Of Sagan, Science, and Sisyphus

skepticHow is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, subtler, more elegant?" Instead, they say "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

The late Prof. Carl Sagan no doubt intended his question and the comments thereafter to be purely rhetorical. Given that they occurred in printed form and not in a “real-time” lecture or conversation, that is no doubt understandable. But Prof. Sagan’s remark about religion’s reticence regarding science is a very deep question, a question that deserves far more than to be passed over as merely rhetorical or as just a stylistic flourish. So … why indeed is it the case that no “major religion [or, indeed, even no minor religion, no matter how one defines “major” and “minor” -- JRC] has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant”? No doubt, the answers are as varied as are the religions to which the question is addressed, and the question is too serious to be oversimplified by mere slap-dash-ery. But I think we can pose a few very possible, intelligent, informed, and rational answers.

Just Real Hard Stuff

Einstein's Field Equations

 First of all, for religious believers and skeptics alike, understanding science in any significant depth at all – even as an informed layperson, let alone as a student aspiring to a professional career – involves voluntarily encountering some “real hard stuff”. It is not the case that people who are religious believers are intrinsically less intelligent or less adept at scientific inquiry and reasoning than religious skeptics. (And, just as an aside, I do very much wish that Prof. Daniel Dennett, for whom I have such high regard otherwise, would cease and desist using invidious terms like “brights” to denote religious non-believers / skeptics, thereby implicitly labeling believers as “dims” or “dulls”. If you really do think that religious believers are actually dim or dull, then you should abandon such semiotic evasiveness and come right out and say so explicitly, if for no other reason than intellectual and rhetorical honesty -- virtues that Prof. Dennett practices – as it were – religiously in other contexts. OK … here endeth the mini-rant.) Everyone, religious and skeptic alike, has a life, professionally and personally, and only a finite amount of time. No one can do or study everything, even everything they are (potentially or actually) interested in. I am retired and have lots of unstructured “white-space” time, but even I cannot study, as I wish I could, modern economic theory. The only reason I can devote as much time to science as I can is because I have a head start in the form of master’s degrees in math and physics. The rest of the time I worry avocationally about the US Constitution. And writing blog posts. “Here endeth the lesson”.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Marjorie Morris Lipan
Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

But the real-hard-stuff reason, while not to be gainsaid, does not loom nearly as large as it used to. Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Prof. Sagan 30 years before him, uncovered an immense and hitherto-virtually-untapped wellspring of lay-public interest in, even passion about, science with their respective iconic Cosmos series. On a lesser scale, so did Dr. Brian Greene in his book and subsequent public-television series Elegant Universe about – of all things! – superstring theory, fa’Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake! Even a cursory examination of the science, especially physics and cosmology, sections of Amazon will show that people, religious and skeptical, are more than willing to tackle the “hard stuff” under the tutelage of a competent teacher. The intrinsic difficulty of the material, while non-negligible, is a speed bump, not a solid wall.


Not all religions are historically based in the sense that they wager their truth-value on actual, physical, space-time-historical events. Buddhism is not. Hinduism is not. Taoism is not. However, the three great monotheisms are very much, in fact, radically, historical – at least, in terms of their “mainstream” traditions. God, they all claim, left God’s Fingerprints all over human history. (The parallel mystical traditions arguably read the respective sacred texts metaphorically rather than historically, e.g., the Jewish Qabbalah tradition.) For St. Paul, e.g., the actual, physical, historical Fact-of-all-facts of Christ’s Resurrection was the Axis on which all of Christianity turned: For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:16,17). We may disagree with St. Paul’s estimate of the importance of the historical Resurrection, but we may not dispute that this interpretation has been determinative for all of the history of Christianity. Similar remarks apply to Islam about the historicity of, e.g., Muhammad’s transcription of the Qur’an and, e.g., about the historical importance for “mainstream” Judaism of the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt. (Please carefully note that I concern myself here only “phenomenologically” with issues of history, not with whether, as religious propositions, such beliefs are true. As an atheist and rationalist, I am not competent to evaluate the latter. I approach these issues in the same way, e.g., Dr. C. G. Jung approached the Catholic Mass.) People who deal with actual, space-time-historical facts, whether in science or in religion, are always at risk of being wrong. Facts are temporal entities, and followers of any of the historical religions are always in the business of drawing eternal conclusions from temporal -- therefore, chronically tentative -- data. Hence the risk:  if, however unlikely, the facts change, then the conclusions could change catastrophically.

So it is natural that for any religion that is historically based, in other words, whose truth value is predicated, historically, on certain critical facts being … well … factual … it is natural for such a historically based religion to be at least somewhat nervous, just a tad ambivalent, perhaps even on an unconscious level, around rigorously fact-based enterprises like science. What would be the consequences for Christianity if – somehow or other, and don’t ask me how – some enterprising archaeologist or paleontologist were to discover some bones preserved in a cave and that, also somehow-or-other, through DNA studies or whatever, definitely concluded that the bones were those of Jesus Christ? What would be the consequences for Islam if – as actually happened to Christianity, beginning in the middle-1700s – scholars examined the qur’anic text critically, applied techniques of textual, source, form, and redaction criticism, and concluded that the Qur’an was the work, not of Muhammad, but of many dozens of authors of varying styles and emphases and ideologies? So it is with science. And the greater the extent to which critical elements of a religious sect’s ideology have been discredited already by science, the more nervous and defensive the adherents of the ideology are about approaching science too closely. Think “creationism” and “intelligent design” here. (Of course, the reverse is not true: historically based religions are exuberantly eager to embrace scientific findings that tend to confirm their teachings, e.g., the Catholic Church’s acceptance of Big Bang cosmology or even the barest possibility that the Shroud of Turin dates back to the lifetime of Jesus. The technical term for this selective enthusiasm about science is “cherry-picking”.) Even if only on a subliminal level, the fear of being proven wrong by history haunts historically based religions – the more so, the more conservative they are – thereby providing a powerful incentive to stay away from science.


 To some significant extent, however, Prof. Sagan’s question, at least as posed, implicitly answers itself: The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. All religions, historical and a-historical, deal in matters of what Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern”, in matters which attract to themselves stupendous – arguably in some sense even infinite – “charges” of psychic and emotional and “existential” energy: good and evil, life and death, purpose and randomness, Time and Eternity, freedom and determinism. Human nature is such that we passionately desire – even lust – to be right about such matters. This is true especially – though not exclusively – of more conservative traditions, though our common human mortality and fallibility haunt liberal and progressive believers, as well. Liberal no less than conservative, mystical no less than creedal, heretical no less than orthodox, because we are all human, we all hanker, however unconsciously, to be in possession of The Last And Final Word on all such issues. So we want to believe that our Tradition is something other than, more than, a near-sighted person fumblingly following an unknown path through a dark wood at midnight. We may admire the remark of the great British chemist J. B. S. Haldane “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”. But even as we admire it, our religious sensibility cringes at the thought that even the greatest among us -- our prophets, our saints, our tzaddikim -- have captured only the most fleeing scintilla of that strangeness. But science, by its very inmost nature, is never – can never be – complete. We must be content with approximations, and on matters of Tillichian “ultimate concern”, we are less than comfortable with approximations. We desire completeness. And we look to spiritual athletes -- Aquinas, the Baal Shem-Tov, Hussein, D. T. Suzuki, Sri Ramakrishna, et al. -- to give it to us.


Everyone, believer and skeptic, is intimately acquainted with the Sisyphean sense of being tantalized by the Ineffable that Albert Camus describes so vividly in The Myth of Sisyphus:

[A]ll the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.

 Maybe Camus’ last four words, above, are the final answer, to the extent that there is one, to Prof. Sagan’s question: religious people, even liberal believers, are fascinated with science, can understand science, can appreciate science – but always hanker for more. For them, there is a certain allure in playing Sisyphus: continuing to roll the stone uphill and watch it roll back down again. (Even Camus memorably concludes “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”) Skeptics are no less fascinated by science, and even with religion, but at the end of the day have, for better or worse, made their peace with the Absurd by renouncing the desire for more than the Universe offers – closure, certitude, completion – and, rather than wanting what (they believe) does not exist, content themselves with what does.

James R. Cowles





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