The Great Turning Away
I vividly recall the Seattle CSICOP conference. It was my first visit to that beautiful city. Humanism seemed on the ascendant then. Science and reason had a remarkably effective champion in Carl Sagan, who was known and respected in every country on earth. At that conference we had no idea that Carl was ill and that Seattle was about to become our home for the next two years. Carl endured three bone marrow transplants at a cancer research hospital there before dying in that city in 1996.
How I miss that voice with its mesmerizing blend of passion, brilliance, warmth, humor, and honesty. Carl spoke and wrote with equal measures of skepticism and wonder; never one at the expense of the other. He managed to maintain an exquisite balance between these two competing values. His life’s work to awaken us to the wonders of the universe revealed by rigorous, skeptical science was a joyful labor of love.
Here we are, a mere ten years later in a radically different cultural atmosphere. Now, we seem to be engaged in a great turning away from reality. The engine of science continues to churn out discoveries at an astonishing rate, and yet our culture seems to have lost the ability to translate these insights into a grander perspective. It’s as if our first forays into the immensity of the universe have sent us flying into a panic. The dawning reality of our tiny portion of space and time has been too much for us to bear. We turn away, seeking refuge in the discredited myths of our centrality.
Evidence of this failure of nerve is plentiful: Public school science educators shrink from teaching the fundamentals of biology. Science museums in the South feel the need to shield their visitors from Imax films that give the true age of volcanoes. Our president declares himself an instrument of God and with impunity makes illegal and baseless unprovoked war. An unctuous piety suffuses every public utterance. Radical religious fundamentalists have seized the national conversation. The rest of us are left to re-fight battles and arguments won decades ago.
Most worrisome is the steady erosion of the Bill of Rights made acceptable by the fearful attacks of September 11, 2001. Our precious constitution is in danger of being tainted with religious-based homophobia, the so-called “defense of marriage” amendment. More and more frequently we are told that we live in a Christian country. In the frightening logic of this moment, the separation of church and state which was the founding source of our national genius is seen as nothing more than an obstacle to a proper commitment to God.
It’s enough to make you long for the days when skeptics could afford the luxury of sparring with mild-mannered Harvard psychiatrists who claimed feebly that their patients had been abducted by aliens. And for countless reasons, I do. However, my overall sense about our future is cautiously optimistic.
My hunch is that we are living during the twilight of the magical thinking phase of human history. Lest you think this is mere faith, I offer some evidence: Consider all the futures depicted in science fiction that you have ever seen or read; whether of life on this world or any other. How many of them imagine a future in which the dominant religious traditions and beliefs of the present survive? Remember: This is the output of countless independent imaginations of every conceivable point of view. Yet, when we imagine the future, the gods of our childhood are long gone.
As the man said, “Prophecy is a lost art.” And yet, I’m happy to venture one. I believe that new Carl Sagans will emerge to uplift us once again with the beauty and truth of natural reality. We will overcome our fears and turn back to look unflinchingly at the vastness. We will find our home in the cosmos. It is only a matter of time.