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Gospels of science

There’s a new flood of books about the relationship between science and religion – and just as the various Christian gospels were aimed at different audiences, so too are these. On one hand, E.O. Wilson’s “The Creation” reaches out to believers, while on the other hand, Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” rallies the unbelievers to mount a full-scale attack on religion.

Cornell Univ.
The late astronomer Carl

Sagan was the author or

co-author of more than a

dozen books.

Perhaps the hardest-to-categorize gospel comes from someone who shuffled off this mortal coil 10 years ago: astronomer Carl Sagan, whose lectures on science and religion are being released this week in a book titled “The Varieties of Scientific Experience.” The talks were originally delivered in Glasgow in 1985 as part of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology (the same lecture series that spawned William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience" back in 1902).

Although Sagan's observations are more than 20 years old, they deftly deal with today’s controversies over intelligent design, cosmic origins and God’s role in the universe. In fact, the words often sound as if they were written today:

"If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, 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? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species."

Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator, is the editor of the posthumously published scripture – with a strong scientific assist from astrophysicist Steven Soter. Druyan told me that not one word of Sagan's lectures was changed. Rather, she said the updates are confined to the illustrations and the footnotes - including one footnote relating to the Cassini spacecraft's latest findings about Titan.

Ron Luxemburg
Ann Druyan is Carl

Sagan's widow and the

editor of his lectures.

Sagan had speculated that oceans of hydrocarbons would be found on the mysterious Saturnian moon, and for a while there it looked as if that expectation wasn't going to pan out. Just before the book went to press, however, Cassini data did indeed confirm that there was a multitude of hydrocarbon lakes on Titan's surface.

"Obviously, if he was wrong, he would have wanted us to say that rather than pretend otherwise," Druyan said. "But it turns out he was right about that, too."

Ever since Sagan died in Seattle in 1996, after a years-long battle with a pre-leukemia condition, Druyan has been the keeper of the "Cosmos" flame. Although she's been honored as one of the "world's outstanding atheists," I've always found her beliefs (and Sagan's) much harder to characterize. Maybe I'm just not orthodox enough. You can judge for yourself, on the basis of excerpts from our conversation last week.

We started out with the proposition that science and religion were separate realms - a philosophical non-aggression treaty that was proposed by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (and in fact dedicated to Sagan's memory):

Q: Stephen Jay Gould talked about the idea of the non-overlapping magisteria: the idea that there were things the spiritual impulse addressed that weren’t amenable to dispassionate scientific analysis, and that there were things related to scientific inquiry that religious traditions weren’t equipped to pass judgment on. Is that something that was reflected in what Carl had to say?

A: Carl loved Steve, as did I. I remember a tremendously poignant day in the last month of Carl’s life where he and I paid a visit to Steve in New York, and I left the two guys together for the afternoon. When I came by to pick Carl up, he was aglow. As we were walking out the door, I said, “What did you guys talk about?” And he said, “Love.” And he smiled at me. So my regard for Steve as a scientist and a citizen and an educator is enormous.

I completely disagree with the notion of two magisteria, and I think Carl would have, also. Because it makes you ask: Is it OK to study Aztec religious beliefs, or Babylonian religious beliefs scientifically? Are there only two separate magisteria when the religion in question happens to have a lot of living devotees? Why would that magically change in the event that all of the people who subscribe to the religion no longer exist? That’s the problem with this “two-magisteria” idea.

If you look back in the history of science, until Copernicus, there was no need for two magisteria. Maybe Giordano Bruno is the exception that proves the rule. But virtually every scientist had a deeply religious faith in the conventional sense. And if you look at the greatest figures in the history of science, all of them had religion either as an avocation or an occupation, as Copernicus did. Even much later, the young Darwin was going to be an Anglican parson. If you look at Isaac Newton, he was passionately religious, as was Kepler. They wanted to use science to read the mind of God. They used science because it was the most powerful means at their disposal to continue this sacred searching.

You only needed to build a wall around religion after the modern scientific revolution, when there is this obvious conflict with the traditional view of creation and a Bible that talks about “the” world – seemingly oblivious to the Milky Way galaxy of some 400 billion suns, each with a retinue of planets and moons. To talk of “the” world sounds as if you’re earthbound, and very much confined to the knowledge of the universe from several thousand years ago.

It’s only when the religious version of natural reality becomes untenable that the religious people say, “Don’t look at religion from a scientific perspective.” And yet, it’s almost as if we would prefer an agreed-upon fiction to the deepest possible understanding of which we’re capable. If you really have that sense of awe, and humility, and wonder and amazement at the greatness of nature and the cosmos, you want to know it as intimately as you possibly can. It’s not as if there’s a voice within you saying, “Avert your eyes. Our original conception may be disproved.”

I think that’s the tragedy that Carl and I observed 15 or 20 years ago. When science began to deliver these revelations about the true grandeur of the cosmos, that it was so much greater than anyone imagined, the religious authorities didn’t say, “This is great! Not just one world? Are you saying there are billions and billions of worlds? Why, that’s fantastic!” No. They said, “We want to keep this local. We want to maintain this local conception, because we want to keep things small.”

I think there’s only one magisterium – and that is the greatness of nature. And if we don’t begin to take these revelations of science to heart, the way we take the various religious ideologies to heart, we’re in very deep trouble.

Q: What sort of trouble?

A: One example, of course, is that science has made it possible for us to send out robotic emissaries, to stand out by the orbit of Neptune and look back to Earth, and see Earth as this tiny “pale blue dot,” as Carl said, instead of as the center of the universe. Now, when you look at that one-pixel Earth, the first thing you think of is the oneness of everybody on it, and the tragedy of the rivers of blood that we shed because of these imaginary divisions between us and our brothers and sisters. It’s a delusion.

We have to take that pale blue dot to heart and realize that the number of fish in the ocean, and the air and the sweet water and all of the beautiful things about this earth are in jeopardy – and it’s up to us. No one will save us from this but ourselves. It’s up to us to awaken from our stupor and take action. That’s a revelation of science, and it’s something we have to take to heart. Not just to know it intellectually – “Oh, the earth is really tiny” – but to know it viscerally, and keep it, as the Bible says, “as frontlets between thine eyes.”

Q: Frontlets?

A: Frontlets, whatever those are. “You should know it as you wakest up, as you walkest by the way.” There are so many beautiful things from our religious traditions that we need to remember, but unfortunately, we’re living in a moment in time when wholesale violence and brutality is being perpetrated in the name of some of the things in the Bible that really haven’t withstood the test of time.

Q: It’s interesting that Carl was quite familiar with the religious traditions, and really felt – as I think you do – that some of those ways of thinking about the world are living on but have to be reinterpreted in a new light. As you say, perhaps our world is sometimes too small.

A: Our view of God is too small. We see God as this punitive force. The creator of all the galaxies and all the parts of the universe that we haven’t even been able to comprehend yet … the idea that this God is concerned with what we eat on certain days, and who we sleep with – we have to give that up. The evidence for that is nonexistent.

Q: I’m just trying to digest all this, and it does go to the variety of conceptions of God - the "old man" that Einstein had in mind, perhaps the sum total of all the laws of nature; or an impersonal architect of the universe, the deistic view; or a God who is immanent...

A: An intervening god ...

Q: Right, the theistic view. Where would Carl's views fit on that spectrum? To some extent, he was agnostic; to some extent atheistic; to some extent deistic ...

A: Well, yeah, he was a complicated person, capable of the deepest kind of spiritual understanding and feeling. But there was a devoutness to him. He felt this idea of God was so important, this idea of God was so endlessly fascinating ... it was the favorite thing for us to talk about. We talked about it endlessly. It was so important, that it had to be true. In other words, you couldn't satisfy yourself with a God who would just be a Valium for your fears, because that would be dishonorable. The God who just makes you less afraid of the dark is just a crutch.

So the idea is, use everything you have to search for God. But be very careful that you don't lie to yourself, because that's just spiritual narcissism. He was saying, "Be so rigorous, and so careful, and so clear-seeing that what we find will really be precious, because it will be the result of our most skeptical and rigorous searching."

For him, accepting the god of Spinoza, the god of Einstein, the sum total of the physical laws of the universe ... who could argue with that? Because nature does have physical laws that are knowable. But the intervening God who wants to punish, who wants to torture, who wants to wreak vengeance on the human beings that he's allegedly responsible for creating ... that concept was just untenable for Carl. And that's related in a very interesting way to the notion of extraterrestrials.

Q: That was the next question on my mind, because the book devotes a lot of attention to extraterrestrial intelligence, the idea of life elsewhere in the universe.

A: Because Carl thought it was part of the same question. Though he was interested in searching in that way, and it was a lifelong passion of his, to his credit, he would not allow himself to just accept the answer that he wanted. It had to be true. So, much to my sadness, he died without ever feeling that he found any credible evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. He knew the question was very much open, but he was very assiduous and circumspect in making sure that he didn't allow himself to believe something that he wanted to believe.

Q: Is there a sense that finding life elsewhere in the universe could act as a sort of "ground truth" for the way that the universe works? Some people might argue that you can start to triangulate, to get more than one perspective on those cosmic questions. Maybe that's why this question of extraterrestrial intelligence was so important to Carl.

A: Yes, because we live surrounded by mystery. We know so little. We're so ignorant. We've only been at the systematic inspection of nature for a mere 400 years. So of course we know very little. And that comes right back to the God question.

If most of the universe is completely unknown to us, then how can we presume to know the nature of how it came to be, and whether or not there was any kind of intelligence guiding creation? We don't see any evidence for that. And our desire to believe it is pretty much a transparent projection of the fact that we are mammals, and we have a long childhood, and as humans we are very dependent on our parents. That parental model of existence is really hard not to project on everything else. But who knows?

Since so much of the little science we know has turned out to be counterintuitive, it's crazy for us to presume, let alone kill another person because we think we know the answer.