“I would suggest that science is, at least in my part, informed worship.”
Who said this? Perhaps you’re thinking it has a sense of the New Age about it, a slight hint of woo. Maybe it’s the sort of thing you might expect Deepak Chopra to say, an amalgam of pseudoscience and feel-good spirituality that is fed to credulous seekers for a “reasonable” price. It’s surely not, you may think, something any self-respecting naturalist would would allow to pass their lips.
But no. The concept of “informed worship” was introduced by none other than Humanist icon and renowned astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience. In this marvelous collection of lectures, Sagan describes science as a way of reveling in the extraordinary complexity of the universe by seeking to understand as much as we can. He asked
If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy?
He comes down, of course, in favor of the knowledgeable votaries, arguing that the best way to “worship” the cosmos is to learn about it. Countering those who claim that science strips all the wonder and mystery from the world, Sagan shows how our quest for knowledge frequently uncovers deeper mysteries to be solved, and how the answers we glean through scientific exploration are magnitudes more magical than the fantasies we had concocted before we attained real explanations.
In Pale Blue Dot Sagan goes even further, saying
A religion 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 traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
“A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science”? This is worse than “informed worship” – it’s enough to make many atheists cringe. Surely these words do not come from a respected scientist? But they do. And it is no isolated feature, no rhetorical flourish found in a quote or two and nowhere else. Running through all Sagan’s work is what is best described as a worshipful reverence for the amazing reality which science uncovers, a reality which Sagan, like any great teacher, wished to share with the world.
Sagan’s reverence for the wonders of the universe sounds forth most clearly in his TV series Cosmos. In 13 episodes, over 780 minutes, Sagan takes the viewer on a personal voyage through the cosmos in his Spaceship of the Imagination, accompanied by the music of Vangelis. Yes, this was a product of the seventies, and it shows: the special effects now look tacky, and Sagan’s outfits (tan corduroy jacket complemented by a red turtleneck, anyone?)… the less said the better. Sagan’s bushy-eyebrowed wonder, and his use of words like “worship” and “religion” seem equally passé in an intellectual climate in which science and religion have been put sharply at odds. The idea of a form of “scientific worship” might seem heretical to those who follow the New Atheists, and a “religion of science” is a step too far for many.
However, this series, 30 years after it was made, is still one of the most widely-watched PBS Series in the world, and is an inspiration to millions of people. There is a brisk trade in second-hand copies of the DVD box-set, and seekers are happy to hand over more than $100 for a new copy. Among those who enjoy science documentaries, Cosmos is still almost universally adored. Something about Sagan’s vision still appeals today. Could it be that Sagan’s concept of science as “informed worship”, and his vision of a “religion” that “stresses the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science” has more pull on us than many contemporary atheists are willing to contemplate?
I believe so, and to understand the continuing appeal of Sagan’s concept of religion we have to note where he was coming from. Sagan’s approach to religion was strictly rationalistic: he saw religions as sociological and psychological phenomena which were created by human beings to fulfill human needs. One of these needs involved understanding the world around us – why the sun seems to move across the sky, for example – and these needs have been almost entirely “taken over” by science as it has progressed, explaining the things religion used to explain. In this area religion is redundant: we no longer need Helios and his chariot to explain how the sun appears to move across the sky.
But another need that religion has traditionally filled is the desire to wonder at the universe, to experience a sense of awe and of the magnitude of things – we seek Res Miranda, something to be marveled at. The genius of Sagan’s vision is that he flings up his hands toward the sky and shows us that there is plenty to wonder at without stepping outside the natural. Our own attempts to understand our situation and the universe in which we exist provide endless material for amazement, and are rich with a complexity lacking in any religious text.
Or, at least, any religious text written by humans. Because if we are to take Sagan at his word, the whole Cosmos should be the text we struggle to interpret, the whole of What Is the center of our religion. In tones reverential Sagan once said
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
Can we bring ourselves to join him in wonder?