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.