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A Tribute to Carl Sagan:
The Sagan File

Joel Achenbach

Joel Achenbach is a columnist, staff writer, and blogger for the Washington Post. He is the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed Captured by Aliens, a cultural history of UFOs, that also covers alien abduction, and SETI movements. This commentary on Sagan was originally published in the Washington Post and is reprinted here with permission.

We moved offices, and I began to purge files, stuff I don’t need and haven’t looked at in years. Digging deep, I came across a fat file marked “Sagan.” The astronomer died in December 1996. Save? Throw away?

From the documents, a voice emerged.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that there is anyone who will come and save us from ourselves.

Carl Sagan! You could hear those explosive consonants. Who else could utter a phrase, with a straight face, like “the great enveloping cosmic dark”? Sagan insisted that we think bigger. Look upward and outward, he said. Get cosmic.

It’s something you don’t hear so much these days, and not just because the space program is in a funk. Our concerns are extremely terrestrial: war, disease, hatred, poverty. The preoccupying figure of this decade is not the astronaut but the terrorist.

Sagan cared about earthly subjects, too. He was your basic progressive liberal, a college professor, a peace advocate. But he saw our human obsessions as trivial in the grand scheme of things. The universe isn’t about us, he would say. He railed against human arrogance, against “our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.”

And yet the voice in the file is that of a person who liked human beings, who rooted for them. Perhaps because Sagan had seen so many desert worlds out there in our solar system, so many cold, airless, sterile planets and moons, he appreciated the one place where we know life has proliferated, and where intelligence has somehow appeared. Here’s Sagan explaining why he wouldn’t ban all medical research using animals: “I’m sure if I were a lizard, I would be arguing about sacrificing the humans so we can get better medicine for the lizards. I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m a human.”

Throughout his career, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Sagan was fascinated with life beyond Earth, a subject that carries with it the hazard of sounding very silly. In a Scientific American article, he wrote, “If a silicon-based giraffe had walked by the Viking Mars landers, its portrait would have been taken.” Sagan didn’t actually think there might be silicon Martian giraffes, but he was glad that the Viking landers would be ready to take pictures of any animals bounding around.

Here’s a 1981 letter from Sagan to someone who thought alien life forms would be very much like creatures on Earth. Sagan disagreed:

We have a worrisome tendency to think that what we see is all that can be… But why five fingers? Why fingers rather than tentacles? Why the agonizingly slow data processing in our neurological systems? Why not multi-spectral infrared sensing? It’s easy to think of a wide range of anatomies, physiologies and sensory modalities that have not been adopted by humans or indeed by any other creatures on the Earth.

Which is a much more elaborate response than simply, “Thank you for your interesting letter.” Sagan would be so useful today, what with all the debates about science and religion. By most definitions he would be called an atheist, but he hated the term. “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”

He didn’t think science drained any of the majesty from the universe, but quite the opposite.

“The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.”

Here’s Sagan’s text for a statement he persuaded President Jimmy Carter to include on the Voyager Record, a disc designed to be heard by an alien civilization should it ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft:

This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America, a community of 240 million human beings among the 4.2 billion who inhabit our planet Earth. We are still divided into nation states, but are rapidly becoming a single global civilization which covers our tiny but very beautiful world… We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems which face us, to join a community of galactic civilizations.

We haven’t solved our problems. Some people on Earth aren’t even fully ready to join human civilization, far less a galactic one. Sagan would be saddened by much of what he sees today.

But he’d be out there fighting for science and the human future, imploring us to be smarter, braver, more cosmic. So the Sagan file will stay. Some people you need to keep around forever.

This article can be found in
Skeptic volume 13 number 1

volume 13 number 1
The Legacy of Carl Sagan

this issue includes: An Interview with Ann Druyan; Science, Religion & Human Purpose; An excerpt from Conversations with Carl; Tributes to Carl Sagan…
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  1. Lone Primate says:

    Where did Carl Sagan every say this: “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”

    You can chase around the ‘net for weeks and you see nothing but people quoting people quoting people quoting people. But no one ever gives a citation, except for the LAST guy who quoted it. So where did he actually say this? Because I’m increasingly disinclined to believe he ever actually did. It’s beginning to look like a rootless meme.

    • John says:

      Even if you don’t believe he said this, it still makes sense.

      • Mark G says:

        No it doesn’t. An atheist is just someone who doesn’t believe there is evidence for a god. Very few atheists claim certain knowledge that there’s no such entity. For a man of Sagan’s stature to not grasp such a crucial (and obvious) distinction would be odd. I also doubt the authenticity of the quote.

    • mike says:

      What sagan means by this comment is, I believe, that an atheist is someone who knows 100% that there is no God. Sagan could not definitively prove that their is or isn’t a God, so more likely he was an agnostic that is just a hairs breadth away from atheism. He’s saying an atheist must know more than him, as though the atheist has some proof that he lacks that God doesn’t exist. He was a scientist, not prone to fanciful claims without evidence, therefore you would probably never hear from him that he was 100% sure one way or the other if there is a God or not.

      • William says:

        I have no idea where the Carl Sagan “atheism is very stupid” quote comes from, or even if it is authentic – but if he did say it (which I doubt), he said it carelessly and off-the-cuff.

        There are a lot of people here who seem to have the wrong idea about atheism. Atheism is the LACK of belief in a god or gods. No-one has managed to convince us that a god or gods exist, so we don’t believe.

        Can you prove there’s no tooth fairy, or tinkerbell, or wizards or space dragons? No, but you don’t believe in them because you have no good reason to – they’re just fairy tales.

        We just think that a magical skylord who created people out of dirt, along with a magical talking snake that convinced a woman made out of a man’s rib to eat an enchanted apple, and all the ridiculous and bloodthirsty fiction that followed, is a little far-fetched.

        If you can come up with a concept for “god” that we can prove exists (for the Christian god, a flying angel recorded from multiple untampered sources in HD in the middle of a well-lit, populated area seems sufficient, and hardly difficult for the creator of everything), then every atheist on the planet would be happy to believe.

        An unkind, but accurate description of an atheist would be a “faithless skeptic” – if you can’t prove it, we won’t believe it.

      • TJ Bradders says:

        “What sagan means by this comment is…” [now insert atheist propaganda]

        This is Carl Sagan, lets make a few assumptions, first he is smarter than anyone in this chat room. Second that when he says the word Atheist he knows what he is talking about, when he calls himself an Agnostic, it’s because he understands what Thomas Huxley meant when he coined the word, and philosophy, of agnosticism.

        “…so more likely he was an agnostic that is just a hairs breadth away from atheism.” Just what do you know about agnostic’s? DYK that agnostics tend to see theist and atheist in the same light? The obvious point that Sagan is making is exactly what he said, “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”.

        Why would he say that? Because he is an agnostic, what is an agnostic? There is only one definition… “When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
        So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.”
        If you take the time to read through that very carefully, you will see that Agnostics and Atheist are quite a bit different.

        • Jonathan says:

          “first he is smarter than anyone in this chat room.”

          This is an argument from authority – that Sagan was a brilliant scientist does not mean that he is an expert in linguistics or at discerning the correct philosophical meanings of words.

          It’s one thing for Sagan to label himself agnostic, it’s another thing to say that atheism is ‘stupid’. This would indicate to me that he hadn’t thought the concept through properly.

        • JP says:

          Sagan was an atheist. He did not believe in God. The quote you attribute was never even said by him. If you think it was, please provide the reference. Thanks

  2. Mark Klotz says:

    Yes, I would ask the same question; Specifically, when, and where did Carl Sagan ever state “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”

    I can find no reference to this anywhere, other than the article that was printed in the Washington Post.

  3. Eric says:

    I am also curious, I tried to find it in a video but I have not looked to hard. But, it would not surprise me if he had said that. He was a great scientist and most likely understood science has not been able to make a claim as to whether God exists. Therefore the quote would show a dedication to thinking as a scientist. Einstein may have had quite similar views, and I am sure Carl Sagan was influenced by him.

  4. Matthew says:

    Carl Sagan (1934–1996): American astronomer and astrochemist, a highly successful popularizer of astronomy, astrophysics, and other natural sciences, and pioneer of exobiology and promoter of the SETI. Although Sagan has been identified as an atheist according to some definitions,[151][152][153] he rejected the label, stating “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.”[151] He was an agnostic who,[154] while maintaining that the idea of a creator of the universe was difficult to disprove,[155] nevertheless disbelieved in God’s existence, pending sufficient evidence.[156]

    This is the wiki page for atheist scientists, if you follow the link in [154] it will take you to a published book with comments about being Agnostic and not Atheist. That was after 3 minutes of searching.

  5. John Doe says:

    Dam, poster #4, Matthew, just told the first 3 posters what was up!

  6. carl says:

    Feels as though the atheists here want to believe badly that this is all just a lie. I completely agree with Sagan’s position on this and feel agnosticism is far more respectable/less arrogant. Relax, you still have your narrow minded man-god Dawkins. Go order another of his books. He’ll appreciate it.

    • Mark G says:

      If you don’t believe in a god or gods, you are an atheist. “Agnostic” is just a weasel word for the most common form of atheism. Very few atheists claim certain knowledge that there is no god. The more common claim is simply that no evidence exists to support the supernatural proposition.

      • Kes says:

        Hi Mark,

        I was taught that an agnostic is someone who doesn’t believe there is evidence for a god, and that an atheist is someone who claims certain knowledge that there’s no such entity. You are now saying that an agnostic is “the most common atheist”; a subcategory of atheism.

        But then what is someone called who claims certain knowledge that there is no God?

        • Jesse Sipprell says:

          Someone who positively asserts that a god does not exist is a so-called “strong” atheist.

          Really the issue here is just variations of colloquial definitions over time. Atheism used to be divided into “strong” and “weak” categories, where “strong” is affirmative and “weak” takes neutral. Then the “weak” form started to become known as agnosticism.

          Now things are changing again. Since the advent of the “New Atheist” movement and the revitalization of the skeptic community there has been a propensity to return to the older definitions and in fact to recognize that the “strong atheist” is really just a caricature; an atheist’s position really depends on the definition of “god”.

          For example, almost no atheists actually take the strong affirmative position with regard to a deist god (after all, it makes no sense empirically to insist that something definitely cannot exist when evidence of any type can never, by definition, be evaluated). Many do take strong positions with regard to various claims of deistic manifestation, however.

  7. JD Winty says:

    I would first say that his wife just a few months ago wrote a piece where she acknowledged he was an atheist. I would also mention that it is understandable why many people are retiscent to use the term today and especially throughout the 80s and 90s at the peak of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s in your face strong atheism. Atheists in general today are simply more educated. They recognize that atheism deals with belief while agnosticism deals with knowledge and so the idea that an “atheist has to know a lot more” than someone else is simply preposterous. An Atheist intrinsically is without a belief in god(s), he or she is not making a knowledge claim. If I had to guess I would assume that Sagan cared more about sharing the wonders of science and technology than he did about impressing his beliefs (or lack of) on others.

  8. mac says:

    Trouble is all religious people have modelled ‘God’ according to their own taste. Each believer person has a different angle on it. I cant see the point in doing that, hence im labelled ‘aetheist’.

    People say the word ‘God’ casually and i’m expected to know which one they are on about and what their particular one does. Bit boring really.

  9. D says:

    One way to get get Christians or theists riled up is to insult or question the existence of God.

    One way to get atheists riled up is by calling atheism stupid…..

    Are we so egotistical in the quest to be “right” we cannot see the 2 walls of the prison that have been created for us?

    God will never be proved or disproved by science or religion. It’s subjective, so lets agree to disagree and get on with life.

  10. Desiree says:

    So the thing is, I have really only recently begun to hear the idea that atheism is simply a non-belief in gods. Etymologically, the term “atheism” translates into “a state or condition of no gods.” This is why I feel that atheists who do not firmly believe that there exists “a state or condition of no gods” are actually agnostics, rather than the other way around. It seems to me that atheists in general are doing what I often see atheists do when confronted with evidence that is contrary to their opinion: which is, by saying “Oh, well, that’s not really what I meant to say…”

    Carl Sagan is also quoted as saying “The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God.” This is the God of philosopher Spinoza and Physicist Einstein. Also known as pantheism.

    • Desiree says:

      Also it is interesting to note that, according to this thread, Sagan called himself an agnostic: OTHER people called him an atheist. Who do you imagine is the ultimate source on Sagan’s thoughts and beliefs? Sagan himself, or other people?

    • Jesse Sipprell says:

      “A state or condition of no gods” is an assumed default position. In the absence of evidence one must rationally assume this position about every claim. It doesn’t mean that, given a total knowledge of the universe, one would necessarily claim no gods exist. It only means that one *operates* as if this is true until it is otherwise demonstrated. Your definition of ‘atheist’ is not logically sound, and there are few atheists that would accept it given the loosest possible definition of “god” or “gods”.

      It’s like belief in extra-terrestrial intelligent life. Skeptically, one assumes, at the present time, that such neither exists nor does not exist. This is the same as assuming a default null (non-existent) state with the subtle distinction being that it is an assumption and NOT a presumption. If good evidence for ET becomes available then one becomes justified in believing in it to some to-be-determined degree (depending on the nature of the evidence).

      If “God” is only the set of physical laws that govern the universe then why not just call it what it is? The “God” label carries *tons* of additional baggage which extends far beyond this, so it’s muddying the waters to apply that label to just “physical laws”.

      (Pantheism is actually the belief that god *IS* the universe, not just the set of all laws)

  11. bill t says:

    Much like the discussion centered around “faith”, much of this discussion is about semantics as much as anything else. To whit, when told that scientists have faith in science, as believers in have faith in religion, is confusing the two meanings of “faith”. Def. 1 in my dictionary is just that belief that something is true. Def 2 is “blind” faith. So, I have faith that the Earth orbits the Sun, but I have reason to believe it’s true, I believe blind faith is required (and is explicitly called for in the Bible) to believe in gods. Until presented evidence for a god, I’m an atheist.

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