Carl Sagan’s Achilles’ Heel


On the occasion of the recent 20th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, I discuss and criticize his refusal to reach the necessary conclusion of atheism.

Sommaire en français Pour marquer l’anniversaire récent de la mort de Carl Sagan, je commente et critique son attitude à l’égard de l’athéisme et son refus de cette conclusion nécessaire.

The 20th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death occurred very recently—20th December 2016—and was celebrated by many, in particular by those who have strong interest in science and the promotion of scientific literacy, critical thinking, skepticism, etc. His life and work is very justifiably honoured as he was one of the great popularizers of science, perhaps the greatest of the late 20th century.

However there is one aspect of Sagan’s approach to science and skepticism which is largely overlooked and merits closer consideration. The anniversary date issue of eSkeptic, an email newsletter from the Skeptics Society, was dedicated to Sagan’s memory and included a number of quotes from his works. One quote in particular stands out:

On Theism & Atheism

Those who raise questions about the God hypothesis and the soul hypothesis are by no means all atheists. An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible, and considering the enormous emotional energies with which the subject is invested, a questioning, courageous and open mind seems to be the essential tool for narrowing the range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence of God.

“The Amniotic Universe,” in Broca’s Brain

The major flaw in the above declaration is the assertion that “An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God.” The validity of the first half of that assertion depends critically on the meaning of the word “certain” while the second half is a serious misrepresentation of atheism.

Consider the first half: “An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist…” If Sagan interprets certainty as meaning absolute certainty, then this is a caricature of atheism. Atheism is based on the scientific (not absolute) certainty that all theisms are false, that is, the falsehood of theism is certain beyond any reasonable doubt. Religions deal in absolute certainty and claim to possess it. But science is realistic. Absolute certainly is rarely if ever achievable and it is not necessary. An infinitesimal probability of falsehood is sufficient in order to draw a realistically certain conclusion.

There is no credible evidence for the god hypothesis; indeed, so-called proofs of the existence of god rely primarily on the argument from ignorance which is basically equivalent to the god of the gaps—i.e. we don’t know how it came to be, therefore god did it, which makes as much sense as saying “I don’t know why I cheated, therefore the devil made me do it.” Furthermore, the birth of god-beliefs in prehistoric and ancient times is readily explained by human psychology and our nature as a social species. Finally, theism is riddled with internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions which destroy its credibility even without reference to questions of evidence. See, for example, my talk, The Will of God: Pure Fiction.

Compelling evidence of non-existence is NOT required.

Now consider the second half of Sagan’s assertion: an atheist is “someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God.” Compelling evidence of non-existence is NOT required. Sagan himself is famous for repeatedly insisting that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” an observation which recalls Euclid’s famous “What has been affirmed without proof can also be denied without proof.” Few claims could be more extraordinary or more lacking in proof than the god-hypothesis. The considerations listed above are sufficient to reject that hypothesis. Counter-evidence is not required.

The bottom line is this: atheism is the logical, scientific conclusion to a full consideration of the pretensions of theism. There is no room for reasonable doubt, no reason not to take that final step from agnosticism to atheism. For further discussion, see my AFT blog Why We Are Not Agnostics.

To his credit, Sagan was apparently not a symmetric agnostic, at least not according to Joel Achenbach’s discussions of Sagan’s views in Carl Sagan denied being an atheist. So what did he believe? [Part 1] and Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable. (Although in the quote given above, Sagan speaks of the existence and nonexistence of “God” as “confident extremes,” as if there were symmetry here.) Symmetric agnosticism is a very dogmatic stance, occupying a middle ground resolutely centred between theism and atheism, putting the two on an equal footing and thus assuming—completely gratuitously—that theism has a 50% probability of being correct.

Symmetric agnosticism is a very dogmatic stance, occupying a middle ground resolutely centred between theism and atheism, putting the two on an equal footing …

However, even though Sagan leaned towards atheism, his failure to take that final step validates and comforts theistic beliefs. Even if Sagan completely rejected Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the three Abrahamic monotheisms), his agnosticism, his continued hedging on the ultimate question of atheism allows religious apologists to continue to peddle their nonsense with a minimum of intellectual opposition.

Such waffling has consequences. The skeptical movement has been infested with this mentality for far too long. For example, at its 2006 AGM, the organization Les Sceptiques du Québec (S.d.Q.) removed from its declaration of principles the mention of “secularism” (“laïcité”) which had been added the previous year. Why? Well, mainly because the proponents of the addition of secularism to the organization’s principles in 2005 were atheists, and the leadership of the organization was dominated by symmetric agnostics (and may still be, as far as I know) who displayed a total mistrust of up-front atheists. I emphasize that the principle removed was secularism, not atheism.

That an association which claims to promote scientific skepticism could refuse to endorse secularism is outrageous. If one does not support secularism, then one must be willing to accept compulsory religious instruction for children in public schools, instruction in the dogma of any religion such as Christianity, Scientology, Shamanism, or whatever. This decision by S.d.Q. was an example of intellectual inconsistency and cowardice, rationalized by a dogmatically agnostic worldview. An organization with such a pro-religious bias has failed to live up to its claim of being skeptical.

Of course my criticism of Sagan does not in any way reduce his considerable accomplishments. I am simply adding an important aspect to help complete the picture we have of him. Just as we can aspire to emulate him in his achievements, we can learn from his mistake with respect to atheism and do even better.

Next blog: More Dubious Words