Was Carl Sagan an Atheist?

Was Carl Sagan an Atheist?

When I posted Inaccuracy, Eurocentrism, and Antitheism in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos last month, it caused a bit of a stir among Carl Sagan fans (especially on Reddit). Not the least constructive of the criticism was the point that Carl Sagan was not even an atheist. Of course, I already know that he did not identify as an atheist, and in that post I never said he did. I suppose that people who used that as a rebuttal were assuming that one can’t be antitheistic without even being an atheist.

I don’t think that Sagan was intentionally sharing antitheist ideas when he implied in Cosmos that the most scientifically advanced cultures were the ones that rejected religion. It is just suspicious to me that he would push that when it is a very popular argument in the atheist community and when it is not very well supported. (A lot of great science throughout history has been done in the name of religion.) It is definitely possible that someone who is intellectually honest and not an atheist can still share anti-religious ideas.

So that’s what got me thinking: Was Carl Sagan an atheist? The short answer is no, he explicitly said on many occasions that he is not. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter much whether we can consider Carl Sagan himself—and his daughter Sasha, whose identity is similar—an atheist. But I think there is a much more interesting, longer answer when you look into it deeper. I think that this question makes a great jumping off point for a discussion about what atheism is, whether people ought to embrace it, and whether it is right to deny someone’s identity based on our own definitions.

What did Sagan say about God’s existence?

There are a lot of times when Sagan has explained his stance on atheism, many of which are compiled here. This is the one I’ve seen most (and that was shared in the above Reddit thread):

I am not an atheist. An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. I am not that wise, but neither do I consider there to be anything approaching adequate evidence for such a god. Why are you in such a hurry to make up your mind? Why not simply wait until there is compelling evidence?

Carl Sagan to Robert Pope, of Windsor, Ontario, Oct. 2, 1996

While I haven’t yet read the book (but look forward to it as I save it for last), Sagan goes into more detail in the chapter “The God Hypothesis” in his posthumously-published book of 1985 Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. The chapter essentially comes down to Sagan’s struggle to confess either belief or disbelief without a solid definition of what God is. He supposes that if we are talking about Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God, or using the term “God” when speaking of the laws of nature, then God would be virtually irrefutable.

Now, it would be wholly foolish to deny the existence of laws of nature. And if that is what we are talking about when we say God, then no one can possibly be an atheist, or at least anyone who would profess atheism would have to give a coherent argument about why the laws of nature are inapplicable.

I think he or she would be hard-pressed. So with this latter definition of God, we all believe in God. . . .

Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, p. 150

He then goes on to refute some of the common Western arguments for the existence of God, not being persuaded by any of them.

I therefore conclude that the alleged natural theological arguments for the existence of God, the sort we’re talking about, simply are not very compelling.

Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, p. 165

. . . why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?

I think this is a serious issue. If we believe, as most of the great theologians hold, that religious truth occurs only when there is a convergence between our knowledge of the natural world and revelation, why is it that this convergence is so feeble when it could so easily have been so robust?

Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, p. 167-168

Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife, told a journalist:

Carl meant exactly what he said. He used words with great care. He did not know if there was a god. It is my understanding that to be an atheist is to take the position that it is known that there is no god or equivalent. Carl was comfortable with the label ‘agnostic’ but not ‘atheist.’

Quote from Carl Sagan denied being an atheist. So what did he believe? [Part 1]

I think that Sagan’s refusal of the identity of atheist is interesting for a number of reasons. First, his definition of atheism is odd. In the first quote above, he defines an atheist as “someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.” Perhaps this need for precision makes more sense with Sagan’s keenness for defining God this way as opposed to something more like Spinoza’s god of the laws of nature. Still, the generally accepted consensus about God is that God is a supernatural deity. If we define God this way, which is how I’m sure many of us do, then technically Sagan would be an atheist whether he embraces the word or not. (Not to mention that it is much easier to disprove the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god than a generic deity or Spinoza’s god.)  

How to define atheism and agnosticism

We get into some tricky semantics here about atheism and agnosticism that I don’t fully understand myself. Some people, presumably including Sagan, believe that you must be either an atheist or an agnostic, but not both. The way I learned it, agnosticism is a matter of what you know and atheism is a matter of what you believe. I personally see the question of a supernatural God’s existence as unprovable and un-disprovable simply because it’s outside of nature by definition. I would say, therefore, that no one really can know if a God exists. There’s no way to know. So I can comfortably call myself an agnostic.

The most important difference between my definition of atheism and Sagan’s definition of atheism is how much certainty you need to be able to hold the atheist position. Personally, I do identify as an agnostic atheist, since I see agnosticism and atheism as addressing two different parts of the same question. I can’t prove without a doubt that there is no God, but I don’t believe that there is. Sagan seems to have the same level of uncertainty that I do, but would disagree that you can identify as atheist without being 100% certain that there is no God.

Sasha Sagan said something similar last year about her own secular identity:

[The podcast host:] I feel that a lot of people who say that they’re atheists have a very cynical and almost dark relationship to… like, “I don’t believe in anything; I’m atheist,” and it’s just like, “You don’t believe in anything?” It just feels so heartless to say it like that.

[Sasha Sagan:] Totally, and I think that that’s why I don’t… People often ask me, “How do you identify?” And I think atheism has this militant idea, and it also has this idea that “I know for sure that there is no—specifically—God.”

And agnosticism has this connotation of, “Well, I could go either way.” It’s kind of wishy-washy. “I don’t really care, you pick where we’re going to dinner. I’m agnostic.” And so I don’t really identify with either of those, and I think of myself as secular, so my position is just… I reserve belief without evidence.

And it’s not that I say that I know for sure that there is no [God]. I just think that until we have proof or at least an outcome from using the scientific method to delineate between what we have evidence for; if there can be an experiment, if there can be a double blind test that can allow the information to stand up to scrutiny. That’s where I put my enthusiasm and that’s also where I derive the feeling of beauty and being part of the universe. But yes, it’s hard to describe sometimes, so I say that I’m secular.

Sasha Sagan on That’s So Retrograde podcast (from 9:39 to 11:14)

I’ve always been of the opinion that the default atheist stance is a negative belief; a lack of belief in God rather than a positive belief that there is no God. I’ve gone back and forth on how important this distinction really is or whether it’s just another way for atheists to sound pedantic and hard to talk to. It seems a little overly analytical to me, so I stay away from it unless it actually has an effect on something else important… like why one of the greatest names in skepticism refused to embrace the identity of atheism.

If we’re defining atheism the way that most people define it, I think we can agree that Carl Sagan was most definitely an (agnostic) atheist, as is Sasha Sagan. But if we are using their definitions, then they’re not. I can’t help but wonder if there is more to it than definition-fights.  

Should Carl (and Sasha) Sagan have embraced atheism?

Even after all these years with a growing number of atheist activists, and religious deconverts in general, atheism is still extremely stigmatized (as we heard/read in the podcast clip above). I think that a lot of us wonder why this is, even when we are all great, nice people who always do the right thing. Well, it is not helping us that some of the best known atheists are transphobic, or have sexual harassment allegations and alt-right “anti-woke” beliefs, and that many more atheists than that are generally rude to religious people, insulting their intelligence and doing their best to gatekeep nonbelief…

I mention this because even after my last post about him, I still think Carl Sagan was one of the good ones. (And if he’s good, then Sasha’s even better. By the way, be on the lookout for my interview with her on the Friendly Atheist Blog next month. 😉 ) Perhaps these two Sagans reject atheism for the same reason that I embrace it: because people don’t see atheists as good people. Even with many of my own comments, and pretty much everyone in r/atheism against me, I won’t let up on saying, “I am an atheist, and I care about social justice, historical accuracy, true skepticism, and real humanism.”

Carl Sagan did, and Sasha Sagan does, care about all these things as well (even if historical accuracy wasn’t always Carl’s strong suit). Imagine if they could be the people who come to mind when we think of atheists, and not those others. (You know who I mean.) They could have been a great force in destigmatizing and normalizing atheism.

On the other hand, we could see it as good that these two didn’t embrace the atheist identity, because it allowed their messages to reach more people without anyone having to be immediately turned off by the “atheist” label. I understand this, and it played a part in my blog’s name change when I dropped the word “atheist” from it—even though I definitely don’t hide from it, and I am fully comfortable and happy with my own atheist identity.

Regardless of whether I would technically dub the Sagans as atheists based on my definition, it remains important simply to respect other people’s identities. If someone isn’t comfortable identifying as atheist because of the term’s baggage, then who are we to force it on them? Is it their duty to use the label of atheist just to destigmatize it for the rest of us? It feels incredibly disrespectful to me to say, “No, Sasha, you are an atheist, because I said so,” before getting into why technically her definition is wrong, and it’s a lack of belief, and it’s not militant or heartless and she ought to just come on over to the dark side.

I love identifying as an atheist, but we can’t forget that many of the people on our side are not atheists. Not only are there plenty of Christians who I would happily call humanists, but some people with amazing hearts and strong minds just prefer to be called agnostics, skeptics, or secular humanists, and that’s okay.  

15 thoughts on “Was Carl Sagan an Atheist?

  • September 26, 2021 at 9:05 am

    My position is similar to what you describe for Sagan. I’ve been calling myself “non-religious” and “agnostic”. If atheism is defined as lacking belief in God, then I am atheist. But that’s not what most people mean by “atheist”. I am not at all anti-theist.

    • January 2, 2022 at 6:13 am

      Heh heh. I’ve been calling myself an atheist for a long time and have never been an anti-theist either. The late Desmond Tutu fully deserves my admiration. How could I be anti him? I just disagree with him on the god question. Give me the choice between him and the atheist Martin Bormann and I don’t have to think a split second.
      This is one other reason I think semantic discussions about labels silly.

  • September 26, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Dear Rebekah,

    This is my favorite of all your posts (essays). As I read and thought, you addressed my thoughts as if you knew what to say next. I agree with you. I will stay with my atheist identity, but as you (we) define it. I see theism and atheism on the same plane, but not agnostic. It is not some in between concept. It’s just an “I don’t know.”

    Things perhaps not fully addressed here, or by the Sagan (I should read more), include things like burden of proof and Carl Sagan’s celebrity status (but you hinted at it). He may have been injured if he openly embraced atheism, particularly as he defined it. Credibility matters. So do words and what we mean by them.

    Well done, again.

  • September 27, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    Is there a language without ambiguity?
    Heresy. Heretic.

    We have a pigeonhole for every pigeon. But just when I think I understand who or what I am, here comes somebody disputing my definition of me.

    Every time we have this discussion I have to go back and compare my thoughts to all the definitions I can find for not believing in God or gods. Still, there are people who want to make me understand that no matter what my belief is, it is a religion. Damn.

    Carl Sagan’s lineage is in the House of Judah. That doesn’t make him religious, but what do we care about that? I doubt that any of us who like Sagan and read his books care a whit about his religious identity.

    Two books that influenced me are “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve”, and “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt. I don’t know if he practices Judaism and it doesn’t matter. His knowledge of history and the history of religion was what caught my interest.

    I’m glad to know that none of us are going to reject what we have learned when we later find out that our information may have been from a religious person.

    I am a dyed in the wool nullifidian. I just found that out today while I was looking through all the definitions for different calibres of non-religionists.

    I am a Nullifidian, by gawd.

    • September 27, 2021 at 2:55 pm

      That’s awesome! I think you would like Sasha Sagan’s book For Small Creatures Such as We. She explains how she honors her Jewish heritage while being secular.

    • January 2, 2022 at 6:14 am

      “Is there a language without ambiguity?”
      Yes, it’s called mathematics.

  • September 28, 2021 at 7:11 am

    If I say I’m not an atheist, does that necessarily mean I’m not an atheist or just that I choose not to identify myself as an atheist? If I were to come up with a highly idiosyncratic definition of atheism and use that to claim that I’m not an atheist, all I’d really be showing is that I’m not an atheist using this definition that few others shared. I think it is helpful to remember that we (still) live in a culture where there are tremendous pressures not to identify ourselves as atheists. It doesn’t matter to me whether Sagan was an atheist; what matters is that his work helped to inspire this atheist.

    • January 2, 2022 at 6:17 am

      “we (still) live in a culture where there are tremendous pressures not to identify ourselves as atheists.”
      Let me point out that that “we” doesn’t refer to even the majority of atheists. I’ve never experienced such pressure anywhere in Europe and in China the pressure works the other way. That’s quite a few atheists.

  • September 30, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Making the definition of atheism specific to the Abrahamic God is worse than simply not making sense.
    It privileges the Abrahamic religions above every other theistic or deistic religion or philosophy. This idea is one that religious bigots want to promote; the idea that the only divide which matters is between accepting their god or not.
    It’s likely that Sagan’s idea of what an “atheist” is was overly influenced by what certain Christians say about atheists.

    • January 2, 2022 at 6:19 am

      Yup. That’s another reason why I rather rely on Herman Philipse. While he writes a lot about the abrahamistic god he’s careful to make sure that his arguments apply to all other gods as well.

  • October 2, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    This is such a thoughtful and well written piece! I really appreciate your delineation between atheism and agnosticism, which I hadn’t thought of on a deeper level, if that makes sense. The differences seemed pretty obvious and basic to me and that was that. But there is something more to it, and it IS difficult to be fully comfortable with embracing the atheist label when there are a lot of atheists doing and saying some very bad things or just being rude, as you said. I’m always looking for good ways to explain my position despite this kind of thing, it really helps to read your thoughts on it.

    And actually I didn’t realize that Carl Sagan hadn’t identified as atheist, and I think I’d just assumed he did. I’m very curious about him, having just finished The Demon-Haunted World this week. Going to read more of your essays involving him.

  • January 2, 2022 at 6:09 am

    “An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.”
    This is why Sagan is not an idol for me.
    Evidence is by definition taken from our natural reality.
    The abrahamistic god resides in a supposed supernatural reality.
    Hence evidence for such a god is impossible. Sagan is guilty of a category error.

    “Sagan goes into more detail in the chapter “The God Hypothesis””
    And I won’t care. Sagan was an astronomer, not a philosopher of religion. He could as well write about carpenting. For the God Hypothesis I rather rely on Herman Philipse. Surely the Dutchman provides a definition: “Although he is said to be omnipresent, he is not in space because he is bodiless, and according to many theists he is not in time either.”

    “We get into some tricky semantics here about atheism and agnosticism that I don’t fully understand myself.”
    As I dislike discussions about semantics I prefer a practical approach, in this case the Scale of Dawkins. The question is simple: how sure are you? A fully sure theist is a 1, someone who doesn’t and/or can’t give any answer a 4, a fully sure atheist like me a 7 (but it’s OK if you call me a 6,9999 ….. instead, meaning as sure as I can be). Of course there are people who don’t themselves back in this scale and that’s OK too.
    The thought behind this is that labels like these are nothing more than a handy tool to summarize someone’s views quickly. Such labels should not be too complicated; I think pondering about the difference between agnostic atheism and atheist agnosticism a waste of time. In the same way I don’t care about the exact label we should put on the Sagans.

    “I love identifying as an atheist”
    I don’t. It’s only a small part of my identity. Last few years I more and more often call myself an unbeliever – nicely generic.


What do you think?