[asa] Faith vs. science debate rejoined by Carl Sagan posthumously

From: Janice Matchett <janmatch@earthlink.net>
Date: Wed Feb 14 2007 - 13:42:24 EST

"I would suggest that science is, at least in
part, informed worship," he writes ..

~ Janice

Carl Sagan, posthumously, rejoins debate on faith vs. science
By Dennis Overbye Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It's been 10 years since we've heard Carl Sagan
beckoning us to consider the possibilities
inherent in the "billions" of stars peppering the
sky and in the "billions" of neuronal connections spiderwebbing our brains.

In his day, the Cornell astronomer, Pulitzer
Prize-winning author of books like "The Dragons
of Eden," "Contact," "Pale Blue Dot" and "The
Demon- Haunted World," and impresario of the PBS
television program "Cosmos" was one of the
world's most eloquent unbelievers, an apostle of
cosmic wonder, critic of nuclear arms and a
champion of science's duty to probe and question
without limit, including the claims of religion.
He died of pneumonia after a series of bone
marrow transplants in December 1996.

Since his death, the public discourse on his
favorite issues the fate of the planet, the
beauty and mystery of the cosmos has not fared
well. The teaching of evolution in public schools
has become a bitter bone of contention; NASA
tried to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope and
censor talk of climate change; and religious
fanatics crashed jetliners into the World Trade
Center, which helped lead to a war in the Middle
East that has awakened memories in some corners of the Crusades.

Now, however, Sagan has rejoined the debate with
the publication last month of "The Varieties of
Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the
Search for God" (Penguin). The book is based on a
series of lectures exploring the boundary between
science and religion that Sagan gave in Glasgow
in 1985; it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator.

"I would suggest that science is, at least in
part, informed worship," he writes at the
beginning of a discussion that includes the
history of cosmology, a travel guide to the solar
system, the reason there are hallucinogen
receptors in the brain, and the meaning of the
potential discovery or lack thereof of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Never afraid to venture into global politics,
Sagan warns at one point of the danger that a
leader under the sway of religious fundamentalism
might not try too hard to avoid nuclear
Armageddon, reasoning that it was God's plan.

"He might be interested to see what that would be
like," Sagan wrote. "Why slow it down?"

But Sagan acknowledges that religion can engender
hope and speak truth to power, as in the civil
rights movement in the United States, but that it rarely does.

It's curious, he says, that no allegedly
Christian nation has adopted the Golden Rule as a
basis for foreign policy. Rather, in the nuclear
age, mutually assured destruction was the policy
of choice. "Christianity says that you should
love your enemy. It certainly doesn't say that
you should vaporize his children."

When Saddam Hussein was hanged in December, those
words had a haunting resonance.

It was Druyan's impatience with religious
fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Sagan's
lectures, which were part of the Gifford
Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology.

Druyan, who co-wrote "Cosmos" and produced the
movie "Contact," based on her husband's novel,
runs Cosmos Studio and was a leader in the
aborted effort by the Planetary Society to launch
a solar sail from a Russian submarine two years
ago. Among her lesser-known achievements is a
kiss on the cheek of the science writer Timothy
Ferris, which was recorded and included on a
record of the sounds of Earth that is part of the
Voyager spacecraft now flying out of the solar system.

She and Sagan had planned to use his Gifford
lectures as the basis for a new television show
called "Ethos," a sequel to "Cosmos," about the
spiritual implications of the scientific
revolution. "I know of no other force that can
wean us from our infantile belief that we are the
center of the universe," she said.

But "Ethos" never happened, and the lectures disappeared.

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the
teaching of evolution in the United States, she
said, a tacit truce between science and religion
that has existed since the time of Galileo
started breaking down. "A lot of scientists were
mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore," Druyan said recently.

Some of the books that resulted, such as Richard
Dawkins's "The God Delusion," have been
criticized as shrill, but Druyan said: "People
like Carl and Dawkins are more serious about God
than people who just go through the motions. They are real seekers."

About a year ago, Druyan went looking for Sagan's
lectures, eventually finding them in his archive
at Cornell. Rereading them, she said, "I couldn't
believe how prophetic they were." It took about a
day for her editor at Penguin to decide to publish them, she said.

She retitled the book Sagan had named his
lectures "The Search for Who We Are" as a nod
to William James, whose Gifford lectures in 1901
and 1902 became the basis for his book "The Varieties of Religious Experience."

Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the
God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent
knowledge of the wider universe that "He or She
or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is"
allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for
instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of
light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on
the Moon in such a way that they would not be
discovered until now, la the slab in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

If such an inscription were found, people would
ask how it had gotten there, Sagan writes. "And
then there would be various hypotheses, most of
which would be very interesting," he adds.

Near the end of his book, Sagan parses the
difference between belief and science this way:
"I think if we ever reach the point where we
think we thoroughly understand who we are and
where we came from, we will have failed."

The search for who we are does not lead to
complacency or arrogance, he explains. "It goes
with a courageous intent to greet the universe as
it really is, not to foist our emotional
predispositions on it but to courageously accept
what our explorations tell us."

The last word may as well go to Dawkins, who in a
1996 book nominated Sagan as the ideal spokesman
for Earth. In a blurb for the new book, Dawkins
said that the astronomer was more than religious,
having left behind the priests and mullahs.

"He left them behind, because he had so much more
to be religious about," Dawkins wrote. "They have
their Bronze Age myths, medieval superstitions
and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe."

To unsubscribe, send a message to majordomo@calvin.edu with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Wed Feb 14 13:42:38 2007

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Feb 14 2007 - 13:42:38 EST