The other half of the universe

The other half of the universe

Carl Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator Ann Druyan gives the world another book by the late eminent scientist — this time on religion

By Julie Riggott 02/08/2007

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Conventional religion is taking a beating in the book world right now, with Richard Dawkins' “The God Delusion” and Sam Harris' “Letter to a Christian Nation” and “The End of Faith” making the bestseller lists.

These books have boiled to the top of the current global political stew of radical extremism, suicide bombings, violent religious fundamentalism, the popularity of intelligent design and the denial of evolution and global warming. The intensity is unprecedented, and comes at a time when our own president believes he was chosen by God to lead the United States and his administration demonstrates outright hostility to science.

Joining the heated discussion is the late astronomer Carl Sagan — thanks to his widow and longtime collaborator Ann Druyan, who has edited the transcripts of Sagan's 1985 Gifford Lectures and published them as “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.”

Sagan, a professor of astronomy and space sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, consultant and adviser to NASA and distinguished visiting scientist at JPL/Caltech, was arguably the world's most popular scientist. He received innumerable awards and honors for both his research and his success in communicating the wonders of science to the public, perhaps most memorably with the television series “Cosmos” and the book and film “Contact.” He was also one of the founders of The Planetary Society in Pasadena, the largest space-interest group in the world.

Druyan, who remains an active board member of The Planetary Society — a place she said felt like home during a recent visit to promote this book — is herself a powerhouse in the field of science. An author, lecturer and television and motion picture writer and producer, she collaborated with her husband for 20 years on books such as “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot” and “The Demon-Haunted World.” She was co-writer of the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning television series “Cosmos” and of the 1997 film “Contact,” which she also co-produced.

In a recent telephone conversation from the home she shared with Sagan in Ithaca, NY, Druyan applauded the bravery of Dawkins and Harris in speaking out about the failings of conventional religion during these turbulent political times. She passionately believes that her husband's lectures are relevant now more than ever. “We are in grave danger of a theocracy here,” she said.

“We have a situation where … only people who pay lip service to a certain kind of god are eligible to lead us. We've ended up with leaders who indulge in the same kind of magical thinking that is at the heart of their religious ideology. So it's not that hard to understand how we can get into a mess as big as the one we're in … through magical thinking and through utter, flagrant disregard for evidence, for logic.”

Druyan and Sagan had planned to write a book about religion together on the scale of “Cosmos” — the best-selling science book ever published in English — but didn't get the chance before his death in 1996 at the age of 62 from pneumonia after three bone-marrow transplants. The book, called “Ethos,” was to cover the history of religion, the search for God and the spiritual values the couple derived from science. “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” is as close as the world will get to a comprehensive collection of Sagan's views on those topics.

‘At home in the universe'

Started in 1885 by Adam Lord Gifford in Scotland, the Gifford Lectures have brought philosophers, theologians and scientists such as Albert Schweitzer and Niels Bohr to the University of Glasgow to present their ideas on the topic of natural theology, which Sagan defined as “theological knowledge that can be established by reason and experience alone. Not by revelation, not by mystical experience, but by reason.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, psychologist William James was invited to give the Gifford Lectures and then compiled them in a book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Druyan explained that both she and Sagan liked James' definition of religion as “a feeling of being at home in the universe” — hence her choice for the book's title.

In the nine lectures compiled in “The Varieties of Scientific Experience,” Sagan laid out arguments for the importance of skepticism in spiritual belief, which he saw as too important a topic not to question. Having studied world religions, he also explained what he saw as the useful and not-so-useful contributions of religion and the antiquated and Earth-centric worldview of most of them.

At the core of Sagan's search for spiritual truth was knowledge. “Science” is the Latin word for knowledge, he pointed out. Religions that exclude evolution, along with all the other revelations from science, are simply not satisfying. Sagan pointed out that science — not the Bible or any other religious text — has given us answers to the great mysteries of our universe, our planet and life itself. Copernicus, Newton and Darwin are among the scientists who have revolutionized our understanding of life. According to Sagan, science has provided more inspiring answers than any creation myth could.

  “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do,” he said in the lectures. “[E]volving before our eyes has been a God of the Gaps; that is, whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that's no longer God's realm. The theologians give that one up, and it walks over onto the science side of the duty roster.”

So what is to take the place of that God?

“The intervening God of conventional religion, which is so often a punitive figure, held no appeal for either of us,” Druyan explained. “We were interested in the God of Spinoza and the God of Einstein, mainly the God who's the sum total of the physical laws of the universe.”

Like Sagan, Druyan makes a sensitive and inspiring PR person for science, articulately summarizing the essence of the couple's spiritual beliefs. “Carl points out so poetically,” she said, “that in each and every one of us, every bone, every atom, every cell can trace its origins back to the fiery depths of distant stars. We are starstuff, as Carl said.

“That struck me and Carl — struck us both — as being an intensely spiritual set of insights, and yet it seems that science has made a kind of pact with religion not to express the wonder and the awe that its deepest insights reveal. So, we wanted to break down that wall and write about how science had inspired our most spiritual experiences.”

Also in the lectures, Sagan explored the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — something close to his heart, as he had set up the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at The Planetary Society. He also argued against armament and presciently imagined how harmful it could be to have a fundamentalist leader in office who believes in the apocalypse. And he tackled all of these heavy topics and more with the eloquent language and the warmly conversational style that characterized his writing.

Sagan always had an outstanding knack for making science accessible and exciting. He appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and wrote for Parade magazine — much to the chagrin of some of his colleagues who considered it beneath a serious scientist.

While Dawkins and Harris have done their share of inciting controversy with vitriolic words, Sagan introduced his lectures by stating that they were his “own personal views,” and not a definitive statement on the subject.

In her introduction to the book, Druyan recalled Sagan's “extraordinary combination of principled, crystal-clear advocacy coupled with respect and tenderness toward those who did not share his views.” One of the prime examples of his sensitivity, compassion and hopeful spirit was when he and Druyan joined with then-Sen. Al Gore and the Rev. Joan Campbell of the National Council of Churches in the 1980s to form the Joint Appeal in Religion and Science. Druyan and Sagan, one of the first scientists to speak of the dangers of global warming, worked with hundreds of evangelicals and religious people of all denominations toward a common goal: to protect the environment.

‘Something special, something improbable'

Reading Sagan's lectures, one can't help being simultaneously astounded and uplifted. As he points out the marvels of the universe, facts sometimes incomprehensible to nonscientists, we seem like such a small part of the picture. But Sagan also makes us realize that makes us special too. It's a message of wonder and awe.

He described Earth as a “pale blue dot” in a vast universe of hundreds of thousands of millions of galaxies and maintained that “life is not guaranteed, … life requires something special, something improbable.”

“I think it is fair to say … if you started the Earth out again and let just these random factors operate, such as when a cosmic ray would strike a chromosome, producing a mutation in the hereditary material, you might wind up with intelligent beings after some thousands of millions of years,” Sagan said. “You might wind up with creatures of high ethical and artistic or theological accomplishment. But they would not look anything like human beings. We are the products of a unique evolutionary sequence. Unique doesn't mean better; it just means unique.”

Druyan believes the lack of understanding or appreciation of that preciousness of life is one source of our problems in the world today.

“In a way I think all of our problems stem from, if not the same place, a related constellation of places,” she said. “I think one of our biggest problems is that our religious ideology is utterly rootless in nature, and it's not only rootless in nature, but frequently contemptuous of things that are natural.

“This is a source of many problems, [including] our inability to protect our environment and to take action and to change the way things are as we watch the evidence for global warming mounting. All of those things, I think, come from this notion — which is so harmful — that life on Earth is disposable to some extent, that there's a heaven elsewhere. That this is just a prelude to an existence elsewhere, so if we mess up the Earth, big deal, there's a heaven waiting for us,” Druyan said. “We were shaped by four-and-a-half billion years of local evolution to adapt to this planet as nowhere else in the cosmos, and yet we treat it as if it were disposable; we treat human life as if it were disposable.”

Their awe about life surely made Sagan and Druyan's relationship extraordinary. “We lived and treated each other in a way that was mindful of every day being precious,” she said.

She described both their personal and work partnerships as “magical. There was no dividing line between work, happiness and fun.”

With her current involvement with The Planetary Society's second solar sail mission and her work (as founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios) on an IMAX film about global warming, Druyan is continuing to promote the wonders of science — the mission that she and Sagan pursued together — and to keep his memory alive.

“We didn't believe in fate or any kind of supernatural intervention, and we knew that we were the beneficiaries of blind chance,” Druyan said, “and yet we felt a sense of tremendous good fortune to have found each other, in the immensity of space and the vastness of time and the sheer expanses of all the billions of years in the history of cosmic evolution. And just the sheer number of worlds in the universe, 400 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and millions of galaxies; just to be together in such a big universe was a never-ending source of amazement for both of us.”  

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