Sagan on religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

On pp.32-33, Dawkins approvingly quotes Carl Sagan as saying that ‘hardly any major religion’ has taken seriously the grandeur, subtlety and elegance of the world disclosed by science. Dawkins doesn’t directly adopt the saying as his own, but he certainly does nothing to suggest to the reader that he disagrees with it. (Though he does move from Sagan’s complaint that the religions do not foster wonder in the natural world as explored by science to the complaint that religious people have claimed that such delight in the natural world as explored by science is itself laudably religious. And so it sounds a little like he both claims that such wonder does not flourish in religious contexts, and that such wonder is claimed by religious people as their own, which make me wonder whether he does endorse Sagan’s comment.)

I must admit, first off, that I’m not quite sure what it would look like for a ‘major religion’ to take science seriously. I’m not sure I warm to the idea of, say, the General Synod of the Church of England making a pronouncement on the joy of quantum mechanics, for instance – and I’m pretty sure Sagan would not have wanted such a thing. I can only assume that Sagan was claiming that delight in the world revealed by science does not flourish where the religious conviction and practices of a major religion are strong, and that it has not coloured and shaped religious devotion in very noticeable ways. I worry that this is a more diffuse claim than Sagan intended to make, though, and that I am not doing him justice.

I can think of three levels of response to this. The first is purely anecdotal. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household, attending an evangelical church. I would guess that the religious culture I inhabited was of a kind that Dawkins would have squarely in his sights in this book. And yet I don’t think it was particularly remarkable that I was encouraged to take an interest in science, that Horizon and Equinox and the like were watched avidly, and so on. I remember conversations in the Lake District with my (evangelical vicar) Dad, looking up at Great Gable and wondering at the geological timescales and processes involved in producing it. I remember my Dad putting up OHP slides of distant galaxies as sermon illustrations. I grew up wanting to be a theoretical physicist, and devoured all the popular science books I could get my hands on as a teenager – and noone in my family or in my church seemed to think I was doing anything odd. Or, rather, I can remember plenty of people thinking it was odd, because they couldn’t imagine wanting to do that much maths.

Of course, an anecdotal response is only a very partial one. It certainly means that I don’t recognise Sagan’s description as true of my own experience, but it may be that my context was deeply eccentric in some way that I have not grasped. So a second level response would involve looking more widely and deeply at religious attitudes to the wonders of the natural world and to their disciplined investigation. That’s a wider topic than I can hope to explore adequately in a blog entry, and I struggle to know where to begin. How about starting with the clergyman scientists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, to take one example? How about looking at the role that positive evaluation of science played in German theology in the 19th century? How about looking at the number of Christians amongst undergraduate natural science students in recent decades in Cambridge, say? How about looking at the recent history of Vatican engagements with science? What about the origins of modern science in late medieval monastic culture? And so on, and so on – to name only investigations related to Christianity. All these investigations would produce complex stories, no doubt, rather than a simple answer one way or the other – I don’t deny that – but I do have a hard time believing that Sagan’s comment is anything other than a sweeping generalisation born from ignorance.

But after the first level anecdotal response, and the second level historical response, I can see that a third level response might be needed – one that, as it were, provides an alternative hypothesis to explain some of what Sagan thought he saw. And I think that such an alternative hypothesis might well be available. I’m thinking of various analyses of a fracture in Western culture between rationality and emotion/embodiment, between the sciences and the humanities. Whether we are talking about Snow’s ‘two cultures’, about T.S. Eliot’s ‘Dissociation of sensibility’, about romanticism versus classicism, about protestant orthodoxy versus pietism, scholasticism versus devotion, or some other variant on the theme. In other words, I think that we live in a culture which is riddled with oppositions between ‘science’ and ’emotion’, and which thinks of rationality as cold, dead, disembodied and inhuman. I think that division has deep historical roots, and that those roots do stretch back a long way in the Western Christian tradition. But I don’t think that ‘religion’ in general, or Christianity specificially, lines up neatly on the anti-science side: this has been as much a division within Christianity as a division between Christianity and secular culture – though I guess that there might be a case to be made that certain very popular, very vocal forms of contemporary Christianity do tend to emphasise the romantic/experiential/emotional/embodied side of these pervasive oppositions, and downplay all (including natural science, but also including academic theology) that falls on the other side.

That is, however, not quite what Sagan was saying – and it doesn’t quite support Dawkins’ thesis that there is an inherent opposition between religion and the kind of scientific ‘quasi-mysticism’ he owns to. So let’s move on.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation