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Science’s Vast Cosmic Perspective Eludes Religion


Carl Sagan

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

The image on the following page is meant to convey just a little sense of how many galaxies there are. We are looking out of the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy in the direction of the Hercules cluster. What we are seeing here are more galaxies beyond the Milky Way. (In fact, there are more galaxies in the universe than stars within the Milky Way Galaxy.) Most of the objects you see here are not stars but galaxies; spiral ones seen edge on, elliptical galaxies, and other forms. The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions, each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own Galaxy. So if you multiply out how many stars that means, it is some number—let’s see, ten to the . . . it’s something like one followed by twenty-three zeros, of which our sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no western religions.

Now, I’ve not shown you images of our own tiny world, nor did Thomas Wright. He wrote, “To what you have said about my having left out my own habitation in my scheme of the universe, having traveled so far into infinity as but to lose sight of the Earth, I think I may justly answer, as Aristotle did when Alexander, looking over a map of the world, inquired of him for the city of Macedon, ’tis said the philosopher told the prince that the place he sought was much too small to be there taken notice of and was not without sufficient reason omitted. The system of the Sun,” Wright goes on, “compared but with a very minute part of the visible creation takes up so small a portion of the known universe that in a very finite view of the immensity of space I judged the seat of the Earth to be of very little consequence.”

This perspective provides a kind of calibration of where we are. I don’t think it should be too discouraging. It is the reality of the universe we live in.

Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that’s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small. It’s after an exercise such as this that many people conclude that the religious sensibility is inevitable. Edward Young, in the eighteenth century, said, “An undevout astronomer is mad,” from which I suppose it is essential that we all declare our devotion at risk of being adjudged mad.But devotion to what?

All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe. There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the cosmos if there is a great deal of life. For example, we’ve talked about stars in the late stages of their evolution. We’ve talked about supernova explosions. There are much vaster explosions. There are explosions at the centers of galaxies from what are called quasars. There are other explosions, maybe small quasars. In fact, the Milky Way Galaxy itself has had a set of explosions from its center, some 30,000 light-years away. And if, as I will speculate later, life and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe.

Well, that is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the wellbeing of intelligent creatures. It’s a very different sort of conclusion that modern astronomy suggests. There is a passage from Tennyson that comes to mind: “I found Him in the shining of the stars, I marked Him in the flowering of His fields.” So far pretty ordinary. But, Tennyson goes on, “In His ways with men I find him not. Why is all around us here as if some lesser god had made the world but had not force to shape it as He would?”

To me personally, the first line, “I found Him in the shining of the stars,” is not entirely apparent. It depends on who the Him is. But surely there is a message in the heavens that the finiteness not just of life but of whole worlds, in fact of whole galaxies, is a bit antithetical to the conventional theological views in the West, although not in the East. And this then suggests a broader conclusion. And that is the idea of an immortal Creator. By definition, as Ann Druyan has pointed out, an immortal Creator is a cruel god because He, never having to face the fear of death, creates innumerable creatures who do. Why should He do that? If He’s omniscient He could be kinder and create immortals, secure from the danger of death. He sets about creating a universe in which at least many parts of it and perhaps the universe as a whole, dies. And in many myths, the one possibility the gods are most anxious about is that humans will discover some secret of immortality or even, as in the myth of the Tower of Babel, for example, attempt to stride the high heavens. There is a clear imperative in Western religion that humans must remain small and mortal creatures. Why? It’s a little bit like the rich imposing poverty on the poor and then asking to be loved because of it. And there are other challenges to the conventional religions from even the most casual look at the sort of cosmos I have presented to you.

Let me quote a passage from Thomas Paine from The Age of Reason. Paine was an Englishman who played a major role in both the American and French Revolutions. “From whence,” Paine asks, “From whence then could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on His protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a Redeemer?”

Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.

Now, we can say, “Well, that’s just because the right words weren’t available back when the first Jewish or Christian or Islamic holy books were written.” But clearly that’s not the problem; it is certainly possible in the beautiful metaphors in these books to describe something like the Galaxy and the universe, and it isn’t there. It is a god of one small world; a problem, I believe, that theologians have not adequately addressed.

Now, I don’t propose that it is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it’s important to understand how much we do not know. There is an enormous amount we do not know; there is a tiny amount that we do. But what we do understand brings us face to face with an awesome cosmos that is simply different from the cosmos of our pious ancestors.

Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring. If we seek that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance or self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would he prefer his votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.

Carl Sagan

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Carl Sagan was a science popularizer, co-creator and host of Cosmos, and author or co-author of many books including The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.