Carl Sagan on the failure of many religions to consider the rest of the universe

February 22, 2007 | By | 45 Replies More

Carl Sagan’s new article can be found in the March/April 2007 edition of Skeptical Inquirer.  It is titled “Science’s Vast Cosmic Perspective Eludes Religion.”

Well, okay.  As you know, Carl Sagan died of pneumonia in 1996.  This “new” article was actually prepared by Ann Druyan, based on lectures Sagan gave in 1985.

Sagan begins the article by pointing out that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.  This, he finds, is “a useful calibration of our place in the universe.”  Nonetheless, virtually no religion has taken into account “this vast number of worlds [or] the enormous scale of the universe.”

If, as Sagan argues, life is commonplace throughout the universe, “it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of the whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe. . . [T]hat is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well-being of intelligent creatures.” 

Sagan concludes by arguing that the God portrayed by traditional religions “is too small.  It is a God of a tiny world and not a God of a galaxy, much less of a universe.”   Sagan suggests that science is, “at least in part, informed worship.”  Further, curiosity and intelligence, to the extent provided by a God, would be gifts, which we must use.  This passage reminds me of a humorous drawing I posted a few days ago.

Even if a traditional God does not exist, “then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time.”  

I found Sagan’s article compelling. God’s own book forgot to tell us that the universe is almost unimaginably large.  In light of well-published findings of modern astronomers and biologists, it would be nonsensical to doubt that life abounds throughout the universe.  Nonetheless, most religions avoid discussion of this possibility of the universe as A) existing and B) constituting a fertile field for large number of sentient life forms.

It’s just much easier to talk about an artificially contained story involving a man, woman and the serpent in an earthly garden.  To the extent that fundamentalists (and even more “liberal” religions) focus only on Earth, however, the rest of the universe is a very big elephant in the room.  If many believers have their way, 99.99999…% of the universe is dispensible frivolous scenary for the only show in town, everything worthwhile allegedly occurring on a single tiny blue speck.  

Sagan’s point might just be the best reason of all for demonstrating the arrogance, ignorance and silliness of the inerrancy crowd. 


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Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (45)

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  1. gatomjp says:

    "If you would qualify your assertion with the phrase “that I will accept” I would be able to recognize your personal conviction on that matter."

    Touche! Very well put.

  2. gatomjp says:


    Please allow me to add that I do not accept the "proofs" that you accept because I find the evidence to be paltry and often clearly (to me) made up.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    Just to throw in a little personal perspective here, I am not "offended" byu Larry's assertions. Impatient, occasionally, certainly bemused, but not offended. He does not personally attack anyone, which would be the basis for offense.

    When someone steps forward and offers their gut response to something as "proof" of something, it takes that something out of the realm of conversational discourse. What can you say to that? It invites one of three reactions: either an assumption that the speaker is (a) loony, (b) lying, or (c) deceived. This happens to everyone. (I'm sure there is an equivalent of this going on in discussions of string theory as there were back in the day when quantum mechanics was new.)

    Larry operates out of a playbook most of us rejected long ago. He insists it's still valid. His choice of language reflects his certitude, no more no less. It amounts to a claim of Identity and he will not be dissuaded. I would presume that for many of us, the proofs we accept to dispute his perspective are NOT claims of Identity. My skepticism of biblical (or supernatural) claims are not the basis of my apprehension of who I am and, given "proof" that I am wrong about these things, I would not be damaged if I found myself having to abandon them. I suspect–though this is a guess–Larry's identity would be damaged if somehow he perceived solid evidence that in this he was wrong.

    There are many things we all accept as fact which we ourselves could not defend in absolute terms. We have the equivalent of instinct guiding us in this. Study, however, would probably validate them. I merely point out that in this context, Larry's absolutism is, by itself, no worse than our skepticism.

    The only mistake I see him making is the same one he sees us making toward him–that of defining a priori the nature of our beliefs. Scientism does not exist except among those who absolutely do not undersrtand science. But there's no church, no dogma, no ritual–there is only process and on that basis, no creed that can be legitimately compared with religion. Most people who disdain science (and I do not include Larry in this, for I do not know) mischaracterize science in their defense of numinal ascendency. They don't understand what it is only that it keeps undermining what they think is "true." This is sad, because it indicates that they don't know what truth is to begin with. They want facts to underpin their beliefs.

    But at base, what we have here is a language problem more than anything else.

    Just a comment.

  4. Vicki says:

    I agree with EO Wilson that "the Creation" is a useful metaphor for life on Earth. Given that it is the only human life-support system we know of, and that we currently have no idea how to re-create it should we break it beyond repair. Like Wilson, I wonder why creationists are so complacent about the current rate of species loss, How can you honor "the Creation" and be OK with an economic system that considers it acceptable to destroy an entire mountain to extract a few shekels of a gold?

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I don't know about creationists, but I do know that the potentially broader category of evangelicals ARE getting greener. There's been quite a bit written on it lately. Here's a link to a story by Bill Moyers on that political shift.

    I write "potentially broader" because creationists believe in Bible inerrancy (everything in the Bible is exactly literally true) whereas evangelicals believe in the "authority" of the Bible, which might or might not include inerrancy. Not to nitpick my own point here, but it would seem that those evangelicals who are turning green probably aren't the ones who are the creationists.

    Bottom line: I concur with Vicki. It puzzles me how any group would exploit the environment to the severe detriment of coming generations. It's stealing from our children/grandchildren. How one can do it, especially in the name of the Being who allegedly created it all is beyond me.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's what I SHOULD have written immediately above regarding the shifting landscape of conservative believers regarding the issue of the environment: Check out "Subduing the Earth" by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Consider this additional quote by Carl Sagan:

    How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? 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.

    Here's the source:

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    An illustration of the absurdly tiny fundamentalist Christian universe:  see here.

  9. Erik Brewer says:

    Is there any proof (scientifically) that there is life anywhere else in the universe. Please do not give me theory, give me concrete evidence.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Erik: I have no photographs of aliens from other planets. Your question will get different guestimates based on the type of "life" you are seeking. If you're looking for single celled life, it would presumably be a higher likelihood than if you're seeking sentient conscious beings.

    There is now evidence that there are many other planets "out there." Perhaps many of them are like Earth.… Consider, also the Drake formula to guide your speculation.

  11. There is, as yet, no proof of life anywhere else besides the Earth. There is ample evidence of life's potential.

    Isaac Asimov (among hundreds of other useful books) wrote a book called "Extraterrestrial Civilizations" back in 1980 which does one of the best jobs of any of breaking down the whole Drake formula into meaningful steps of extrapolation. He concluded that, if only by the odds against Earth being the only civilization-bearing planet in the galaxy, there ought to be roughly 30,000 extant civilizations (however they may be defined—he opted for tool-using) in the Milky Way Galaxy.

    This, however, is speculation. We've detected no radio signals, found no artifacts, witnessed, despite the ardent claims of the Von Daniken crowd, nothing to indicate the actual existence of such civilizations.

    This fact does not allow for the wholesale insertion of claims-as-fact that there aren't any and that "we" are it (by design).

    (One difficulty is the distances involved. We're just now getting around, after several thousand years or more of progress, to visiting and examining our nearest planetary neighbors—where we're finding all kinds of tantalizing evidence for the potential for life. Getting to another star system is going to take, er, a bit more time.)

  12. Erik Brewer says:

    so we have to assume or better said believe that there is life out there even though we have no proof, sounds like another theory I have heard anyway, that is another story. When compared to Christ, we have tons of evidence yet many chose to believe that there are aliens with no proof instead of believing Christ with lots of proof, what smart people we are in the 21st century

  13. Jekub says:

    I personally find it hard to believe that an omnipotent and omniscient being created an entire universe just to give humanity a place to stand while worshiping It. Richard Dawkins espresses a similar sentiment.

  14. Karl says:

    Dawkins is welcome to his sentiments.

    Anyone who limits what God can and can’t do because of their personal individual perspective concerning what they have observed has not moved a lick from a geocentric view of reality.

    I find it rather small minded to think that the God of inter-related physical matter and energy leaves them to interact without purpose.

    There could very well be other created worlds that could be hospitable to physical livings creatures. Some of them may contain automatons that have no options in what they can and can not do. Others may contain other created beings that also are being redeemed from their sin and self-centeredness like human kind.

    I find it rather small minded to think that those who believe in the importance of human life would limit the creator to anything but the infinite as far as their minds can conceive.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Curious. I find it rather small minded to think that those who believe in the importance of human life would limit themselves to require a creator…of the supernatural sort…parents as creators are a given.

  15. Karl says:

    You should carry your logical implications along these lines.

    If “requiring” a supernatural creator whose actual modus operandi is inevitably beyond human observation and imagination is a limitation.


    If “requiring” un-supernatural interactions between matter and energy that can be envisioned by human imagination is somehow being less limited,

    Then who is correct or incorrect in their definition of what they describe as a “limitation?”

    Who has chosen a set of interpreted evidences as their finite set of possibilities that is not suppose to be called a limitation?

    Who refrains from having to require that their thoughts be wrapped around what they currently believe they can observe, hypothesize and claim to understand?

    Creationists don’t ignore observable evidences, they just don’t limit themselves to there being just one way to interpret what the imaginations of others says they must mean.

    Creationists by description don’t rule out the possibility of God being beyond finite human limitations.

    Many times throughout history many scientists and “creationists” have used their customary observations and beliefs and not their imaginations to construct their “scientific” understanding as a limitation upon the Creator.

    What do atheists think along such these lines?

    Do they claim to let science speak for itself? Or do they state that those speaking for naturalistic science often want nothing to do with the concept of a Creator.

    In these cases they may well be speaking for only mere human imaginings.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Sounds like you’ve been learning from Alan Sokal (or Rand McNally), Karl. I’ll pick one from your scattershot to turn back on you (as I did with your original pronouncement): Do you really think creationists don’t “limit themselves to just one way”? Every one I have ever met, or read, pretty much does.

  16. Karl says:

    Both creationists and atheists and all manner of people for that matter have a tendency to believe that they either can or cannot describe for you how event A is or is not related to event B.

    The valid position for a creationist to take is that while more and more can be discovered about how event A may or may not be in some way related to event B, it will always be possible for anyone’s thinking patterns to run amuck and become encumbered with personal ideology concerning whatever natural laws one believes are hard, fast and invariant.

    Those that say there are only natural laws governing any potential cause and effect relationships have to point to probability and co-incidence or chance events as a fundamental given in how they interpret matters that can not be proven about many events both past and present.

    However, it is observable to the creationist at present that chance and probability combined with other natural laws does not create order, but rather its opposite, disorder.

    There are those that state there are natural laws of probability or chance to try to explain what is really not clear to currently operating natural laws. This includes ideas like, “Where did the first fully operating, reproducing cell come from?” It also includes ideas such as, “If there is a rapid increase in the number of harmful mutations in the human genome, how long does the human race have to exist?”

    All the actual creationist should do in reality is refrain from fully believing that the natural laws seen operating today (which includes order being the result of probability) are the only laws that can be used to describe if event A is or is not related to event B in some way or not.

    To the creationist, any linking that is made between between event A and event B that does not have a clear existing natural law observable is left to be attributed to a yet not understood cause or supra-natural incidents.

    To the atheistic evolutionist, these same matters are left to probability and chance being applied in ways though actually are opposed to currently observed patterns must be believed if one limits oneself to what they hold to be hard, fast and invariant natural laws.

    Atheists limit themselves to believing human understanding and “science” can explain what is of importance to them. Creationists do not limit themselves to this same mind set. Simply put they try and not put the importance of the creation above that of its creator, who is not bound by the actual laws or rates of natural laws we see in operation today.

    Is that what you believe about the limitations of creationsits?

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