In my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution. … As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.
It was reading Sagan’s novel Contact in later years that triggered his uncertainty that his faith provided all the answers.
But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict.
I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.
Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians — a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god — but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity — always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.
This, for me, is Sagan’s most enduring legacy — this realization that science is the most emotional journey imaginable. Science does not castrate awe or inhibit transcendence — science unleashes it.
As I alluded in a previous post, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was not so much a life changer for me as a confirmation of the path I was already on, via Isaac Asimov, astronomy texts, and others. I had a very mild religious upbringing, and at some point I will spell out those early experiences and how they did or did not influence my mature thinking.