Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

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?


3 thoughts on “Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more.
    In recent interviews Dawkins grows more and more “fundamentalist” (if I’m allowed call it that) about atheism, which I find at least very counterproductive.
    Atheismn is about being able to think and to decide for yourself! If we resort to “We are right and you are wrong. Believe us already!” we are no better than the next best religion.

  2. Nice atheists exist, but in the post 9/11 world the “new atheists” are getting more press. Between 9/11 and the whole intelligent design thing a few years ago gave them a lot of fuel and that engine is still running.

    If you want to see some “nice atheists” try the science education community and the scientific skepticism community.

    Neal deGrasse Tyson is an astronomer who number of books and appears on television pretty often. He is pretty much trying to be a new Carl Sagan.

    The scientific skepticism community focus more on superstition and pseudoscience, but are publicly agnostic or atheist. Dr. Steven Novella of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe/Neurologica/Science Based Medicine is a good example.

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