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.
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.