Carl Sagan Quotes That Reveal His Thoughts on Religion

What the famous skeptic had to say about God

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An astronomer, activist, and novelist, Carl Sagan didn't hesitate to share his views on the world, notably giving several quotes on the topic of religion. The famous scientist was born Nov. 9, 1934, into a family of Reform Jews. His father, Samuel Sagan, reportedly wasn't very religious, but his mother, Rachel Gruber, actively practiced her faith.

Although Sagan credited both of his parents with shaping him into a scientist - he became enamored with the universe as a child - he admitted they knew nothing about science.

As a small child he began to take trips alone to the library to learn about the stars because no one could explain their function to him. He likened reading about the stars to a "religious experience." It was an apt description given that Sagan rejected traditional religion in favor of science. 

Sagan may have been atheist, but that didn't stop him from speaking extensively on religion. The quotes that follow reveal his thoughts on God, faith and more.

On Faith

Sagan suggested that people believed in God to rekindle the wonder of childhood and because it's nice to believe someone is looking out for humanity. He wasn't among such individuals.

Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal. 

You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe. [Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985]

My faith is strong I don't need proofs, but every time a new fact comes along it simply confirms my faith. [Palmer Joss in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 172.]

Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy. 

The Rigidity of Religion

Religion has remained rigid, even in the face of evidence that has proven it wrong, Sagan believed. According to him:

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]

The major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can't all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It's a possibility, you know. You must care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing contentions is to be skeptical. I'm not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they're called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation. [Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 162. ]

At the extremes it is difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from rigid, doctrinaire religion. [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark]

On God

Sagan rejected the idea of God and perceptions of such a being in society. He said:

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 God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity. 

In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course ask next where God comes from? And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed? [Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 257]

Anything you don't understand, Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it. [Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 166.]

Many statements about God are confidently made by theologians on grounds that today at least sound specious. Thomas Aquinas claimed to prove that God cannot make another God, or commit suicide, or make a man without a soul, or even make a triangle whose interior angles do not equal 180 degrees. But Bolyai and Lobachevsky were able to accomplish this last feat (on a curved surface) in the 19th century, and they were not even approximately gods. [Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain]

Scripture

The Bible and other ancient texts did not represent God well, Sagan believed. He said:

What I'm saying is, if God wanted to send us a message, and ancient writings were the only way he could think of doing it, he could have done a better job. [Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 164.]

You see, the religious people -- most of them -- really think this planet is an experiment. That's what their beliefs come down to. Some god or other is always fixing and poking, messing around with tradesmen's wives, giving tablets on mountains, commanding you to mutilate your children, telling people what words they can say and what words they can't say, making people feel guilty about enjoying themselves, and like that. Why can't the gods leave well enough alone? All this intervention speaks of incompetence. If God didn't want Lot's wife to look back, why didn't he make her obedient, so she'd do what her husband told her? Or if he hadn't made Lot such a s--thead, maybe she would've listened to him more. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn't he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why's he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there's one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He's not good at design; he's not good at execution. He'd be out of business if there was any competition. [Sol Hadden in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 285.]

Afterlife

Although the idea of an afterlife appealed to Sagan, he ultimately rejected the possibility of one. He said:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. [Carl Sagan, 1996 - "In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade Magazine. Billions and Billions p. 215]

If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 204 (quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, by James A. Haught, Prometheus Books, 1996)]

Reason and Religion

Sagan spoke at length about reason and religion. He believed in the former but not in the latter. Here's what he had to say:

One prominent American religion confidently predicted that the world would end in 1914. Well, 1914 has come and gone, and - whole the events of that year were certainly of some importance - the world did not, at least so far as I can see, seem to have ended. There are at least three responses that an organized religion can make in the face of such a failed and fundamental prophecy. They could have said, Oh, did we say '1914'? So sorry, we meant '2014'. A slight error in calculation. Hope you weren't inconvenienced in any way. But they did not. They could have said, Well, the world would have ended, except we prayed very hard and interceded with God so He spared the Earth. But they did not. Instead, the did something much more ingenious. They announced that the world had in fact ended in 1914, and if the rest of us hadn't noticed, that was our lookout. It is astonishing in the fact of such transparent evasions that this religion has any adherents at all. But religions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough- mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. [Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain]

In a democracy, opinions that upset everyone are sometimes exactly what we need. We should be teaching our children the scientific method and the Bill of Rights. [Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan]

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark]

(When asked merely if they accept evolution, 45 percent of Americans say yes. The figure is 70 percent in China.) When the movie Jurassic Park was shown in Israel, it was condemned by some Orthodox rabbis because it accepted evolution and because it taught that dinosaurs lived a hundred million years ago--when, as is plainly stated at every `and every Jewish wedding ceremony, the Universe is less than 6,000 years old. [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 325]

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Cline, Austin. "Carl Sagan Quotes That Reveal His Thoughts on Religion." ThoughtCo, Feb. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/carl-sagan-quotes-4072032. Cline, Austin. (2017, February 10). Carl Sagan Quotes That Reveal His Thoughts on Religion. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/carl-sagan-quotes-4072032 Cline, Austin. "Carl Sagan Quotes That Reveal His Thoughts on Religion." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/carl-sagan-quotes-4072032 (accessed November 18, 2017).