Calling Carl Sagan

May 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Back in 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan introduced millions to the wonders of the universe. This universe, this cosmos, was not a place filled with terror or despair, not a soulless, anti-religious place. It was instead a universe so vast that the meager earth-centered description in Genesis relied upon by Christian fundamentalists seems very mundane and parochial indeed. Cosmos was an opus to awe.

The universe opened up by Sagan in his thirteen part series was a place many people had never seen, had never given much thought to, a journey not only through our solar system but out beyond the stars to other worlds, to wonders inconceivable to the Medieval, Bible-centered mindset. As historian William Manchester wrote,

“The church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change.”

Because the earth, and the universe itself, were eternal and unchanging. With this mindset in place, there could be no wonder, only fear. There could have been no Carl Sagan, and even if a mindset that could produce only the waterwheel and the windmill as innovations could have risen to the required level of technology, Cosmos would never have been made – or watched.

Cosmos, broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1980, was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television until Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990). It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 500 million people.

In 1980 the Religious Right had not yet declared war on science. The open war declared under President George W. Bush had not been initiated. Carl Sagan died shortly before that first salvo, before the Republican Party took the side of religious bigots determined to impose that medieval mindset described above by William Manchester on twentieth century America.

In 1996, Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, a book that was at the time heralded as “Wonder-saturated” (The Washington Post) and “a manifesto for clear thought” (Los Angeles Times). Here Carl Sagan argued that “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking.” The Religious Right, our Christofascists, realize this, and they see it as a way of thinking inimical to their dogmatic assertions, assertions drawn on a Bronze Age religion codified in a document put to paper in the first millennium B.C.E.

Ironically enough, as Sagan points out, “A Candle in the Dark“ was a Biblically-based book published in London in 1656 on the cusp of the Enlightenment, a book whose author, Thomas Ady, attacked the witch hunts of his time “as a scam ‘to delude the people’.” The arguments he raised will be familiar to us today: “Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft.”

Thomas Ady saw the absurdity of this reasoning 350 years ago.  He saw that it was time to move past such primitive and superstitious thinking. I wonder what he would say today, hearing these arguments still uttered.

Sagan wrote,

“For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.”

Ady, writing more than three centuries ago, foresaw that nations “[will] perish for lack of knowledge.” Yet lack of knowledge is being codified and legislated today by the likes of David Barton and Republican-controlled governors and legislatures.

Carl Sagan foresaw this:

“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.”

The results, as he says, are terrifying:

“The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

And so they have. The demons have stirred. And they are among us.

We can blame a once obscure NW Arabian god for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis; we can blame witches for disease – or we can turn to science to try to understand these things. The Bible doesn’t explain the ocean’s growing dead zones; it doesn’t explain our planet, which the Bible would have us believe to be permanent and unchanging, but which science shows to be in constant flux, a living, breathing organism. The challenges faced by our modern world cannot be met by a book written by men with a Bronze Age knowledge base.

We could use Carl Sagan now, we could use his voice, his wit, his ability to make science comprehensible to people. We could use him as a voice against the imposition of dead-end religious doctrines and dogmas that make of science a heresy, we could use him to re-light the candle that holds back the demons in the darkness.

Carl Sagan died of pneumonia on December 20, 1996 at the age of 62.

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