I would like to say some more about Sagan’s Pale blue dot fallacy but before doing so let’s say something about Sagan’s (ir)religiosity. It is often assumed that Sagan was an atheist. (Here I am assuming the standard definition of atheist as one who believes there is no God where “God” is defined broadly as the being as defined by the western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
Why think Sagan was an atheist? Typically people point to his famous statement in the “Cosmos” series when Sagan declared “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
Well yes, if we took that as a straightforward metaphysical claim, then it would mean that Sagan was an atheist.
But here’s the first problem. It is not clear that we should take this as a straightforward metaphysical claim. We could also take it as a hyperbolic effulgence along the lines of a star-crossed lover telling his friend “My beloved is everything to me!” Literally speaking, that’s not true. The lover still has a place for his parents, siblings, friends, dog and red Schwinn. His statement is instead an expression of how infatuated he is. He is head-over-heels for his beloved.
Anybody familiar with Sagan’s writings would know that he was head-over-heels for the cosmos. He often spoke and wrote with the incautious rapture of a star-crossed lover about the universe. (Yes, he also wrote that way about Ann Druyan but the cosmos was his Walden Pond.) So it is very possible that we shouldn’t take his “everything” statement literally.
There is another reason not to take it literally: elsewhere Sagan writes things that contradict it. For instance, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience (Penguin, 2006) he writes: “My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god.” (31) Clearly if we took the “Cosmos” statement literally as a straightforward knowledge claim then it would contradict this statement. So better to take it as poetry.
One final point: the absoluteness of the statement belies Sagan’s own call for humility in making grand knowledge claims.
So was Sagan maybe an agnostic then? That seems more likely. However, elsewhere, such as in Sagan’s novel Contact, there are suggestive hints that there may be a being of great power working behind the scenes. In the film (I haven’t read the book) Ellie Arroway travels into the mystical portal and visits with aliens who inform her that the portal was established by some great unknown intelligence. In other words, this is a view consistent with deism. So I suspect Sagan was an agnostic most days but was open to deism.
Still, Sagan’s official views on God do not exhaust a discussion of his religiosity. He was unashamed about imbuing to the universe a quasi-religious status. Note the parallel betweeen his Gifford Lectures,The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and those of William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience. For Sagan, the scientist assumes the role of a quasi priest, and the process of scientific enquiry itself becomes a form of sacrament.
So does Sagan have his own form of deity? Is his deity functionally the universe? This is where many have noted how Sagan’s search for extra-terrestrial intelligence functioned like a quasi-religious quest. (For instance, Keay Davidson makes the point in the biography Carl Sagan: A Life.)
It is fascinating to read Sagan’s speculations on aliens. He certainly hoped that we could one day establish contact with creatures of a high moral character and super intelligence. “To me, such a discovery would be thrilling. It would change everything. We would be hearing from other beings, independently evolved over millions of years, viewing the Universe perhaps very differently, probably much smarter, certainly not human.” (Pale Blue Dot, Random House, 1995, 364) What is more, Sagan hoped that they might offer us a form of “salvation”, for he wrote that they “might play a role in unifying our squabbling and divided planet.” (Pale Blue Dot, 365).
So one could interpret Sagan’s life-long goal to contact super-intelligent aliens as a quasi-religious quest to seek guidance, if not salvation, for our suffering planet. As Robert Cooper suggested, “Perhaps it is for … Sagan as it was for Pascal, who exclaimed, ‘The emptiness of those endless spaces terrifies me.’”