Since I was a kid, I’ve had a tendency to get “obsessed” with various things. I think “obsessed” might be a harsh word for it, but it’s not entirely inaccurate: over the years I have become enamored with different book series, TV shows, and musicians in the sense that one could have thought that my being a fan of that thing was my main personality trait. As I’ve grown older, this zeal has gone more towards things like atheism, paleoanthropology, and most recently, everything Carl Sagan has ever written.
I’ve found myself writing post after post reviewing Sagan’s books, sharing his quotes, using him as a source, or just elaborating on a thought that he inspired in me. But as I do this, there’s been a nagging voice in the back of my head: “Doesn’t it go against your values as an atheist and a skeptic to idolize someone as an authority and take their word as gospel?” I’ve found that I actually don’t think it does.
I’ve identified as an atheist for four years. During that time, I’ve learned about and read all the most famous atheists: namely, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. (There are others whose fame is up there with them, but these seem to always be named first.) And all through that time, I still felt that I couldn’t name my “favorite” atheist book, or someone whose writing I could fully endorse. I agreed with the bottom line of what they said, sure, but I didn’t always like the way they said things or how they thought they could bring down religion by hurling insults at it.
That all changed when I read Cosmos, the forty-year-old book that had been sitting untouched on my shelf. Sagan’s words encapsulated what I had been feeling all throughout my period of self-discovery, but I had never known how to make something like unbelief sound beautiful. He gives harmful religions the criticism they deserve, and humble religions the credit that they so rarely receive. As I said in my review of Cosmos, “Cosmos is neither a religious book or an anti-religious book. It’s just an honest book.”
I think that reading and watching Sagan’s outlook on the world has had a great influence on my worldview. When I took myself out of the greater atheist community after hearing the same tired tropes for years, Sagan’s writing was exactly what I needed; it described perfectly what I already felt. Back in 2018, long before picking up Cosmos, I wrote, “I think that I have always had a curious mind . . . I am following a new urge to take each question much further than these surface-level ‘atheism’ questions and get to the science behind it all.”
Later, at the end of 2019, I reiterated: “So while I will probably always be an atheist, I will never be ‘just an atheist’ ever again. I’m an atheist that actually wants to know what brings our world and our fascination to life outside of the myth of God. Recently, I can’t get enough of science and of history, and to the shock of my past self, none of it even has to go back to disproving religion.” I’m surprised that none of the comments told me that I should read Carl Sagan!
The reason why I don’t think it is dogmatic to revere Sagan and his words is that he is probably the best proponent of skepticism and the scientific method that I have ever seen. Reading his works, you’ll understand that you can apply the same Baloney Detection Kit to everything from creationism to astrology to fascism. He lived a life dedicated to discovering truth and explaining to the layperson why the scientific method is our best tool for doing that. Part of this, ironically, is knowing not to believe anything just because an authority figure said so; one of the best things to hear from a scientist is “Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.”
There is yet another side to skeptics’ reverence for Sagan, which I believe is why he is such a nostalgic and sorely missed science dignitary. Like no one else I’ve seen, he takes concepts like an indifferent, vast, godless Universe and makes it something that fills its miniscule inhabitants with awe instead of dread. A troubled friend of mine recently lamented to me, “If you don’t believe in God, how can you go on? Where’s your meaning?” Of course, it was hard to think of something on the spot, but the first thing I thought of was, “I think it’s the feeling I get when I watch Cosmos.”
Truly, Sagan describes how our Universe, while it was not in any sense made for us, and does not know we’re here, is the most incredible, beautiful, crazy thing we can ever know. This is why he pushes so hard for people to grasp the scientific method. It’s how we can make endless discoveries about our immeasurable home. (To my point in a previous post, it might not feel fun to give up pseudoscientific practices like astrology, but this wonder at reality is what you get in exchange.)
Think of it this way: “If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand? But if our objective is deep knowledge rather than shallow reassurance, the gains from this new perspective far outweigh the losses. Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, p. 51)
Once I finish Pale Blue Dot, of course I will share my favorite quotes in their own post, but among its pages I’ve found my favorite response for anytime an atheist is asked where they find meaning and purpose without religion: “In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” (p. 50)
As I ponder Sagan’s response to traditional religions, I’m realizing what it is that really sets him apart from the other atheist authors. He does not just denounce religion, but he turns our attention toward something greater. He doesn’t leave us off on the sour note of why religion poisons everything, but he proposes a religion that is grander than any we have created so far. Thus, I think that rather than being “obsessed” with Carl Sagan for his own sake, I admire everything he admired, and I strive to think how he thinks, not in blind obedience, but because his attitude toward our Cosmos is exactly what my own has always strived to be.