Wait, What? Carl Sagan Was NOT an Atheist?

Wait, What? Carl Sagan Was NOT an Atheist? November 13, 2014


I don’t know where I got this idea, but I’ve always thought that Carl Sagan, the astronomer whose popular show “Cosmos” incited interest in the heavens, did not believe in Heaven.
 Nor, I thought, did he believe in an Almighty God, who lives in the aforementioned Heaven.

I am gratified to report that I was at least partly wrong.  Perhaps his most famous quote from “Cosmos”–after the iconic “Billions and billions of stars”–is what’s come to be known as the Sagan Standard:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” 

But just as he found the evidence for Christianity (at least as far as he understood it) to be wanting, so, too, did he find atheists’ refutation of faith as unpersuasive.

*     *     *     *     *

I was doing research for my article over at Aleteia regarding the Vatican astronomer, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is today accepting the prestigious Carl Sagan Award.  The American Astronomical Society, in announcing the award last July, said that Consolmagno “occupies a unique position within our profession as a credible spokesperson for scientific honesty within the context of religious belief.”

Anyway, I learned that Carl Sagan most definitely was not an atheist, although he would fall into the “agnostic” camp. To be sure, he mocked the idea of God as “an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow.”  But I would argue that the anthropomorphic view of a wooly-white God the Father is only a tool for the imagination–that humans benefit from mind-pictures, even while they know that their artistic depictions are woefully inadequate.

 In fact, Sagan had some serious criticisms of atheism.  “An atheist,” he said,

“…is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists.

To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”

But while Sagan stopped short of embracing Christianity, he believed that Faith and Reason were partners, and he openly acknowledged the existence of mystery.  He said,

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

And in January 1990, Sagan joined 22 other scientists in signing “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth,” an environmental statement by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.  In it, he avers that 

“The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment… Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science.”

Asked directly about his religious views in 1996, Sagan explained, “I’m agnostic.”  He’s been called “pantheist”; but he seems to ascribe to Spinoza’s view of “God” as a singular self-subsistent substance, with both matter and thought being attributes of such.

Later that same year, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62.  By now, he’s had all his questions answered.

 

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  • JohnE_o

    Well, yeah – he’s in the tradition of Spinoza and Einstein…

  • Sven2547

    He rejected the term “atheist”, but he fit the bill by any practical definition. He firmly and unequivocally rejected the supernatural in his book, The Demon-Haunted World.

    • Cake

      Can’t blame them, xtians are mad crazy about redefining words.

    • Jason Clark

      The oldest and most common definition of “atheist” is “someone who believes we are without gods” or “believes there are no gods”. That’s not compatible with Sagan’s view.

      “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley

      That, however, is perfectly in line with Sagan’s view.

      • Not So Arrogant Atheist

        I think he was a pantheist.
        Look at his views on nature.

        • Jason Clark

          “I’m agnostic.” ~ Carl Sagan, 1996

          • Not So Arrogant Atheist

            Eh.

  • Name

    Sounds like grasping at straws to me. Few atheists take the hard position that “there is no god,” rather, that the available evidence does not support the existence of one. Today this is referred to as weak atheism, or agnostic atheism.

    • fredx2

      It is pretty daren weak then, and it actually makes you an agnostic, not an atheist. What you are saying is the person is betting on the fact that there is no God. But since he can’t be sure, he reserves judment that there might be a God. That is called agnosticism.

      • islandbrewer

        *sigh* Another theist who doesn’t understand. “Agnosticism” is a term referring to one’s certainty. Whether one believe’s in a god(s) or not makes one a theist or an atheist. Agnosticism isn’t actually a middle ground, although atheists have often used the term to stave off being labelled as an atheist.

        Consider this:

        I have no actual proof that there are any leprechauns. I do not believe that there are such things as leprechauns. I do not for a fact know that leprechauns do not exist, but the evidence that there are leprechauns is non-existent, such that the existence of leprechauns is discountable.

        I am “agnostic” towards the existence of leprechauns, and I believe they do not exist, and as such am an “aleprechaunist.”

        Do you believe in leprechauns? Are you certain they don’t exist?

      • heterodox

        Come on now, it’s not that difficult to understand. If you lack a belief in God, but aren’t sure it doesn’t exist, you are both an atheist and an agnostic. Atheist because you lack the belief, agnostic because you don’t claim to know for sure. They are not mutually exclusive terms.

        • Josh SF

          Thank you for this comment. I’m tired of the atheist vs. agnostic distinction. To me its not mutually exclusive, presents a false dichotomy, and from a scientific perspective the distinction is practically non-existent.

      • DavidMHart

        Perhaps a useful thing here, and indeed, generally in life, is to ask ourselves and others to put numerical probability estimates on their claims, if they can, and see if that reduces confusion.

        For example, a hard, absolutist atheist would assign exactly 0% probability to the existence of any gods (so long as we first define those gods in such a way that their existence would be meaningfully different from their non-existence). That would be a strong claim to make, and is vulnerable to the proverbial demon with infinite powers of deception, as well as the more likely scenario of the hard atheist simply not being in full possession of all the evidence, or having made a mistake in his or her interpretation of it.

        But such people, I contend, are rare. Most atheists I think would concede that there is a chance that they are mistaken about the non-existence of any god or gods. But where it gets interesting is what would happen when you try to quantify that uncertainty. For my own money, I would say that it is possible that I am mistaken in believing that the number of existent gods is zero, but the probability is so low, on present evidence, that I couldn’t get a handle on how to calculate it. The probability that at least one god exists is, on present evidence, as far as I can see, somewhere in the same ballpark as the probability of the existence of leprechauns, kelpies, Santa Claus, the truth-claims of astrology, the new laws of physics implied by the truth-claims of homeopathy, ghosts, reincarnation, djinns, Cthulhu and of course, Sagan’s dragon-in-the-garage.

        I guess technically I am an agnostic on all of those questions, but I am for all practical purposes, in the real world living my life as a non-believer in any of them: my probability estimate in each case is so low as to be statistically indistinguishable from zero – as I assume is true of you too, with the one (three?) exception(s) of the god or gods of Christianity. Therefore, I would suggest that it is more conversationally useful to treat me as being within the definition of an atheist, and to reserve the word ‘agnostic’ for someone whose probability estimate of the existence of a god or gods (or anything else) is somewhere around the 50% mark.

        Applying this principle fairly, of course, if you are being intellectually honest, you must admit that there has to be a non-zero possibility that you are mistaken in believing that at least one god exists: your probability estimate may be so high as to be statistically indistinguishable from 100%, yet there is still a tiny gap, even if you could not put a number on how small. Yet that tiny gap would not make it reasonable for me to call you an agnostic rather than a theist.

        • Josh SF

          Exactly.

        • TheMechanicalAdv

          This probability thing is ridiculous. People are not Bayesian inference engines.

          Besides which, since there’s no such thing as mind-reading, whether or not someone has religion is FAIAP whether they behave in ways stereotypical of religious people. Which depends on what others think the stereotypes are.

          The significant thing about Carl Sagan is that on the one hand he didn’t publicly advocate any metaphysical commitment, but on the other hand he showed no contempt for those who do. (Yes, he said gods are dreams, but “dream” doesn’t have the negative connotation that the now popular words like “delusion” do.)

          • DavidMHart

            I don’t understand what was ridiculous about the probability thing. All I was saying is that if forced to put a number on it, someone’s estimate of the likelihood of a god existing was not literally zero, but so low that they couldn’t actually put a figure on it, then it is reasonable to call that person an atheist rather than an agnostic for all practical purposes.

            Sure, we are not Bayesian machines, but there are a lot of problems which would get easier if we were more in the habit of at least trying to think probabilistically about them.

            And if someone tries and finds that they can’t – that the probability is so close to zero that they can’t get a handle on it, then that does potentially make them worth categorising in a different bracket from someone whose estimate is in, say, the 30% to 50% range.

  • GordonHide

    It’s surprising that Sagan didn’t know the modern definition of atheism. By that definition he was certainly an atheist, (as well as being agnostic). He may have favoured Spinoza’s god but he would have realised he never had evidence for that either.

  • painperdu

    An atheist doesn’t have to say there is no god. He only has to say that he doesn’t believe in the gods that have so far been put forth. This is no more arrogant or presumptuous than saying he doesn’t believe in Santa Clause.

    • fredx2

      This does not make any sense. If he says that he does not believe in any of the gods that have been so far put forth, he is reserving judgment on the fact that there may be a God that will be put forth in the future. But such a God that is put for th in the future will have been existing right now, so all this :atheist is saying is that he really is an agnostic,.

      • Wesley Brock

        Agnosticism is not an in between of atheism and theism. It’s a statement on knowledge. There can be agnostic atheist and agnostic theist. The opposite is gnostic atheism and gnostic theism. A gnostic claims certainty. As should come as no surprise the majority of atheist are agnostic and the majority of theist are gnostic. One can even be gnostic and agnostic on different things. For example I’m gnostic on the existence of the Christian god, but agnostic on the concept of god(s) generally.

        • Josh SF

          “For example I’m gnostic on the existence of the Christian god, but agnostic on the concept of god(s) generally.”

          Yes!

      • heterodox

        You’re too busy staring at trees to see the forest. His/her point is there, and I suspect you are merely pretending to miss it.

      • painperdu

        It makes perfect sense. If he has already passed judgement on every definition that has been offered to him then what is left for him to pass judgement on? How can he even say that maybe someone will offer the perfect definition of god some day? Saying that maybe a great definition of god will be explained to him requires more faith than believing that god has already been defined.

      • Not So Arrogant Atheist

        It called weak atheism mane, I’m open to the idea of a god, just dont really believe he is there, its cause I dont care too much.

  • vger

    If Sagan was or was not an Atheist, gets us no closer to the bat crazy stories in the bible as true.

    • fredx2

      And here we have what we call not an atheist, but an igoramous. Anyone who says the stories in the bible are bat crazy has not read it or just has some sort of chip on his shoulder.

      • Wesley Brock

        No they’re bat crazy. What is not crazy about a talking snake and donkey? Or people coming back from the dead? Or virgins giving birth? Or curing diseases by ritualistically killing birds and using their blood, or thinking you can determine if a spouse was faithful by making them drink muddy water, or claiming some one turned to salt, or that you can create enough food to feed 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread, or…do you get the picture?

        You don’t need to have a chip on your shoulder to think these stories are crazy. I imagine you’d find the stories of other religions crazy and you wouldn’t need have a chip on your shoulder to do so.

        • heterodox

          Oh, how right you are. As a test of how right this sentiment is, one of my favorite things to do is to tell Buy-bull stories to children who have not been raised Christian. The looks on their faces (horror, confusion, humor, disbelief) says it all.

        • Chris Hall

          It was more than 5000, the story goes that he fed 5000 *men*. Women aren’t important enough to be counted in the Bible apparently.

          • Wesley Brock

            Thank you for that correction. Let’s just say I’m being generous and only expect him to explain how you can fully feed 5,000 people with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread.

      • Cake

        LOL, another one who hasn’t read their own holy book.

  • Nullifidian

    “Later that same year, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62. By now, he’s had all his questions answered.”

    If death is eternal oblivion, then he will have had no questions answered.

    • Randall Ward

      But death is not eternal oblivion, but the eternal life without God.

      • islandbrewer

        To appropriately quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

        And the extraordinary evidence for any sort of life after death would be what, exactly?

        • Fr. Frank

          It would be surviving death after having xied.

          • islandbrewer

            That’d be great! Go ahead and link to any credible documentation.

          • DavidMHart

            Indeed. And had Randall Ward died at the time he made that comment? If not, then he cannot claim to have such evidence.

  • Stevarious

    You’ve indulged in a willful and deliberate misunderstanding of every single quote you just quoted.

    Do you really think you can ‘prove’ that Sagan wasn’t an atheist by dishonestly cherry-picking a few statements he made?

    This article is at least as dishonest as the atheist (or the conservative politician) who quotes Matthew 10:34 to ‘prove’ that Jesus was pro-war.

    • heterodox

      Religionists are great at cherry-picking. It’s how they manage to hold onto their pretend belief; by cherry-picking the bits and pieces of their religion that are convenient or nice for them to believe.

      “An eternity of bliss? That’s for me alright!”

      “Stone children to death? Ahh, that’s not the REAL bible!”

      • How about instead of hiding behind Bible passages, in a book you claim is full of fairy tales to begin with, and explain the documented 20th century systemic extermination of more than 50 million people, all in the name of Atheism?

  • Randall Ward

    Some of the biggest idiots in the world are “scientists” that are non believers. They usually have supreme confidence in “science” of our “modern” age.
    I like to speak of our current knowledge of how things work as; If the new World Trade Center height is the sum of all knowledge, then our cousins that lived 10,000 years ago reached the height of the length of two atoms and the knowledge of modern man has reached the height of three atoms. We should be humble and trust in the Trinity that created the Universe to take care of us and guide us and not worry about too much else.

    • Wesley Brock

      How about some evidence this trinity exist before you expect us to trust it?

      • Randall Ward

        It is not up to me to give you anything. Sorry, you must do your own searching.

        • Wesley Brock

          It is also not incumbent upon me to support your claims or take what you say as true without evidence. If you insist upon using plural pronouns like “We” as to imply all of us to include me, in you claims about what we should do then you need to give a reason why. See how this works?

    • heterodox

      Troll much? You don’t seem to realize that science isn’t a “thing” or a collection of knowledge; it is an epistemology. (Go ahead and look that up now.) Do you have a better one? Yeah, didn’t think so.

      • Randall Ward

        Ah, a wordsmith. Keep your words close and see how much good they do you. I can build a home from the ground up, but I don’t know a lot of words.

        • islandbrewer

          heterodox likes to use words accurately, and you dismiss them because you rely on muddling definitions and concepts to make meaningless quips.

          Foe example:

          Yes, but what would the population be without all the millions of killed by governments? God created us, and has blessed us, in spite of how sinful mankind is. Life comes from the love of God.

          or

          Keep your words close and see how much good they do you.

          Taking that apart would make a big mess here, and diverge into a conversation that would be pointless.

          But the important thing here is that such statements are just warm fuzzy sentiments that make you feel good. Some of us prefer to perceive the world as realistically as possible rather than feel warm and fuzzy about things which are false.

          • Randall Ward

            God is not warm and fuzzy. He is your judge and the ultimate reality.

          • avalpert

            ‘God’ is a projection of human insecurities onto a mythical concept – no relation to reality at all

          • Randall Ward

            Go your own way then.

          • islandbrewer

            You get credit for quoting Fleetwood Mac, at least.

          • avalpert

            You can call it another lonely day

          • islandbrewer

            Your ultimate reality has scant supporting evidence.

            Also, you have serious reading comprehension issues.

    • avalpert

      You should be humble enough to move past the silly mythologies we created when we had two atoms worth of knowledge, but alas that is probably asking too much.

      • Randall Ward

        Yea, we are all smart now; thats why governments in the last century killed more humans than ever before in the known history of the world.

        • Pofarmer

          There are more humans alive now than in most of the history of the world. Religion didn’t make that possible.

          • Randall Ward

            Yes, but what would the population be without all the millions of killed by governments? God created us, and has blessed us, in spite of how sinful mankind is. Life comes from the love of God.

          • Cake

            Word salad needs moar dressing.

          • Cake

            God has committed genocide and killed far more people than any government is capable of. Tell me more about how much god loves the world inbetween the times hes killing everyone.

          • Randall Ward

            Why don’t you talk to God about it, since you believe in God. He will listen to you.

          • Cake

            Imaginary people are awesome at listening! It’s the getting answers from them, that you couldn’t think of yourself, is the hard part.

            People talk about Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Gandalf. It doesn’t mean that they actually exist. We can still criticize the character’s alcoholism, drug use, and laziness.

        • avalpert

          Well that’s a quaint non-sequitur. You think the humans who imagined the trinity mythology two thousand years ago were smarter and less prone to wanton violence?

          • Randall Ward

            You missed the point.

          • avalpert

            Ha, ha – right back at you

          • K-9

            C’mon. You just tried to correlate an arbitrary, unsupported “scale of knowledge” with the absolute number of humans killed by governments (no parameters defined for that either, I notice) and you’re accusing avalpert of missing the point?
            Weak sauce, man.

    • Pofarmer

      Well, when we trusted the trinity, human lifespan averaged about 35-40 years. Trusting science has been much better for us. We should be humble and acknowledge what has actually advanced the human race.

  • Mark P Richardson

    That quote shows he didn’t like the term atheist – it doesn’t show that he believed in God.
    I do use the term atheist – but I don’t take it to mean “someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God” and I consider that the Theists straw-man version of atheist.
    Otherwise I agree with Carl Sagan on the importance of evidence and reason to inform my beliefs. He is one of my intellectual hero’s.

    On the general point of what to call oneself – I say “Call me whatever you like – just don’t call me late for dinner”

  • islandbrewer

    You may want to read this before making such a statement:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Demon-Haunted-World-Science-Candle/dp/0345409469

    • islandbrewer

      And here’s a relevant excerpt:

      “A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage” Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
      “Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

      “Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

      “Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

      You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

      “Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

      Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

      “Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

      You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

      “Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.” And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

      Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

      -Carl Sagan (emphasis, mine)

      • Korou

        Plenty of people on Catholic patches could benefit from reading that!

  • mike c

    Swing and a miss. Anyone who thinks that these quotes indicate anything other than he was an agnostic atheist is missing his point entirely.

  • heterodox

    What a joke. Talk about grasping at straws.

    Nothing quoted here indicates that Sagan supported faith as an epistemology. Appreciating some particular notion of “spirituality” (i.e. an appreciation of grandeur) has absolutely nothing to do with faith (i.e. pretending to know something you do not).

    And as others have already pointed out, Sagan was an atheist. I know religionists love to pretend that “atheist” means “someone who claims to absolutely KNOW there is no god”, but that is not what it means.

    This is kindergarten crap for crying out loud. Oh wait, I forgot to consider the source…

    • Firefly

      “Nothing quoted here indicates that Sagan supported faith as an epistemology. ” Nothing was saying he did- it was merely that he wasn’t an atheist as she thought, just agnostic, as in the idea that we can’t know one way or the other. That he was more open to the idea & to general spirituality than she expected.

      It seems odd that you’d accuse the author of saying something she didn’t, and then impose your own definition of atheism on Sagan while blithely ignoring the definition he used in his *own* reasoning, even up to the point of ignoring his own statement of being agnostic to insist that he’s an atheist.

  • To borrow a phrase from Lethal Weapon: Pretty thin.

    You’re making a case of special pleading, followed closely by a confirmation bias. Sagan was as far from a believer as one can be. Just because he didn’t take the opposite extreme does not make him less of an atheist.

  • http://www.AtheismParty.com This week Science put a lander on a Comet. This week in Religion ISIS beheaded hundreds of children. Religion thrives in an ignorant populace. The best educated nations have the lowest rate of religion. Over 75% of convicts are Christians. Around 20% or more are Muslims. Around 1% are Atheists. Religion neither owns morality or intelligence.

  • satanaugustine

    Sorry Kathy, but you seem to have fallen for a cognitive fallacy many of us fall for: Confirmation Bias. You look for evidence that backs up your claim then ignore evidence contrary to your claim. You are not being dishonest because this cognitive process occurs in our subconscious brains. The best way to get over it is to realize you have it, reassess a situation, and realize that you could be wrong while your brain is tricking you you into thinking you’re right.

    Sagan made not have every said he was an atheist (and from your quote above, he certainly did not understand it; one needn’t be 100% certain that their is no god, just that given the complete lack of evidence, non-belief seems like the most reasonable, responsible approach). For further info I invite you to read Sgan’s “The Varieties of Scientific Experience.” It is a posthumous collections of transcriptions taken from lectures Carl gave in the 1980s. In it, he is just as blisteringly critical of religion as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and many others who have pointed out that religion is, on balance, a bad thing for human society. Sagan may not have called himself an atheist, but he was one by any other name. He did not believe in the existence of any god(s) and thus, by definition, was an atheist, non-believer, etc.

    You claim that he thought “faith and reason were partners, but he said no such thing. Here is the quote you give:

    “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

    You attribute to him want you mean by “spirituality,” while ignoring his definition of spirituality which he gives in that very quote. He is not talking about God, heaven, angels, the afterlife, Jesus, or any other form of traditional religious beliefs. He was giving his own version of spirituality that had nothing whatsoever to due with religion or religious claims. Christians don’t have the market cornered on spirituality. Anyone can experience it without the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that religion tosses into the mix. You have completely distorted what Carl truly believed. You are using him as a point of discussion. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “Let us not speak ill of the dead.” You may not have done it intentionally, but you did so nonetheless. I would suggest researching a topic more thoroughly before posting an article such as this. You would then have realized that despite avoiding the the term atheist, Sagan certainly was one. Again, read Varieties of Scientific Experience if you want to know what Sagan really thought of religion.

  • stojadinovicp

    “An atheist,” he said, “…is someone who is certain that God does not exist.”

    And NO, that is not what an atheist is.

  • Joe Agnost

    A little bit of research would have saved you the embarrassment of being so wrong about Sagan. Luckily Dan did the research for you:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danthropology/2014/11/what-does-it-mean-to-claim-carl-sagan-was-not-an-atheist/

  • Patriot

    The author’s idea that in any way shape or form Carl Sagan found any home in Christianity is absurd. He was raised Jewish and self identified as a Jew.

    Whether he was agnostic or an atheist you can debate. But he self identified as Jewish, and is said to have privately laughed at most aspects of the Jesus story, except the part about love

  • Zeke

    It’s not important whether Sagan was atheist or agnostic. What’s important to know is that Christians hate what he believes either way.

  • JoeBl

    None of this implies he wasn’t an atheist. He isn’t an atheist only by the narrowest of definitions that almost no atheists use. What he describes is an agnostic atheist and most atheists are agnostic atheists.

  • em

    You claim that his acceptance of the reconcilable coexistence of spirituality and reason is equivalent to acceptance of that of faith and reason. Clearly faith and spirituality are entirely different things. Faith and reason are very much opposed, and Sagan made this very clear. Your attempt to twist his words is either very lazy, or very dishonest.

  • Wallace Finch

    Agnosticism comes from the word gnostic, meaning knowledge; to declare yourself a-gnostic means you’re saying “I don’t know.” Atheism is a belief-based word; to be a-theist means you don’t believe in gods. Since nobody has the knowledge of whether gods exist, 100% of humanity can be said to be agnostic, which is why most people focus on the belief part instead. Theists believe that gods exist, and atheists don’t. Carl just wasn’t aware of the distinction.

  • WallaceLeMay68

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
    It has a nice ring to it but at bottom, it’s something he made up out of whole cloth to justify his rejection of what ordinarily would be considered evidence in any other context. In other words, despite Sagan’s pseudo-philophical sophistry, the statement is nothing more than special pleading (“Religious claims require extraordinary evidence; all other sorts of claims require ordinary evidence.”)
    When a prosector makes the extraordinary claim that someone committed first degree murder, we do not instruct the jury that they can only convict if there is ‘extraordinary evidence’ (the term has never appeared in a judicial opinion or jury instruction ). The evidence used in a murder case is the same – eyewitnesses, forensics, etc. – as it would be for a parking ticket. The burden of proof is higher, but that does not alter the nature of the evidence admitted (ordinary vs extraordinary).
    Sagan’s famous quote also begs the question by presupposing that religious claims are somehow outside of the norm for human experience, i.e. that they are extraordinary. For many if not most religious believers, many kinds of religious claims are not extraordinary at all (take for example the real presence in the Richards for Catholics). So in this regard Sagan presupposes what the statement is supposed to prove. The skeptic gets to decide what claims are ‘extraordinary’ and therefore subject to the hightened standard, AND the skeptic gets to decide what evidence meets the ‘extraordinary’ threshold (which is apparently something other than the regular evidence every other area of human understanding uses).
    This is why, when Sagan spoke of matters of astronomy, he carried all the authority of Galileo or Einstein, but when he spoke of matters of philosophy and metaphysics, he carried all of the authority of a neck bearded teen pounding away on Reddit from his parents’ basement while liberally cutting and pasting Dawkins and Hitcthens quotes from Wikipedia.

  • Josh SF

    Carl Sagan WAS an atheist in the sense that he was not by any means a theist. Lets not pretend to forget that modern religions have hijacked the word God…thus when I as an atheist say “I’m an atheist” it is in direct response to the hijacking and not the word “God” in every sense one could take that word to mean. Christians have such a narrow-minded understanding of the concept of a God that it is very hard for them to understand that someone can not rule out something “greater” and still not believe in one single ounce of the (man made) Christian religion.

    Also, here is my take on atheists & agnostics: To a scientist, they are exactly the same thing with regards to God. Of course a scientist can’t say “There is no God”. But keep in mind he/she also can’t say “There are no purple polka dotted flying unicorns”.

    Science doesn’t always deal in certainties, because one of the core tenets of science is uncertainty. For this reason we have statistical tools like p-values to make statements about the observable world… And the p-value for any type of supernatural being would have to be around 5 sigma. And that is all I have to say about that!

    Also, The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.

  • Walter

    Sagan was a Brooklyn Jew.

  • Not So Arrogant Atheist

    He was a pantheist goys.

  • David

    Why are Agnostics so much better than Atheists? Most of either of those two groups are the more modern “Agnostic-Atheists”

    There is few to none “Atheists” because you can’t make a claim about something you can’t prove. That’s what religions do.

    However would still call myself an Atheist. But at the end of the day we are all Agnostic because we have no choice but to be. lol