Why Sagan Matters

As the reboot of the famous Cosmos TV show is set to begin, with Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm, original host Carl Sagan is the subject of a great deal of discussion. Kimberly Winston at the Washington Post looks at Sagan’s enormous influence in the atheist, skeptic and humanist community and quotes a lot of people I’m happy to consider friends.

Among this group, many credit Sagan and the original “Cosmos” with instilling in them skepticism of the supernatural and a sense of wonder about the universe. Both, they say, encouraged their rejection of institutional religion.

Humanists are especially eager. They claim Sagan as their own, and see in the “Cosmos” series — a multipart journey to the outer reaches of our universe — and in his dozen books a vibrant strain of their own philosophy. That philosophy favors reason over religion and holds human beings as both good and responsible for the Earth’s plight.

“In my eyes, Carl Sagan represents the ‘yes’ and possibility of Humanism rather than just the ‘no’ and the disagreement,” said Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a blogger for Religion News Service. “For that reason I think he occupies a special place among humanists and atheists.”…

“His idea of the immensity of the universe and how small we are just impressed me so much as a teenager,” said Amanda Knief, managing director for American Atheists and owner of a 3-year-old Yorkie named Sagan. “It really led me to look beyond the religion I was raised in and shaped my Humanism.”…

“Here’s where Humanism comes in, because it’s not as though he was some hard-core atheist activist,” said Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry who first encountered Sagan through his parents.

“He showed us that to marvel at life on our planet was to cherish it and work to preserve it. For that, we have to reject bad, old modes of thinking, look at the world as it really is rather than how we’d like to believe it is, and tackle the crises that face us.”

Let me join the chorus. I never actually watched the original Cosmos series, but two of Sagan’s books, Broca’s Brain and The Demon-Haunted World, were huge influences on my thinking. The first one came to my attention when I was still struggling with my Christian faith as a teenager and the ideas in it were so powerful, so alluring and compelling to me that they helped lead me to ultimately reject those beliefs. The second, which came out long after I had left religion behind and become a secular humanist, reinforced for me the importance of the pursuit of knowledge. I imagine many of my readers have similar experiences and memories.

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  • I still remember his Faraday Christmas lecture, broadcast on the Beeb back in the mid 70’s. Great use of mud!

  • sc_8f33ff6bd4640c342da2c2a6e4c1de2f

    You can still watch them http://www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures/watch, at least in the UK. That’s my telly sorted for this week 🙂

  • colnago80

    I did not watch Cosmos when it was originally aired but downloaded the 13 episodes a few years ago from BitTorrent. In addition to the Cosmos series, one should also mention a 13 part series, The Ascent of Man, hosted by the mathematician Jacob Bronowski which can also be downloaded from BitTorrent. It makes a nice bookend to the Cosmos series.

  • @ sc_8f33ff6bd4640c342da2c2a6e4c1de2f

    what a charming name, if a bit old fashioned 🙂

    Seems like we can watch them in the US too. Thanks SC

  • eric

    It was good of Tyson (and the producers) to discuss the original Cosmos and Sagan’s contributions to science and science popularism in the reboot. I thought some other parts of the first show were a bit heavy-handed, but I’ll keep watching it. Tyson is at his best (IMO) when he’s just talking down-to-earth about science. The bells and whistles are somewhat unnecessary. Of course, the very use of cartoons also tells me that I am probably not the target audience, so I can’t complain too much about the material designed to reach people other than me.

  • confidenceandparanoia

    Hi Richard, @4, I thought that it was a bit too revealing, so I chose one that hides my identity.

  • confidenceandparanoia

    Oh look, its picked up my Gravatar as well 🙂

  • omcdurham

    I watched the original series during its 1980 run on PBS when I was 12. My dad had Sagan’s book as well, but we were mainly interested in the idea of outer space as an extension of God’s work, as we were actively Christian. Sagan’s voice as the narrator was so calming, so smooth, and so full of wonderful energy at the same time!

    Within a few years, I had mostly forgotten about my interest in the universe due to my interest in girls, schoolwork, and playing baseball. By 1982, my family had moved from Michigan to the Bible Belt, where Carl Sagan was a no-name huckster. While having lost my interest in the universe, I also lost interest in religion while living in Georgia.

    Fast forward to 2007. I met a woman who became my wife. She is an astronomy junkie by hobby, an organic chemist by trade. She got me back into what Sagan was trying to express in that TV series, and as such I read many of his books. She also pushed me off the religion fence I had been riding into realizing that I probably had been a closet atheist since I was much younger.

    After watching episode 1 of the reboot, I appreciate Sagan’s work that much more!

  • @ confidence

    It was just that that number was sooooooo long 🙂

  • …said Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a blogger for Religion News Service…


  • Wylann

    I’ve had the luck and pleasure to meet Sagan. He was very nice and as down to earth in person as he appears on his show. The part at the end about Tyson’s experience with Sagan brought a tear to my eye. Given his personal, and direct, experience with Sagan, I’m not surprised to see how much of Sagan’s original words were used in this episode, and I hope the series continues. It’s a nice homage and update to the original.

    …and we’ve learned so much since then!

  • confidenceandparanoia

    Richard @9, I know, something to do with google+, I had to open a wordpress account to get rid of it.

  • NitricAcid

    Many years ago, my uncle (who was staying with us after being kicked out by his wife) happened to have the book version of COSMOS, and left it at our house. I spent many years poring over that massive tome (to a twelve-year-old, it was massive), and it was probably the biggest influence my uncle ever had on me. I didn’t watch the TV show for many years after that, and the first time I saw it broadcast, I could barely watch it because of Sagan’s accent. I still prefer the book.

  • colnago80

    Re NitricAcid @ #13

    I could barely watch it because of Sagan’s accent. I still prefer the book.

    I just replayed a short segment of the 1st Cosmos episode and did not detect any particular accent, certainly not a Brooklyn accent, on the part of Sagan.

  • Johnny Au Gratin

    On my birthday in 1990 Voyager 1 took a picture of the Earth from the edge of the Solar system. Four years later Carl Sagan wrote this about that picture in his book Pale Blue Dot.

    “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

    Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

    The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

    It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

    I consider this chain of events the best birthday present I ever received.

  • demonhauntedworld

    You might say that Sagan had an influence on me, too. 🙂

  • dingojack

    demonhauntedworld – really? It doesn’t show. 🙂

    See here (The coloured line is a ring of Neptune).

    Or a little closer in. (Can you spot Earth?)


  • dingojack

    I also find this image of the young star HR 8799 pretty amazing. These are the first gas giants that have been directly imaged in orbit around a star, other than our own.

    One can almost hear Galileo muttering* : ‘And yet she moves’.



    * quoting someone else