The first big idol I had was the astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, and he is still high up on my list 20 years after he died. People that have read this blog for a while may remember some posts about religion, and then they might ask themselves how a Christian man can admire an atheist.
I am firstly interested in science. It has many fascinating aspects, not least the contradiction it is when those defending it deviate from their principles. Many are doing something similar when they use Carl Sagan to justify their atheist view. Carl Sagan used this phrase several times, like when he was skeptical to stories of people being abducted by aliens:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
He had similar ideas regarding religion as well, but he was always a scientist, and didn’t express the hatred that many celebrity atheists do. He saw religion as irrelevant, but treated these questions with more humility. He may have been closer to atheism than anything else, but it sounds to me that it would make more sense to call him an agnostic. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that he didn’t like the label atheism, and he even said that by some definitions atheism is very stupid. That doesn’t mean he thought atheism was stupid of course. I’m not sure why he said that, but I imagine it’s because atheism is a very anti-science position.
He made a series of lectures that were collected in the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God:. This is a quote from the book:
I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need only do one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe at it reallly is, not to foist our emotional predisposition on it but courageously accept what our explorations tell us.
This is a typical scientific standpoint, or should be, but we frequently see that researchers are so eager to conclude that they are running far ahead of the evidence. They then try to make their findings concur with the conclusion. This is contrary to scientific principles, as I understand them, but it seems to me that Carl Sagan was loyal to these principles. So he concluded, as Christians do, that faith is not about something we can prove or disprove. He chose, as a consequence of his scientific belief, that the universe was not created for us and that there is no meaning behind life. If he had declared himself an atheist he would also have said that it didn’t matter how much evidence someone may have found in the future. He wasn’t going to change his position anyway. He could, at least theoretically, have accepted the intelligent design theory if someone could prove it, but as it stands this is just as much a theory as evolution.
I still believe there is a lot to suggest that the universe was designed and that there was a designer. I can respect an open attitude like the one Carl Sagan expressed, but I sometimes wonder about scientists or people claiming to have a scientific mind. Some of them say they let the evidence lead them, which means they could end up with any position on a specific issue. That’s impossible if you reel off the kind of hate speech we sometimes hear from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry. There’s no way back from there. I suspect most people would experience euphoria, either because they were pleasantly surprised or because this was the moment they had been waiting for all their lives, if they suddenly found themselves face to face with God (I don’t know what that means because I don’t think God is a person). A true atheist would probably have been angry, which is a strange attitude for someone looking for answers.
Some of my favourite things to wath on TV are documentaries on astronomy and I’m sometimes astounded at how far some of the scientists they interview seem to wander away from their field of expertise. I think that’s what researchers do when they say there has to be life on other planets because that much empty space would be a waste, or meaningless. So it seems like they are looking for a meaning at the same time was they say there isn’t any.
There are probably different motivations for this, but some suffer from the delusion that a discovery of life on other planets will kill the idea of God once and for all. I haven’t memorized the Bible, so I don’t know it as well as I should, but I don’t think it claims that life elsewhere is impossible. This is a fascinating topic to me and I don’t think a future discovery of alien life would make us less unique. One of the Norwegian newspapers had an article a few days ago about a possible exoplanet as close as Alpha Centauri. Astronomers have discovered many of these planets in the habitable zone, but this is the first one this close.
Knut Jørgen Ødegaard, Norwegian media’s favourite astrophycisist, was very excited about this news. The science fiction-author and science popularizer Anne Mette Sannes was also interviewed and she thinks that a round trip of 25 years will be possible in 100-150 years, but that sounds overly optimistic to me. Alpha Centauri is only 4,37 light years away, but with the present technology it would take us 80 000 years to get there. I think we would have to be closer to achieving close to light speed, or wormholes, but that could be a milennium away. There doesn’t seem to be a drive for exploring deep space because after NASA’s last mission to the Moon in 1972, they have been stuck in low orbit.
It would have been good to see the space agencies launch generation ships into space, but it probably won’t happen during my lifetime. I think there will be people on Mars within 30 years, though. In the meantime I think science can give us a lot of answers, but it is not without speculations, cheating and corruption. So it may not be a bad idea to believe in a philosophy that is not dependant on people because we are corrupt. That’s what religion is all about, trying to keep us honest.