Carl Sagan played an important part in my retreat from faith. His book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was one of the first books of scientific critique of religion and superstition that I read in my years as a priest. Though I had read Bertrand Russell and other freethinkers long before, it was in the context of participating in religion and its practices at a professional level, when I had begun questioning practically everything about the church and its teachings, that Sagan’s work played a central role in slowly turning the mortar of faith into sand, and the whole structure began to totter. Indeed, soon after reading the book Elizabeth designed a book-plate for me (printing it on her press) which included one of the epigraphs from Sagan’s book: Ubi dubium, ibi libertas — “Where (there is) doubt, there (is) liberty.” Other books which played the same role were Darwin’s Origin of Species and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By the time that I read these books, I had already moved quite far from the centre of faith as the church understood and taught it. My mentor during this earlier period was Don Cupitt, whose works still are pregnant with meaning for me. Elizabeth and I met him at a Sea of Faith conference at Leicester University, when we were on our honeymoon in the UK in 1990.
Later I read other books by Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions, for one, and Pale Blue Dot, for another. The question of Sagan’s stridency did not occur to me at all until it was mentioned in a guest post on Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, “Was Carl Sagan a Militant Atheist?” by JJE, who was working his way through Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, which is now available on Youtube. The first episode is here:
If you are interested, this will lead you to the rest. The answer to the question that JJE asks is, of course, yes. Carl Sagan was every bit as militant an atheist Richard Dawkins, and yet his militancy and stridency did not cause the kind of emotional response that has been prompted by today’s militant atheists. Indeed, Cosmos was a hit. What explains the difference in the response? After all, the things that Sagan says about god and religion are just as dismissive as anything the new atheists have to say, yet churchmen did not issue their fatwas as readily as the pope and other church leaders now do against the new atheism. What gives?
I took a look at Pale Blue Dot the other day, just to remind myself of what Sagan does say, and it’s pretty bracing stuff! Take this for instance:
What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. You might think that grown-ups would be ashamed to put such disappointments into print. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe — which seems truly pointless — but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science. 
Then he quotes a few things from Brian Appleyard’s Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, who laments that the universe of Catholic orthodoxy is no longer accessible to us. The universe is simply too big and impersonal to think in terms of the whole thing being created for the enactment of the human drama of salvation. Sagan says, what anyone now would take as almost unbelievably strident, that Appleyard’s universe of Catholic orthodoxy is one in which,
despite explicit orders to the contrary, a woman and a man once ate of an apple, and that this act of insubordination transformed the Universe into a contrivance for operant-conditioning their remote descendants. 
Not only does Sagan have a way with words, his words are remorselessly cutting.
But Sagan isn’t through with Appleyard. Appleyard complains that
a modern democracy can be expected to include a number of contradictory religious faiths which are obliged to agree on a certain number of general injunctions, but no more. They must not burn each other’s places of worship, but they may deny, even abuse each other’s God. This is the effective, scientific way of proceeding. [quoted 50]
To which Sagan’s reply is decisive:
But what is the alternative? Obdurately to pretend to certainty in an uncertain world? To adopt a comforting belief system, no matter how out of kilter with the facts it is? If we don’t know what’s real, how can we deal with reality? For practical reasons, we cannot live too much in fantasyland. 
This is powerful, pungent stuff! It takes no prisoners at all!
So, what is different? Why did Sagan’s books, which were very popular, not arouse the kind of animus generated by Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris? How could Sagan say the following, without being sent packing?
If you lived two or three millennia ago, there was no shame in holding that the Universe was made for us. It was an appealing thesis consistent with everything we knew; it was what the most learned among us taught without qualification. But we have found out much since then. Defending such a position today amounts to a willful disregard of the evidence, and a flight from self-knowledge. 
Or, what about this?
The trapdoor beneath our feet sweeps open. We find ourselves in bottomless freefall. We are lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream. 
These are powerful evocations of disorientation and rootlessness, and it is this quality, I think, that provides a sense of familiarity that is not provided by those who simply ignore the experience of culture-shock that is induced by what we are coming to know.
I believe it is this that the philosopher Philip Kitcher is addressing in his New Republic article ”The Trouble with Scientism.” It’s interesting that one theory of jihadi terrorism thinks of it as the product of the confrontation between rootless Muslims and the apparent emptiness of Western modernity. Many of the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims without deep piety, whose lives in Western Europe and America were empty, rootless, and without personal significance or emotional substance. Unable to express their sense of loss, their emptiness expressed itself in a kind of religious nihilism. For them it is true, just as Nietzsche claimed it was. By living as if there is no god, they had drunk up the sea. And what Kitcher is saying is that this is the trouble with an exclusive emphasis on science. Dawkins may say it: that nature is wonderful and awesome and overpoweringly beautiful in its immensity and order; Sagan lives it in terms that people could understand. He put the expanding universe, and our growing knowledge of it, into the old narrative. Jerry Coyne says that he has watched the Sagan clips which are included with JJE’s guest post, and that “although a bit histrionic for my taste, nevertheless surprised me with the boldness of Sagan’s attack on faith.” I think it is Sagan’s human drama — his histrionics, if you like – that makes the difference. Sagan felt the awesomeness of what we have come to know, but he also understood, and perhaps even himself felt, what people feel they have lost.
Once familiar in church halls and offices was a poster which took various forms, but expressed the same sense of fullness. There would be a picture of a marvel of nature — a rugged mountain, a stormy sea, a heart-rending sunset, a panoply of stars and galaxies. The slogan was a simple “Our God is an Awesome God!” It was at once an expression of religious conviction and fearful uncertainty. You could always hear the question arising, just off the edge of the paper — “Isn’t he?” When the pope rails against the radical relativism of the age, this is what he is struggling with, and yet he cannot ask the question or express any doubt at all, because he is responsible for the faith of millions, and because there are still people who are trying to keep alive the old mysteries, the resolution of the disjunction between myth and reality is postponed yet again. Some people will leach away into a militant unbelief, but many people remain, half in and half outside of faith, because there is a deep sense of something lacking, and they, like Matthew Arnold, are
Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born.
When Kitcher speaks about the contributions of historians and philosophers, composers and musicians, poets and theologians that went into the remembrance of the horror of war and the need for reconciliation that came together when a new Coventry Cathedral was consecrated, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed, with an English tenor, a German baritone and a Russian soprano, taking the three solo parts, it is this sense of cultural unity and consensus that he has in mind when he speaks of history and the humanities as ways of knowing. The trouble with scientism, he suggests, is that it does not acknowledge the human dimension and context of science.
Sagan was very aware of the need to acknowledge this cultural dimension of human knowing, and the non-scientific ways of knowing that is recognised within it. He understood the important role that science must play in any understanding of the world and of human life. He understood the urge that people felt to retreat into the garden, and blot out the rapidly increasing knowledge that dwarfed us and rendered us insignificant bits of stuff in a vast impersonal universe. But he also understood the biblical story for what it is, a myth about the reality of being and becoming human, and so he could make use of it to explain how we fit into the fabric of the universe we were coming to know. In the garden, as he says, we were forbidden knowledge. We were forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and yet we were starving for knowledge — “we were created hungry, you might say.”  And so we broke out of the confines of the ignorance to which we were born, and in which, according to the story, we were meant to stay.
The consequences have not always been happy ones. There is a price to be paid for knowledge, and sometimes we would like to unknow what we have come to know, and we mourn the lost, storied world in which we felt at home. That, however, says Sagan, is maudlin and sentimental. We can close our eyes, if we wish, to what we know, and to the frightening sense of being dwarfed and marginalised that this knowledge makes us feel; we can even, as so many fundamentalists are telling us, resolutely refuse to recognise as knowledge what scientists have discovered about life and the universe, but it is clear that this does not really satisfy even the people who proclaim their certainty, who seek more and more fervent ways of expressing and displaying their faithfulness as a check against their doubts. It may be, as Jerry Coyne points out in his paper on evolution and America just published and now available online, that it will take a more caring, more egalitarian and more just society to give people the courage and wisdom to find, as Sagan says, the significance of their lives:
We long [he writes] for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance, Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.
If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal. 
I think it is Sagan’s inexplicit, but genuine recognition that there is a human knowing that is not scientific that makes the difference between his stridency about the folly of faith more palatable, and saved him from a chorus of condemnation from religious believers. He lived in the same world, in which a comprehensive understanding of being human, and a narrative sense of where we stood in relation to one another and to the vast universe in which we have come to be, were crucial elements of our knowledge. The discoveries of science, for Sagan, were absolutely vital, and represented a human achievement of enormous significance, but he still retained a narrative sense of the universe as a human creation, as part and parcel of our very being, a sense that seems to be deliberately played down in much that represents disbelief today. I think that Sagan might say that some contemporary conceptions of science do not provide a human context in terms of which they can be understood, and that this is an impoverished conception of what we are, and what we really know.