Wait, What? Carl Sagan Was NOT an Atheist?

Wait, What? Carl Sagan Was NOT an Atheist?

Carl SaganI 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.

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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.

Pope’s Astronomer Wins the Carl Sagan Medal

Pope’s Astronomer Wins the Carl Sagan Medal


Pope’s Astronomer Wins the Carl Sagan Medal

Brother Guy Consolmagno is first religious brother to receive the prestigious science award.



On Being CC

If you met an alien from outer space, would you welcome him into your RCIA program and baptize him at the Easter Vigil?
That’s the question posed by Michigan-born Brother Guy Consolmagno, Jesuit astronomer and planetary scientist, in his latest book, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”  The book, co-authored by Father Paul Meuller, S.J., looks at serious and humorous questions from the astronomers’ in-box at the Vatican Observatory, and reveals how science and faith look at the same issues in different but complementary ways.

The question is a serious one.  Pope Francis made the same point in a homily in May 2014 when he asked, “Imagine if a Martian showed up, all big ears and big nose like a child’s drawing, and he asked to be baptized.  How would you react?”  The Pope was making the point that everyone has a “right” to receive the Holy Spirit—even those, such as big green aliens, who seem not at all like us.

This week at the 46th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Scientists in Tucson, Arizona, Brother Guy Consolmagno will receive one of planetary science’s most prestigious awards, the Carl Sagan Medal.  The award was created in 1998 in commemoration of astronomer Carl Sagan, whose popular TV series “Cosmos” helped to generate enthusiasm for science and for space travel.  The Sagan Medal “recognizes and honors outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public, and is awarded to scientists whose efforts have significantly contributed to a public understanding of, and enthusiasm for, planetary science.”

Brother Guy is the first religious brother to receive the Sagan Medal.  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.”

Consolmagno is one of twelve Vatican astronomers. For two decades, he has served as curator of the Vatican’s extensive meteorite collection.  He’s been a worldwide lecturer, and is one of four Jesuits in history to have had an asteroid named after them—4597 Consolmagno, also known to scientists as “Little Guy.”

Consolmagno has authored or co-authored several books, including his most recent “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial” as well as “Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope—And How to Find Them,” “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion,” “The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican,” and “Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist.”

Kathy Schiffer is a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.  Video courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.