Carl Sagan Answers the Ultimate Question: Is There a God? (1994)

Some pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als asso­ci­at­ed with sci­ence court dis­agree­ment with reli­gious believ­ers; oth­ers cul­ti­vate suites of rhetor­i­cal tech­niques express­ly in order to avoid it. While Carl Sagan did­n’t shrink from, say, debat­ing a cre­ation­ist on talk radio, he always engaged with char­ac­ter­is­tic aplomb. But deal­ing with bel­liger­ent callers-in is eas­i­er, in a way, than respond­ing to an earnest, straight­for­ward­ly expressed curios­i­ty about one’s own reli­gious beliefs. In the Q&A clip above, tak­en from his 1994 “lost lec­ture,” Sagan receives just such a ques­tion: “What is your per­son­al reli­gion? Is there any type of God to you? Like, is there a pur­pose, giv­en that we’re just sit­ting on this speck in the mid­dle of this sea of stars?”

“Now, I don’t want to duck any ques­tions,” Sagan replies, “and I’m not going to duck this one.” Nev­er­the­less, he requests a tri­fling clar­i­fi­ca­tion: “What do you mean when you use the word God?”  Pressed by none oth­er than Carl Sagan to define God, few of us would pre­sum­ably hold up well.

Here the ques­tion­er changes his angle, draw­ing on Sagan’s own def­i­n­i­tion in Pale Blue Dot of the “Great Demo­tions,” those “down-lift­ing expe­ri­ences, demon­stra­tions of our appar­ent insignif­i­cance, wounds that sci­ence has, in its search for Galileo’s facts, deliv­ered to human pride.” And so, “giv­en all these demo­tions,” the man asks, “why don’t we just blow our­selves up?”

“If we do blow our­selves up,” Sagan asks, “does that dis­prove the exis­tence of God?” This is an intrigu­ing rever­sal, but Sagan does­n’t sim­ply reply to ques­tions with ques­tions. Sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge increas­ing­ly leaves us “on our own,” he says, which is a state “much more respon­si­ble than hop­ing some­one will save us from our­selves.” What if we’re wrong, and a deity does indeed step in to save us? “Okay, that’s all right, I’m for that; we, you know, hedged our bets. It Pas­cal’s bar­gain run back­wards.” The prob­lem lies with God itself, “a word so ambigu­ous, that means so many dif­fer­ent things,” and one used “to seem to agree with some­one else with whom you do not agree.” Despite its impor­tance, not least for “social lubri­ca­tion,” no term can be use­ful to truth that encom­pass­es so many dif­fer­ent per­son­al con­cep­tions — bil­lions and bil­lions of them, one might say.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawk­ing & Arthur C. Clarke Dis­cuss God, the Uni­verse, and Every­thing Else

Hear Carl Sagan Art­ful­ly Refute a Cre­ation­ist on a Talk Radio Show: “The Dar­win­ian Con­cept of Evo­lu­tion is Pro­found­ly Ver­i­fied”

Carl Sagan Explains Evo­lu­tion in an Eight-Minute Ani­ma­tion

Ted Turn­er Asks Carl Sagan “Are You a Social­ist?;” Sagan Responds Thought­ful­ly (1989)

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

Carl Sagan Tells John­ny Car­son What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chau­vin­ism in It” (1978)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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