Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience

I was at the library the other day, and decided to check out a book that I had skimmed through several years ago: Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The book, published a decade after Sagan's death in 1996, are taken from a series of lectures he gave in 1985, the Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow.  For any theists who accuse atheists of being unable to speak eloquently about matters of "spirituality," I would challenge them to read this book.

It may seem strange to see the phrase "natural theology" next to Sagan's name.  After all, this is a scientist who most definitely rejected the supernatural claims of religion. But reading the lectures, one sees immediately that the man was certainly as devout in his awe of the wonders of the cosmos, an awe that did not require some belief in an invisible god, as any priest or shaman. In the words of Ann Druyan, Sagan's wife and the book's editor, "His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed." In Sagan's own words, "By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night."

Speaking of being in awe, I would like to share the story of when I met Carl Sagan.  I was working at a Michigan Avenue toy store in Chicago, and a customer asked me if we had a particular Thomas the Tank Engine in stock.  When I heard his voice, I thought, "Wow, that guy sounds just like Carl Sagan." But this was shortly before he died, and he looked quite gaunt at the time.  So I wasn't sure.  When he handed me his AMEX card, though, I saw the name: Carl Sagan.  I had recently read his novel Contact, and so I asked for his autograph.  He seemed quite flattered to be recognized.  I only talked to him for a minute, but it was one of the most memorable celebrity encounters I've ever had.

The man was something else.  Articulate, wise, erudite, and as far as I can tell, kind.  The Varieties of Scientific Experience is inspirational, in the best sense of the word. (Isn't it interesting that "inspirational," as a publishing term, basically seems to mean, religious or pseudo-religious pablum that has very little value?)  Highly recommended, for atheists or religious people alike.

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Tags: Sagan, inspiration, theology

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on August 14, 2014 at 4:55pm

I have always liked the words his wife Ann Druyan wrote in this article, especially her reflections about Carl in the final paragraph. Thanks for sharing your story too.

Comment by A. T. Heist on August 15, 2014 at 9:18am

@Reg- That article was beautiful.  Thanks for sharing!

Comment by A. T. Heist on August 20, 2014 at 9:59am

Sagan's book Cosmos (based on the TV series) almost convinced me to become an atheist a dozen years ago.  Sadly, I lost my nerve. Maybe I need to read some more Sagan...

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