
- Carl Sagan and Richard Turco. A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race. New York: Random House, 1990
- Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. New York: Random House, 1992
- Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House, 1994
- Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996
- Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. New York: Random House, 1997
- Sagan, Carl and Jerome Agel, Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 2000
- Sagan, Carl, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage|Cosmos. Random House, 2002