An Example of Atheist Faith

by Eric Steinhart

Here’s a nice statement of atheistic faith by Carl Sagan: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” (1980: 1). Such a statement is as faith-based as any statement in the Bible or in Christian theology. After all, it’s just a mirror-image of the statement that God is all that is or ever was or ever will be. (Or, better, it’s the atheistic version of the opening verses of John.)

Sagan’s Grand Slogan isn’t scientific by any standard. His statement about the Cosmos certainly isn’t empirically testable. There is no possible experiment that could either confirm it or disconfirm it. It isn’t even a hypothesis derived from observable evidence. Obviously, nobody went outside of our universe, took a look around, and saw that there isn’t anything else.

The temporality of the Grand Slogan makes it doubly faith-based: How does Sagan know that there was nothing before the Cosmos and that there will be nothing after the Cosmos? Or that time is endless both into the past and the future? He doesn’t know. And there aren’t even any ways to scientifically test those claims about the past or future.

So the Grand Slogan is just a statement of atheistic faith.

And it’s even worse: the Grand Slogan is a statement of faith that is masquerading as science. It’s atheistic pseudo-science just like intelligent design is Christian pseudo-science. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s scientism.

More charitably, the Grand Slogan is a speculative metaphysical thesis. And there are going to be arguments for it and against it. I love metaphysics; I’m happy if scientists and atheists want to do it. I’d love to discuss all the arguments and counter-arguments. But to present metaphysics as if it were science is at best bad reasoning and at worst deceptive. And atheists do it all the time.

Sagan, C. (1980) Cosmos. New York: Random House.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James Sweet

    I take Sagan’s slogan there to be more of a definitional than a factual statement, i.e. the Cosmos is defined as all that exists/existed/will exist. If something else comes along that demonstrably exists, it would by definition be part of the Cosmos. At least, that’s my interpretation of what he said.

    Even if not, we could argue that he was intending a scientific statement about what is observable rather than a metaphysical statement about what might exist but is not observable. Do you think his statement is contradicted by multiverse theory?

  • Eric Steinhart

    Sagan’s statement could be read as definitional (but then why use the term “cosmos”? why not say “God”?) And, yes, I think that his statement is contradicted by many versions of the multiverse (especially the string-theory landscape, and Tegmark’s level IV multiverse).

    • Daniel Fincke

      The key question though is—are atheists refusing to consider all these scientific theories of multiverses out of a dogmatic allegiance to Sagan? I just do not see that. Sagan made an overstatement or a definitional one in the context of popularizing anti-supernaturalism (not in a peer review context). That’s different than the establishment of a rigid faith.

      Another important point is that not all God belief is faith-based or faith-structured. In fact, much of what modern people believe only by faith others would believe as common sense in a different culture where it is the only known (or seriously considered) way of thinking. Those people might still be totally wrong, but they would not have the uneasily tense relationship with empirical evidence that modern religious believers struggle to cope with.

    • Daniel Fincke

      so, to finish that thought—I’m not sure all talk of “God as everything” is or was faith driven. For those who think they are saying such things because it’s the best metaphysical theory, it’s not a matter of faith—even if they’re still mistaken.

  • Eric Steinhart

    I’m giving an example of an atheist statement of faith. That’s all.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Only it’s not at all an example of an “atheist statement of faith” and it’s nowhere near as “as faith-based as any statement in the Bible or in Christian theology”. There are plenty of Christian theological statements which are not simple definitions. If taken not as a definition but as a metaphysical proposition, Sagan’s remark is still revisable, based in a scientifically warranted naturalism, non-dogmatically promulgated and connected to no community of faith which enforces this view as necessary. In all these and other ways, this is far less a statement of faith than many in the Bible and Christian theology.

      It’s an unfair false equivalence and simple contrarianism to say something as broad as what you’re saying here.

  • James Sweet

    Okay, so you agree then that it is qualitatively different in many important ways from the “statements of faith” made by theists?

    but then why use the term “cosmos”? why not say “God”?

    Why use the term “metaphysics”? Why not say “jibber-jabber”?

    I kid. My point is, the recognition that semantics are arbitrary does not give you license to go semantically unhinged. There are certain expectations about what words mean, certain pre-existing connotations. And fair enough then, by choosing to use the word “cosmos” to define all that exists, Sagan is connoting naturalism. I don’t really see a problem with that, though, since he was after all doing a science program, not a TV show about metaphysics, and science more or less requires naturalism (at the very least of the methodological kind).

    Let me tackle that from the opposite direction: A provisional belief in naturalism is pretty effin’ defensible, whereas a provisional belief in the supernatural is IMO completely indefensible. There’s uncountable cases where naturalism works to make predictions, and zero cases where supernaturalism works to make accurate predictions about reality. So while one could argue that “The cosmos is everything” and “God is everything” are synonymous statements, the connotations associated with the former are defensible, and the connotations associated with the latter are not.

    On a related note:

  • George W.

    I agree that Sagan’s statement in the broader sense is unfalsifiable and bordering on some kind of “empirical mysticism”, but I caution that in context that is not what he was driving at.
    The point of his statement, I believe, is to say that all that is worthy of being said to “exist” is that which has the characteristic of existence. Not necessarily that we ought to assume nothing exists that we cannot perceive, but that we ought not perceive things into being that do not exist.
    I realize that statement sounds like I’m the Anti-Deepak Chopra, but it is what it is…..

  • James Sweet

    Eric, you also didn’t really address this critique from Daniel:

    are atheists refusing to consider all these scientific theories of multiverses out of a dogmatic allegiance to Sagan?

    Right, exactly. When we make statements, we do not always attach all the necessary caveats and qualifications, but that does not make it an inherently faith-based belief. If I assert without qualification, “Archeopteryx is not a bird,” is that a statement of faith just because I didn’t tack on “according to our best evidence”? Of course not.

    I recognize this is somewhat different, because the claim “archeopteryx is not a bird” is falsifiable, whereas you are asserting that Sagan’s claim is not (though I think one could argue that it was depending on how you interpret what he meant by “exist”, a la George W’s comment above, but I don’t want to focus on that). But still, my point is that a claim stated without qualification is not necessarily equivalent to a claim stated with the full confidence of outright faith thrown behind it. The qualification may be omitted.