From the Archives: Advice for Those Buying a Used Religion

This is a second repost of something I wrote on my old blog about Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience, which are essentially a transcript of his Gifford Lectures. Sagan’s approach to religion is so thoughtful, level-headed, and rational that it is tempting to advocate “Saganism”, an approach to truth that is open to both the sciences and spirituality, and which acknowledges (as Sagan did) that the spiritual quest and the human effort to understand out place in the universe did not end 1,400 or 2,000 or some other number of years ago. Rather, it continues (pp.x-xi,xv-xvi). His lectures began (p.1) with a quotation from Plutarch: “The truly pious must negotiate a difficult course between the precipice of godlessness and the marsh of supersitition”.

One of my favorite analogies in the book is between buying a used car and choosing a religion (pp.144-145). It is not enough, Sagan emphasizes, to know that you really need a car. You seek for evidence, and know that the salesman cannot always be trusted. Yet many people not only do not seek critical investigation of religious claims, they get upset when purported miracles are disproved or at least cast into question (p.138). Thomas Paine made an argument that is as powerful today as ever: “We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course. But we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time. It is therefore at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie” (quoted pp.136-137). According to the Bible, God gave great and undoubtable signs – parting seas, fire from heaven, and so on. Yet Sagan asks the pertinent question: “why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?” (p.167). Unless Christians and other religious believers are to abandon reason altogether or compartimentalize the Bible out from the world we live in today, then such questions must be reflected on seriously and not dismissed.

Another key moment in the book is his discussion of nuclear war in relation to American Protestant fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to be premillenialists who believe that there is an apocalyptic end of the world in store in the near future. Hal Lindsay famously offered his Cold War interpretation of Revelation, with allusions to a nuclear holocaust. It is not at all difficult to imagine a Christian leader of the nation or the military who either willingly and actively accepts the role of pushing the button and bringing in the apocalypse, or who at the very least decides not to stand in the way of the final unfolding of God’s ultimate plan (p.207). If you thought that Islamic fundamentalism is more dangerous to the future of humanity than Christian fundamentalism, think again.

In spite of his (entirely appropriate) skepticism about miracles and the supernatural, Sagan has an appreciation for the positive contribution of religion to human history that critics such as Dawkins and Dennett lack (pp.206-207). For those seeking a reasoned guide on the spiritual quest, one can do far worse than Carl Sagan. Arm yourself with inspired spiritual writings (both scriptural and contemporary), and Sagan’s famous baloney-detection kit, and you most likely will not go wrong.

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  • Jared

    I just gave Sagan's book to my mom. I have never actually read it, but she is reading it right now. Maybe I'll borrow it when she is finished.

  • Scott F

    "Unless Christians and other religious believers are to abandon reason altogether or compartimentalize the Bible out from the world we live in today, then such questions must be reflected on seriously and not dismissed."That's it. What the Bible portrays is completely at odds with the world as we experience it while the scientific method has at least produced results consistent with our observations. I have the same problem with those who claim that the Kingdom of God commenced two thousand years ago.

  • Jay

    I'm glad you reposted this, James. I'll have to get my hands on a copy of Sagan's book.