Carl Sagan: TV Evangelist

While he often played the role of scientific high priest, the late Carl Sagan didn’t own a set of liturgical vestments.

Thus, he wore his academic regalia as he ascended into the pulpit of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Oct. 3, 1993, the Feast of St. Francis. The rite for the day — the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” — included taped cries of wolves and whales and a procession featuring an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees and a bowl of blue-green algae. Musicians sang praises to Ra, Ausar and other gods, as well as to Jehovah.

The astronomer was right at home, weaving threads of science into a mystical litany — while remaining light years from theism.

“Life fills every nook and cranny of our planet’s surface,” said Sagan. “There are bacteria in the upper air, jumping spiders at the tops of the highest mountains, sulfur-metabolizing worms in the deep ocean trenches and heat-loving microbes kilometers below the surface of the land. Almost all of these beings are in intimate contact. They eat and drink one another, breath each other’s waste gases, inhabit one another’s bodies. … They have generated a web of mutual dependence and interaction that embraces the planet.”

After his death on Dec. 20, Sagan was praised for his work as director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies, as a Pulitzer Prize- winning author and as an apologist for science on public television. He was the rare intellectual who could trade gags with Johnny Carson.

Truth is, Sagan was a talented “TV evangelist,” said Robert C. Newman, who, while he has a Cornell doctorate in astrophysics, teaches at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa. Sagan even opened his most famous programs with an unbeliever’s creed: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

“Now, by Sagan’s own definition of the methodology of science, this is not a scientific statement. This is a religious statement,” said Newman, in a 1981 lecture at Cornell. Sagan could not have researched everything in the past and it’s impossible to do lab work in the future. Thus, “the Cosmos is all that is,” must be considered a “faith statement,” said Newman.

After the Mass at St. John the Divine, I asked Sagan whether his religious views had evolved in recent years. Was he, perhaps, trying to create a kind of modern deism or some fusion of science and Eastern spirituality?

Sagan said that while some of his images may have changed, he continued to reject the notion of a transcendent God that existed outside the world, universe or cosmos.

“I remain inexorably opposed to any kind of revealed religion and reject any talk of a personal god,” said Sagan, while posing for news crews with clergy on the cathedral steps. “But millions of people believe in a god that is not that kind of god.” Using the classic image of a divine watchmaker, he added: “Some might say, for example, that there is some kind of force or power in the watch — a set of laws, perhaps. Then the watch creates itself. I’m more comfortable with that kind of language.”

In his novel, “Contact,” Sagan was very specific about which religions can embrace this concept, and which cannot. In a debate with a Christian, his protagonist explains why she rejects belief in the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“When I say I’m an agnostic, I only mean that the evidence isn’t in,” says astronomer Eleanor Arroway, who will be played by actress Jodie Foster in an upcoming Hollywood movie. “There isn’t compelling evidence that God exists — at least your kind of god — and there isn’t compelling evidence that he doesn’t.” By the end of the book, Sagan’s heroine accepts that the universe was “made on purpose” and contains evidence of an “artist’s signature.”

At that point, said Newman, Sagan may have been “dabbling with the concept of a god. … He may even have been moving toward some form of pantheism. It’s hard to tell. What we do know is that he remained totally opposed to the God of the Bible.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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