Volume 85 Issue 18 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: April 30, 2007

Science And Natural Theology

Department: Editor's Page

IN 1985, the late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan delivered the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Recently, Sagan's widow and longtime collaborator, Ann Druyan, rediscovered the transcripts of the lectures in Sagan's archives at Cornell. Late last year, Druyan published the lectures as "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God." It is a book that is well worth reading.

It is a measure of my ignorance that I did not realize the significance of the Gifford Lectures until I picked up "The Varieties of Scientific Experience." A number of influential books have been developed from the Gifford Lectures, including "The Varieties of Religious Experience," by William James; "The Quest for Certainty," by John Dewey; and "Personal Knowledge," by Michael Polanyi.

Other distinguished individuals who gave Gifford Lectures include Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Alfred North Whitehead, and Albert Schweitzer.

As Druyan points out in her introduction to the book, Sagan "took the idea of God so seriously that it had to pass the most rigorous standards of scrutiny." She writes: "How was it, he wondered, that the eternal and omniscient Creator described in the Bible could confidently assert so many fundamental misconceptions about Creation? Why would the God of the Scriptures be far less knowledgeable about nature than we, newcomers, who have only just begun to study the universe? ... [H]e found especially tragic the notion that we had been created separately from all other living things. ... For Carl, Darwin's insight that life evolved over the eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it also afforded a deeper, more satisfying spiritual experience."

As anyone who watched the television program "Cosmos" knows, Sagan was a captivating lecturer, and that comes through in "The Varieties of Scientific Experience." Sagan took religion as seriously as he took science, and he expected no less from religion than he did from science.

In his first lecture, he effectively set the scale of the universe and the very small corner of it we occupy. The number of stars in the universe is "something like one followed by twenty-three zeros," he said, "and our Sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religion." Later in the lecture, he said, "And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less a universe."

Sagan devoted lectures to topics including the origin of life and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and what the discovery of such intelligence would mean for theology. In other lectures, he discussed attempts to rigorously prove the existence of God and scientific examinations of why humans have a predisposition to religion.

Sagan asked questions that many will find irreverent and some will consider sacrilegious, but they are serious questions. For instance, he asked, why didn't God use scripture to provide "absolutely clearcut evidence of his existence?" Why not, for example, a commandment that says, "Thou shalt not travel faster than light?"

"Okay," Sagan said, "you might argue that nobody was at imminent risk of breaking that commandment. It would have been a curiosity: 'We don't understand what that one's about, but all the others we abide by.' "

Sagan titled his final lecture "The Search," and he concludes: "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 do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

Thanks for reading.


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