God and Carl Sagan: A Review of Contact

Joel Cannon (cannon@alpha.centenary.edu)
Fri, 5 Sep 1997 16:32:23 -0600 (CDT)

The editor of our student newspaper asked me to review how Contact
treats religion and science. Here is the result of that. Would
appreciate any comments about tone, content, etc. I am working to be
more effective at engaging the world.

If you want to skip the fluff, jump to about line 75. I think I have
done a good job there confronting Sagan's claim to go where the
evidence goes, but would appreciate knowing if people think I have
missed something.

Apologies for the LaTeX typesetting commands embedded in bits of the
text. Also, some quotes may not be exact. Even with two trips to see
the show, I had difficulty getting them down.

Joel Cannon

\include{head} \bc God and Carl Sagan: A review of Contact \ec

"Have you seen Contact?" Embarrassed at having said no to that question
more often than to my teenagers' requests for money, I overcame my
lukewarm attitude toward science-fiction and ventured forth, ending my
bid to be the only un-Contacted person in Shreveport.

My reaction: If Contact were called "Green Eggs and Ham" I could say
like Dr. Seuss's Sam-I-Am, "I do like Green Eggs and Ham!" Overcoming
my tendency to use movie theatres for napstops, and skepticism towards
astronomer/author Carl Sagan's peculiar mixture of science and
religion, the film kept me hooked through the full two and a half
hours. It even made prime numbers interesting!

In fact, judging from the few conversations I've had, its success at
engaging the audience in the adventure may cause it ultimately to
fail. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the lead character,
astronomer Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) often quotes verbatim from
Sagan's writing and interview sound-bites, even many professional
critics miss the film's purpose of promoting Carl Sagan's scientific,
philosophical, and most importantly, religious beliefs. In what
follows, I try to pick up where many left off and examine some of the
dominant religious themes Sagan advances.

To Carl Sagan, up until his death this past summer, the three most
important issues in the world seemed to be science and darkness,
science and darkness, and science and darkness, by which he often
meant truth and religion. His last book, {\it Demon-haunted World:
Science as a Candle in the Dark}, even elevates this motif to the
title. Religion, it should be noted, is normally a pseudonym for
Christianity (other religions being less malignant but nearly as

The few exceptions to this stark dichotomy occurred in crusading for
social causes such as nuclear disarmament or global warming when,
showing characteristic audacity, he invited church leaders to join him
by using their influence in these moral struggles.

{\bf Contact's Religion}\\ So what is religion to Carl Sagan and why
does he equate it with darkness, or at best a benign fuzzyheadedness?
To understand why Sagan might have represented religion with stock
hyper-fundamentalists and air heads (Mother Teresa is absent from this
show), we listen to interactions between Arroway and Palmer Joss, a
lovable, thoughtful, sensitive priest (Matthew McConaughey). His
romance with Ellie provides the movie's vehicle for continuing
reference to religion, although he turns out to be as much a
tongue-tied chump as a hunk before Ellie's tart one-liners concerning

In short, from these conversations we learn that Sagan believes
religion (particularly Christianity) and science are irreconcilable
opponents in a war that science has won, making belief in God
implausible. Nevertheless, to his chagrin, belief in ``the God
hypothesis'' persists in spite of the evidence because people want, or
need it to be true.

A sampling of Sagan/Ellie's zingers, ``You act as if science killed
God. What if science just revealed that God never existed in the
first place?'' Or, responding at beginning and end of the movie to
``Do you believe in God?'' we get condescending negatives accompanied
by Sagan's common mantra ``As a scientist I must go where the evidence
takes me.'' This evidence is that either ``an all powerful God
created the universe and didn't leave any evidence he exists or he
doesn't exist at all.'' Undissuaded by poor old Palmer's only
evidence, personal experience, she comments, ``and there is a chance
that you had this experience because part of you just needed to have
that experience?''

{\bf A Dissenting Opinion}\\ It looks dark indeed for Christians when
an internationally recognized astronomer applies the same techniques
he used to unlock Mars's secrets to investigate our God and finds no
evidence of the old fellow's existence. However, a little closer
scrutiny produces a brighter outlook. It seems Sagan confuses
assumptions for evidence, and provides sufficient personal data to
discredit his claim to go only where evidence leads him.

Most importantly, when we get to the actual argument his conclusion
turns out to be an assumption. A large part of his ``no evidence of
God'' assertion rests directly on: 1) his assumptions concerning God's
nature, a nature largely at odds with the classical traditions of
Judaism, Christianity, and presumably Islam; and 2) his assumption
concerning the liklihood that God exists.

Before she can look for evidence, a scientist must assume what might
constitute valid evidence; that assumption determines what questions
can be answered. Garbage in--garbage out. Bad assumptions--bad answers.

In our case, the only evidence Sagan accepts is violation of the
cause-effect chain in natural physical processes (i.e. something
contrary to scientific law). In short, Sagan assumes that any
self-respecting existing God would interrupt the function of his/her
creation so that even skeptical scientist Carl Sagan would be
convinced. Interestingly, in the book {\it Contact}, Ellie suggests
some means by which God could do this including ``a monster crucifix
orbiting the Earth.'' or ``the surface of the moon covered with the
Ten Commandments '' (p. 164). Presumably relatively less evidence for
biological evolution might also make Carl more inclined to trust the
almighty but thats a much less interesting alternative.

Sagan's failure to find flying crosses or holes in evolutionary theory
invites many explanations including: 1) bad assumption; 2) God's
positive and secure self-image means he doesn't have to prove himself
to every gun-slinging scientist challenging his existence--even ones
of Carl Sagan's stature; 3) God doesn't exist in the way Sagan expects
him to exist; and 4) God's existence is improbable. Note that what
one chooses from this list depends strictly on one's assumptions,
rendering this useless as an empirical test. If you begin assuming God
exists you reject option 4; begin assuming God's existence doubtful
and you reject the first 3 possibilities. The ``evidence'' doesn't
change peoples minds; only reinforces prior prejudices. To claim
otherwise, as Sagan does, is sheer self-deception. Speaking quite
bluntly he's missed the difference between an assumption and a
conclusion, going where prejudice takes rather than where evidence

The dubious logic in Sagan's statements bear an instructive symmetry
to the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gugarin's statement after returning from
the first manned space flight: He knew God didn't exist because he had
looked for and not found God while in outer space. Identical logic!
Make an assumption of God's signature--if you don't find it conclude
God's non-existence.

Of secondary importance, his ``go where the evidence takes him'' claim
proves to be mere pretension. The movie, the book it came from, and
his other writings contain so many statements that the evidence not
only didn't take him to, but are unsupportable (or wrong) that we
might seriously question whether evidence ever leads him anywhere
(well--except when he actually does astronomy).

Some examples: Mathematics, the universal language--a putative claim
of the movie. Thats news to the linguists among us. Similarly, no
evidence mentioned for his famous, ``The cosmos is all that is or ever
was or ever will be'' that opened his Cosmos television series. OK
class, this week we examine the evidence for whether the universe is
all that is. Next week we study whether it is all that ever was.

In addition, of great relevance for this review, his picture of
unrelenting warfare between science and Christianity were largely
based (by his own admission) on a book written in the 1800's whose
relentless warfare thesis professional historians regard as
discredited. Ironically, the most obvious evidence--that science
developed in the Christian west rather than elsewhere--indicates Sagan
might have it all wrong. Might he have gone where self-justification
rather than the evidence lead him?

{\bf So where does that leave us?} It is helpful here to keep in mind
that natural science provides remarkably reliable, but not infallible,
answers to a very restricted set of questions concerning the physical
properties, behavior, and history of the world (including the history
of life). For example science can answer questions such as "What is
the function of DNA," "How old is the universe," and "Does life have a
history?" because the universe was created (or merely exists) with

However, science is powerless to investigate anything beyond the
physical world. To try to do so is analogous to trying to investigate
the properties of smallest fish in a lake using a net with a
two-by-two inch mesh. Its the wrong tool for the wrong job.

Science is, in a very real sense, quite democratic about religious
belief or unbelief. As a consequence, to investigate religious belief
be it judaism, Christianity, Islam, atheism, or anything else, the
seeker must go to the sources, and learn from the community of the
faithful, the people for whom God is not just an intellectual
question. To be sure there still may be intellectual issues of
coherence, and truth, etc. to be resolved, but we should not delude
ourselves into thinking that science can help us.


Joel W. Cannon
Dept. of Physics
Centenary College of Louisiana
P. O. Box 41188
Shreveport, LA 71134-1188

(318)869-5026 FAX