Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Cosmos by Carl Sagan left me speechless. I don’t even know how to express to you how moved I was by Sagan’s writing. But alas, putting into words the impressions left on me by nonfiction masterpieces like Cosmos is what The Curious Atheist blog is all about, so I suppose I’ll give it my best shot.

Cosmos is one of those books that will change the way you look at everything. If I could sum up how the book made me feel, it would be this: Imagine that you’re lying under the stars on a clear night, just thinking about how massive the universe is, and how small you are. That feeling is so powerfully salient throughout this book, and at first you won’t know whether you should feel afraid or awed, but eventually you’ll accept that you feel both.

I think that the cover of the Cosmos audiobook best portrays the sense of wonder you get when reading this.

Before reading Cosmos, I had heard so much about it, but I’d never seen a really solid summary of what the book is about. For example, Cosmos made my list of “28 Books Every Atheist Should Read” before I’d started reading the book myself. So my wild guess at a summary was this: “[Sagan’s] timeless illustrated book, Cosmos, demonstrates beautifully how the stories of civilization and modern science are intertwined.” I guess this is correct, but just how little it actually conveys about what this book really is, is one of the things that makes Cosmos beautiful.

I’ve found that Cosmos is one of those books that you should just start reading. Don’t try to figure out what it’s about first. Just open it up and read it. I realized this when I received the DVD set for the TV series on which the book was based. Each chapter in the book was named and based on one episode of the TV show, so the DVD packaging included a short description of each chapter, most of which I’d already read by the time I got the DVDs.

Most of the subjects taught in Cosmos are topics you’ve at least touched upon in your elementary science classes: the discovery of heliocentrism, Venus, Mars, early explorers and scientists, the past and future of space flight, the life cycles of stars, and a lot more. I was reluctant even to tell you some of these topics, because it sounds like learning about them might not light your world on fire. But it will.

I was on the edge of my seat reading about the hellish atmosphere of Venus. I was shocked to learn of the scientific discoveries of the Ionians two millennia before these ideas were re-discovered and popularized in the Scientific Revolution beginning in the 1500s. And I was so enraptured by Sagan’s chapter on Mars that when NASA launched the new Perseverence rover and the Ingenuity helicopter literally the next morning, hours after my coincidental reading about the exploration of Mars, watching the launch almost brought me to tears.

Having felt Sagan’s reverence for Mars, I had a whole new perspective about just how big a scientific step it is for us to be sending another rover to explore the planet’s surface. When Sagan wrote Cosmos in 1980, he passionately explained the missions of the Viking landers and expressed his excitement for the future of Mars exploration; the first US Mars rover was being prototyped at the time of writing. The Sojourner would launch exactly two weeks before Sagan’s death on December 20th, 1996.

The books’s sequel is coming in the mail…

Carl Sagan (and his bestselling book and record-breaking TV series) is exalted not only in the atheist and scientific communities, but also by the general public. This is noteworthy to me because Cosmos is neither a religious book or an anti-religious book. It’s just an honest book. But with honesty (and with wonder at the Cosmos) comes the truth that in a lot of ways, organized religion has held society back throughout history. Sagan is never explicitly anti-religious (and he never came out as an atheist, but rather as an agnostic), but a little bit of it comes with the territory of being pro-science and pro-peace.

However, you can absolutely agree with most of what Sagan says in Cosmos and believe in God. You can believe in evolution, in the Big Bang that occurred about 14 billion years ago, in the correlation of a peaceful society and the destigmatization of premarital sex, and still be a Christian, albeit not a traditional one. But there’s no good in putting tradition ahead of progress in science and civilization at large.

This all being said, Cosmos was exactly the book I needed at this time in my life. I’m no longer defined merely as being an atheist, and I’m no longer actively seeking out books that argue against religion. What a breath of fresh air Cosmos was, especially after a book like The End of Faith. Instead of focusing on the harm caused to society by religion, Cosmos shows us how far we can go if we don’t let anything hold us back.

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