I was not always an atheist.
I was once a devout and sincere believer in the Christian faith. I am the son and grandson of pastors and missionaries. My family founded one of the country’s largest Bible colleges, Christ for the Nations, from which I earned a theology degree. For years, I contemplated, and began strategizing, a run for national political office under the banner of Christian reform.
I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith…until I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.
The longer a belief system—any belief system—remains in place, the more likely it is to become an unmovable fixture of that person’s identity. In my experience, most persons of faith who undergo a deconversion experience do so during their middle or high school years. But that is not my story. I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith until my mid-30s.
That was when I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.
Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author who became a household name in the early 1980s when his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” became the most watched program in PBS history. Before his untimely death in 1996, Sagan was the nation’s leading science communicator, a regular guest on both the nightly news and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
But in my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution.
“Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.
As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.
His mission was to build up, not tear down.
The closest I came to Sagan was in my mid-20s, when the film Contact, based on Sagan’s only novel, appeared in theaters. The story centered on a mysterious alien signal and the manner in which the globe’s many cultures processed the realization that they were not alone in the vast universe. I, like many people who saw the film, found it awe-inspiring. I can still remember returning home from the theater on a euphoric cloud, opening my Bible, and reading with wonder the majesty of God’s creative prowess.
A year or so later, I decided to read the novel, and while it entertained a certain ambiguity where matters of faith were concerned, the book initiated my first-ever crisis of faith. Contact raised and inspired questions that neither I nor anyone I knew could satisfactorily answer. I resolved that crisis of faith not by reconciling those quandaries, but rather by listening to those who told me that the questions themselves were either wrong to ponder or not even worthy of my time. I decided to ignore the questions, telling myself my faith was as strong as ever.
But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict. And when I finally turned to face them down a decade or so later, I found that all my years in church and all my academic training was not enough to halt their advance.
I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.
Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians—a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god—but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.
My newfound appreciation of science came, in no small part, from the writings of my old nemesis, Carl Sagan. What I discovered in Sagan’s elevated verse—particularly in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and within the baker’s dozen of the series “Cosmos”—was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Here was a man who could stir both body and, if you will allow me a bit of poetic license, soul.
While Sagan’s personal views set him safely in the camp of atheism, he was more comfortable claiming the title of agnostic. He certainly never made it his mission to destroy anyone’s faith. His sights were always set on something far higher. His mission was to build up, not tear down.
As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.
Perhaps it was this very gentleness, warmth and humanity that made him so much more menacing than his ideological peers, then and now. He did not attack so much as elevate. He spent only as much time as was necessary dismantling those things that posed a significant threat to rational living, instead focusing most of our attention on the wonders science had revealed.
So it was with my own deconversion process. I had a mentor in the final years of my faith—a name with which everyone reading this is familiar—who never took my spiritual tumult as an opportunity to hack at the foundations of my religion, but who also didn’t turn his back when I came to him with my quandaries. He never attacked or belittled my faith. He merely redirected my gaze to the wonders that can be found within a scientific framework and let everything else take care of it itself. He simply showed me something unspeakably beautiful and inarguably true and then stepped back, trusting in a process he knew would ignite my brain and consume my body. Whether he knew it or not, he was walking in Carl Sagan’s footsteps.
This, for me, is Sagan’s most enduring legacy—this realization that science is the most emotional journey imaginable. Science does not castrate awe or inhibit transcendence—science unleashes it.
Though I am no longer a person of faith, I retain an understanding that there is something vastly and, at times, unfathomably larger than myself. And while this thing does not have intent or agency, so far as the evidence shows, that in no way modifies the wonder and majesty that washes over me when I contemplate it. Having removed a god from the equation, I counter-intuitively possess a greater sense of awe now than I ever felt in faith.
This immersion in something both utilitarian and grandiose was the definitive purpose of Sagan’s work. He does not inform; he immerses. He does not teach; he transports.
Science—that minuscule word saddled with the burden of representing the entirety of the colossal human enterprise of decoding the world around us and how we fit into it—is the greatest endeavor humans have ever undertaken. Routinely taught as a dull set of facts and figures, science is the most sweeping adventure we can know. With it, hairless apes build great cities, do miraculous medicine, see the unseeable, stir the dust of other planets, and peer back into space and time. While faith purports to have all the answers, science thrives on the questions.
Carl Sagan did not invent this wondrous tool, but he was one of its most eloquent advocates. His voice, like a clarion call in a dense miasma of irrationality, can still be heard, clear and true.