Click here if you don’t see subscription options
William J. O'MalleyFebruary 07, 1981
Carl Sagan might be mildly amused to know a priest used Cosmos for spiritual reading. In fact, in recent years nothing has served so well to put spine into my middle-aged faith as reading the kind of popularized science at which Dr. Sagan is such a genius. Nothing deflates ones pretentions to divinity as well as accepting the unchangeable fact that even the whole earth is nothing but a bit of grit in the enormity of deep space. It pulls me up short to realize that the light tonight from the M87 galaxy began its journey toward us 30 million years before human beings existed, and that within its expanse burn a hundred trillion suns. In the face of that overwhelming background, my dandruff and diet and death dwindle to the trivia they are. Cosmos tells me who I am.

Yet Dr. Sagan also hymns (at times perhaps too rhapsodically) the inconceivable I aliveness of the great dance of the heavens, which is replicated within each single cell and atom of my own body. Two bodies flirt in attraction and repulsion about one another and that pair in turn moves about others and that whole system moves about and through another-whether it be the infinite waltz of the universe itself or the infinitesimal pas de deux of the hydrogen atom. The same dance. Let us praise the Choreographer! Cosmos tells me about Him, too.

Yet it is more intricate still. The Choreographer loves order; the rules of the dance are everywhere the same: the laws of physics. Yet He also loves surprise. No two dancers are exactly alike: spirals and rings, raging hot and rigidly glacial, smooth and pocked, positive and negative and neutral. This is not the dead movement of machine-tooled spheres but an endlessly varied carouse. Order and surprise. One can tell a great deal about the Choreographers personality from the dance He created, and turning each page of Cosmos, I was more and more in awe of Him and more and more numbed to realize that--in all that immensity--He knows my name. Cosmos puts me in awe of Carl Sagan, too. He is an enormously gifted juggler, at one time keeping aloft a dizzying melange of balls, dishes, Indiari clubs, dinosaurs, and Dopplered red shifts. His ability to explain the complex in terms of the commonplace is mesmerizing; his encyclopedic knowledge is humbling; his articulateness captivates. His staff of illustrators and technicians is skilled and inventive. On camera or in print, Dr. Sagan is artfully at ease with the arcane and his love affair with the cosmos is infectious. He is an irresistibly stimulating teacher.

And theres the rub.

Dr. Sagan and the televised "Cosmos" series reached a vast audience. He intrigued adults, who since college have had to leave behind pondering the ponderous and concentrate on the more pedestrian process of making a living. And he fascinated young students, especially very intelligent students, who still have the leisure and curiosity to ask what living is for. I rejoice that Dr. Sagan has opened our parochial eyes to the enormity and variety and aliveness of the universe in which we find our meaning. But I wince at the fact that, in almost every program and chapter of Cosmos, Dr. Sagan rejects outright (and, to me, gratuitously) any possibility of a Mind behind that universe; he carps captiously at religion; he insists on the exclusivity of accident as the cause of evolution. Amid all the glorious, mind-boggling, uplifting exposition of science, there is too often a discordant sneer. Always muted, always elegant, but nonetheless a sneer.

What was its effect on the audience, especially on the bright young audience? Well, if Dr. Sagan is intimidatingly knowledgeable and articulate, he must know about that God stuff, too, right? Trying to counterbalance Dr. Sagans subtle assertions of atheism (with $8 million of media know-how to enhance it) is like a first-grade teacher trying to upstage "Sesame Street." The effect on youngsters is as corrosive as that of a witty atheist philosophy professor on kids who come from 18 years of unquestioning religious conformity. How does a college theologian counter that with any credibility? What high school teacher could prepare his or her students to face those assertions with calm balance? Without even the resources that go into one Alpo commercial, theyd have to be very, very good. Even then, which of them has the knowledge, credentials, connections and chutzpah to be given a 13-week television series or to author a book that sells for $19.95?

That makes this very essay suspect. I am as much a scientist as Carl Sagan is a theologian; not that science is my quibble with him, It is only his subtle atheology I object to. Yet to call myself "theologian" is also like a saloon singer calling himself "artist." So, let it be David against Goliath.

Design Without a Design

Dr. Sagan rejects out of hand even the possibility of the transcendent in the first sentence of his book: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." Later he says, "By definition, nothing we can ever know about was outside [the physical universe]." This seems, at least to me, somewhat arbitrary, especially from a man who pleads so eloquently for openmindedness. He speaks of "the tolerance for ambiguity that is essential to science." If he thinks relativity demands intellectual forebearance, he should try allowing the Deity to be three and yet one! He admits that "there is much more to the world than we can see." Despite our inability to see them, infrared and ultraviolet light do exist. But is there conceivably a light beyond even those limits? For 30 centuries, experts like Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Teresa of Avila have argued that such a Light exists. All receivers need not be metallic in order to be trustworthy; no geiger counter can measure the degree of truth in "I love you."

One major argument against a Designer that Dr. Sagan makes early in his text is that the fossil record indicates that some exquisitely made species have died out. "Should not a supremely competent Designer have been able to make the intended variety from the start?" He finds that "inconsistent with an efficient Great Designer." Of course. But perhaps the reason is that efficiency is not as high on the Designers list of priorities as it is on Carl Sagans, just as explanations meant less to the Voice from the Whirlwind than they did to Job. Perhaps the Designer just delighted in new things and, out of all eternity, 50 billion years was not too long a time to dally with them.

In searching for a word to describe the set of rules which would dictate the unchangeables, the non-negotiables, in a reshuffling of the laws of physics, Dr. Sagan says that both the words "paraphysics" and "metaphysics" have unfortunately been "preempted by other rather different and, quite possibly, wholly irrelevant activities." (The phrase "quite possibly" is the condescending smile around the sneer.) As my contemporaries can testify, I would be the first to confess the inadequacy of much of the metaphysics I struggled through for several years in the seminary, without even Leah as a reward. But the inadequacy of the symbols does not negate the presence of the reality, any more than debunking feathery hermaphrodites negates messages from God, nor Heisenbergs discovery of indeterminacy negates the usefulness of the Bohr model of the atom. If God is really there--like the New World and neutrinos--His reality is not destroyed by the inadequacy of our maps and concepts.

As a result, Carl Sagan often becomes carping about religion, occasionally even just plain snotty. Sometimes he equates it with superstition, sometimes with thought control. Now it would be foolish to deny that the churches have too often taken their cues from Caesar rather than from Christ. They have at times been downright, bullheadedly obstructionist to new learning. But it is not quite decent to say, almost in an aside, "The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge." Conversely, he makes the scientific community sound universally and immediately tolerant, even to the subversion of ideas its members have long cherished, as though Tycho Brahe had embraced Kepler with open arms. He implies several times that the lack of significant scientific research from the destruction of the Alexandrian library to the Copernican telescope was solely at the repressive hands of the growing Christian church, fearful of pagan learning. This is manifestly unfair, on the one hand to all those Huns, Vandals and Visigoths, and on the other to all those nameless monks who hid and painstakingly copied out the very manuscripts he treasures so much.

Carl Sagan quotes Galileo: "The novelty of these things ... stirred up against me no small number of professors [many of them ecclesiastics]." The insert in brackets is Dr. Sagans. There was no need of such a cheap shot, nor does he balance the argument by telling us that quite a few scientists, such as Gregor Mendel anq Teilhard de Chardin, broadened human horizons astonishingly and were nonetheless ecclesiastics. He doesnt trouble to tell us that Copernicus was a cleric. Later, he asserts that the great woman scientist Hypatia was slain "by a fanatical mob of Cyrils [of Alexandria] parishioners," which is as dishonorable as saying that the Brownshirt putsches were executed by parishioners of the bishop of Munich. If he had evidence that Cyril engineered the murder, why didnt he produce it? If not, why the innuendo?

Finally in this line, he says of the Pythagoreans of the 6th century B.C.: "Like all orthodox religions, they practiced a rigidity that prevented them from correcting their errors." Surely the news of Vatican II has reached Cornell.

Accident and Order

Twice, in almost the same words, Dr. Sagan writes that "until one day, quite by accident, a molecule arose that was able to make crude copies of itself." That was one shrewd molecule! And he dances gingerly away from that one. In speaking of the herds of trilobites which teemed in the oceans 500 million years ago, he says, "They stored crystals in their eyes to detect polarized light. " And later he asserts, "Eyes and ears evolved, and now the cosmos could see and hear." I found myself scrawling in the margin, "Just like that!" Dr. Sagan seems to imply that, because there is light, someone must see it. The logic escapes me, especially since there is much light (X-rays, gamma rays) we dont see, and since most occupants of this planet dont see at all. For me, the existence of the human eye alone is sufficient evidence for the existence of God. But I am a cleric, and , by that very fact my intelligence and objectivity are immediately suspect.

Along the same line, Dr. Sagan writes: "It is only by the most extraordinary coincidence that the cosmic slot machine has this time come up with a universe consistent with us." And with no one to insert the silver dollar and pull the lever! "Extraordinary" is far too puny a word. Thats a 10-to-the-nth-degree chance. "If things had been a little different, it might have been some other creature whose intelligence and manipulative ability would have led to comparable accomplishments." He seems to assume that intelligence is inevitable. Yet the marriage of accident and inevitability is, at best, an uneasy one.

Throughout the series and especially in the segment called "Encyclopedia Galactica," Carl Sagan argues that, based on the law of probability and the universality of the laws of physics, there very probably must be other intelligent life in the cosmos. But there are several other presumptions there: 1) that this fortuitous and "extraordinary" accident has occurred more than once; 2) that, given a planet where there is growth, it must evolve toward intelligence and, most fundamentally; 3) that all intelligent activities are reducible to the electro¬chemical activity of the brain.

Chapter XI of Cosmos, "The Persistence of Memory," deals with this latter presumption in painstaking detail. The brain has two lobes, one which functions inferentially, one which functions intuitively. One side uses a ruler to measure the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; the other side envisions Gods finger inches away from Adams. But Dr. Sagan seems to restrict the function of intelligence to solving problems and creating, two activities at which he is extraordinarily gifted. Yet in the facility of his assertion several other exclusively human modes of acting get lost: all the activities less scientific folk associate with the human spirit. There is no place, as far as I can judge, for the very real difference between information and wisdom, between being interested and being moved, between shrewdness and love. Is it merely electrons traveling along his neurons that explain the almost palpable awe Dr. Sagan shows when he looks at the stars? I am left unconvinced.

Plan Without a Mind

"Cosmos" is the Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together." Again and again, Dr. Sagan reminds us that the laws of Nature, the patterns of Nature, the laws of physics are always and everywhere the same. I have no quibble with that, but both lobes of my brain keep itching to know why. Both lobes rebel at the Sisyphean task of drawing order out of the fortuitous. Variety, yes, but not the immutable laws of physics, not the periodic table. And Dr. Sagan agrees, there is surely a design. But he balks at a Designer.

As a result, he is very often trapped into personifying the universe, evolution, Nature and many other nonintelligent forces as if they did have intelligence, e.g.: "Selection is imposed from outside;" "But if humans can make new varieties of plants and animals, must not nature do so also? ... [Extinct species] are the terminated experiments of evolution;" "therefore, the environment selects those varieties which are, by accident, better suited for survival;" " ... sex was invented two billion years ago;" "Somehow the distant planets sensed the suns presence;" "For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we;" and "Evolution, however, has had billions of years to practice. DNA knows."

At best, "selection," "invented," "sensed," "permits," "commandments," "knows," are inaccurate words when applied to the random workings of a mindless force--whether it be Nature, the environment, planets or evolution. It is like saying a vacuum cleaner is a savvy, well-trained and freely obedient servant. But personification and anthropomorphism are hazards to any popularizer trying to explain, through metaphor, realities his audience does not know in terms of realities they do know. The scripture writers found the same problem.

The Fifth Dimension

Dr. Sagan asserts, on the one hand, that to say God created the universe out of nothing is "mere temporizing." And yet he also suggests, on the other hand, that before the Big Bang, "all the matter and energy now in the universe was concentrated ... perhaps into a mathematical point with no dimensions at all." That seems to be one micromillimeter from "nothing." Perhaps it is only words which block both Dr. Sagan and me from apprehending the same reality--just as neither "pellet" nor "wave" quite captures the reality of an electron.

A similar situation may exist in Dr. Sagans apprehending "other universes" and my apprehending "heaven." He writes: "Imagine we live in a three-dimensional universe, locally distorted by matter into a fourth physical dimension that we cannot perceive directly. The greater the local mass, the more intense the local gravity, and the more severe the pucker, distortion or warp of space. In this analogy, a black hole is a kind of bottomless pit. What happens if you fall in? As seen from the outside, you would take an infinite amount of time to fall in, because all your c1ocks--mechanical and biological--would be perceived as having stopped. But from your point of view, all your clocks would be ticking away normally. If you could somehow survive the gravitational tides and radiation flux, and (a likely assumption) if the black hole were rotating, it is just possible that you might emerge in another part of space time--somewhere else in space, somewhere else in time .... The fact that such ideas are being discussed even semi-seriously shows how surreal the universe may be."

Will Rogers once said that, if preachers spent more time on our Saviors message and less on his manner of arrival and departure, wed all be a lot better off. However, the analogy of black holes and time warps--available to us now through men and women of science like Carl Sagan--might be a less inadequate metaphor to understand the Ascension than is the first-century metaphor of rising up to heaven, especially since in the Einsteinian cosmos "up" has no meaning. Jesus went into another way of existing.

In Chapter X, "The Edge of Forever," Dr. Sagan has a long and ingenious explanation of how Einsteins theory of curved space gave reality a fourth dimension beyond the length, breadth and depth we are immediately in touch with. It is as if our whole universe, with all its linear dimensions and movement, were itself moving through still another dimension--like the atoms in a worm through the atoms of an apple or a space ship through a black hole. As he says, "Perhaps they are, in some sense, nested within one another. There is an idea--strange, haunting, evocative--one of the most exquisite conjectures in science or religion. It is entirely undemon¬strated; it may never be proved. But it stirs the blood."

If he can conceive of a fourth dimension to our reality, can he not also allow the possibility of a fifth--where the laws of physics do not apply and where space and time have no meaning? It would be a dimension we are in now, thoroughly penetrated by it yet as unaware of it as we are of the neutrinos that are knifing through us every instant--as if we werent even here. We get intimations of this fifth nonphysical dimensio---in moments of ecstasy, awe, joy, prayer--when we are "taken out of ourselves," as Paul says (again inadequately) into "the Seventh Heaven." All trustworthy receivers need not be metallic to be trustworthy. They need not be restricted even to the two lobes of the brain. The receiver of messages from the transcendent dimension is that presence within us which we have always called the human spirit. Science cannot dissect that receiver because it is not itself subject to space and time. It is the infection of God in us.

Speaking of interstellar communication, Dr. Sagan muses on the effect of such a message: "But if the message contains valuable information, the consequences for our own civilization will be stunning--insights on alien science and technology, art, music, politics, philosophy and religion, and most of all, a profound deprovincialization of the human condition. We will know what else is possible."

But what religions have claimed for centuries is that such a message has come through, consistently, since the dawn of intelligence and the birth of the human spirit. And it comes not merely from Alpha Centauri or even from a parallel universe, but from that fifth dimension. Whats more, Christianity has claimed that a Visitor came from that dimension, and the consequences to our civilization have been stunning--although, as Dr. Sagan proves, not universally well received. Some in fact treated the Visitors claims in the same way the Inquisition treated those of Galileo. But the Visitor was the final step in the process of human evolution--from inert matter, to living matter, to vegetation, to animality, to humanity, to participation in the life of the divinity. He was the ray of transcosmic Light which sparked a supernatural life in us. And it starts now. We are in it now, as Helen Keller was in the sunshine.


Dr. Sagan says "arguments from authority are worthless." But there are two meanings to "authority": in-charge authority is conferred by election or birth or bestowal (which I presume is the meaning Dr. Sagan intends); experiential authority is achieved by hard and successful work over a long period of time (Dr. Sagan is himself such an authority, and his credibility over 13 programs and 365 pages rests on that authority). He is right in implying that election to the papacy or appointment to the Holy Office doesnt automatically metamorphose a man into a coruscating genius. But he is not right to imply, as he does too often--no matter how slyly, that such an election automatically turns one into an ox-brained tyrant.

Carl Sagan is, very truly, an authority. He asks me to deny the evidence of my senses (including my "common sense") and accept the fact that the desk on which I write is not oak-solid but rather aswarm with galaxies upon galaxies of moving particles. He asks me to believe him when he tells me I am being skewered at every instant by neutrinos, which pass through the whole earth without even slowing down. He offers me antimatter, electronics moving backwards in time, black holes which flush into another universe and other entities "bizarre beyond our most unconstrained fantasies." And I accept them all, gratefully, gleefully. As I said from the outset, they liberate my imagination from my skepticism and enable it to attempt capturing God in metaphors less inadequate than those to which cosmology was limited 20 centuries ago. I accept his claims because I trust Carl Sagans experience and veracity.

But I would like him to give more than mere condescension to my experience and veracity--to say nothing of the experiences and veracity of the great giants of the last 3,000 years. Moreover, besides the electronic juices in me, there are also undeniable hungers: the hunger to know why innocent children must suffer, the hunger that justice ultimately be done them, the hunger for an objective standard of human behavior, the hunger to survive death. If there is no Designer, no fifth dimension to my life, then there is no food for those hungers. Camus is right; in the godless universe, intelligence is a curse. And yet I know of no other entity so cursed--by its very nature--with hungers for food that does not exist. According to Dr. Sagans own arguments, if such entities existed, the law of survival of the fittest would soon uproot them. It is a curse indeed to be human. The pig doesnt know he will some day die.

Finally, I truly believe I have met God. And Dr. Sagans inexperience of such an encounter does not negate my experience: Whats more, I have based my life on those I experiences for nearly a half-century, and it I works: it fills my life with a joy, peace, aliveness, freedom, fearlessness which, alas, will not register on my ammeter and yet are more precious than uranium-235 or all the suns of galaxy M87.

Carl Sagan writes: "The incompleteness of our understanding humbles us." Not quite thoroughly enough, I believe.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
lLetha Chamberlain
16 years 4 months ago
There are many different kinds of "intelligence"--and I know, after having commented on another of Fr. O'Malley's articles postively because one of his earlier books was so meaningful in my early spiritual life, and those to whom these different kinds of "intelligence" are granted do not see the "symmetry" of them when it comes to the whole question of God. Yet, I know that Carl Sagan, atheist that he is--experiences Beauty in his understanding of the Cosmos. Beauty is one of the characteristics of God--therefore, although Carl Sagan doesn't know it--he is experiencing God in his own way. We need to be open to ways we can benefit, as did Fr. O'Malley, from the other types of intelligences. Otherwise, we become all tied up in prejudices and semantics because we are prideful and judgmental human beings--God gives each of us what we need and can appreciate. (And here I am not saying that Carl Sagan couldn't use a bit of development of a new kind of intelligence, if he would be open to it). It is those who are in a state of despair or unhappiness to whom we must REALLY work! Maybe the question should be, is Carl Sagan a deeply satisfied and complete human being who can LOVE freely?
15 years 4 months ago
Bravo! I have such a love/hate relationship with Carl Sagan (not really hate but you know what I meean). It's so wonderful there is someone who is able to get away from the Sagan idolatry and tell it like it is. Sagan was human and not omniscient.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024