During my crosstown commute this evening I watched a recording of a late-1980s television broadcast, “God, the Universe, and Everything,” featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. The trio and their host discussed the nature of the cosmos and of God, with a brief detour into Clarke’s fractal fetish. I’m struck that in contrast to fellow avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan addressed questions of God and faith during the program without resorting to philosophical mouth farts. And so it was with his appearances on “Cosmos” and other programs. Even Sagan’s final work, 1996’s The Demon-Haunted World sets forth its arguments against religion in a reasonable way, and chooses to devote most of its energy to fighting pseudoscience.
It could be that Dawkins is more confrontational (I would in fact call it nasty) because times are different and the religious are now perceived as more of a “threat” to science by the atheist-humanist crowd. Though, as memory serves me, the debates involving politics and religion, and by extension, science, were awfully contentious during the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s Christian fundamentalist-bashing dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and greenlighted for a movie shortly thereafter. At the same time, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already well-known in the West. We had already experienced kidnappings, terror bombings, and had to contend with fundamentalist leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued his famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. So if we discount the reality of “threat” to nonbelievers, and the effect it would have on tone, then the difference between atheists like Dawkins and atheists like Sagan seems to be one of style, substance, and perhaps even decency.
Where have all the nice atheists gone?