Carl Sagan Quote

One of the strains of the Skeptic/Atheist community I really dislike is the people who conflate reserved judgment or nuanced views as signs of weakness. For example, self-proclaimed agnostics are often mocked by Atheists as cowards. It was encouraging to note that Sagan held the same view I hold on this topic.

Here’s a quote from “The Demon-Haunted World” :

“In the middle 1970s an astronomer I admire put together a modest

manifesto called `Objections to Astrology’ and asked me to endorse it. I

struggled with his wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not

because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and

still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized

astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well

for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The

issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from,

but what is its present validity. Then there was speculation on the

psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These

motivations – for example, the feeling of powerlessness in a complex,

troublesome and unpredictable world – might explain why astrology is not

generally given the sceptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to

whether it works.

The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which

astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s

unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift (now

subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was proposed by AlfredWegenerinthe

first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in

geology and palaeontology. (Ore-bearing veins of rocks and fossils seemedto

run continuously from eastern South America to West Africa;

were the two continents once touching and the Atlantic Ocean new to

our planet?) The notion was roundly dismissed by all the great geophysicists,

who were certain that continents were fixed, not floating on anything, and

therefore unable to `drift’. Instead, the key twentieth-century idea in

geophysics turns out to be plate tectonics; we now understand that

continental plates do indeed float and `drift’ (or better, are carried by a kind

of conveyor belt driven by the great heat engine of the Earth’s interior), and

all those great geophysicists were simply wrong. Objections to pseudoscience

on the grounds of unavailable mechanism can be mistaken – although if the

contentions violate well-established laws of physics, such objections of

course carry great weight.”

Being an Atheist or a Skeptic doesn’t make you right – it just restricts you to strong standards. If you’re right, but for reasons that violate these standards, you’re not living up to the bar you set for yourself. It’s easy to make fun of idiots. It’s harder to be right.

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38 Responses to Carl Sagan Quote

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Weinerworks » Carl Sagan Quote --

  2. Matt says:

    I’m a graduate student in Biology, and I’ve actually experienced the reverse of the mocking you mentioned. Many of peers have told me that being an atheist is irresponsible as a scientist, because (as many theists have pointed out), one cannot prove OR disprove the existence of God (or The Fire-Breathing Dragon in My Garage). It fails the falsifiability test and therefore is not subject to scientific inquiry, and so my peers consider themselves agnostic.

    I must say that as someone who read everything Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan ever wrote, I was shocked to find this stance among my peers. My response is generally that from the most semantic respective, having a personal lack of religious faith of any kind must make one an a-thiest.

    • Jesse says:

      Semantics. Simply having a lack of religion or lack of faith is not atheism. It’s a-religious. An atheist isn’t one who lacks faith, an atheist says “there are no gods.” Simply being comfortable in the realization that there likely isn’t any supreme being makes one an agnostic.

      Atheism claims to know there is no god, that’s the defining characteristic of that stance.

      • Dan says:

        That isn’t true for the grand majority of atheists. I don’t know any atheist that would claim to know that there is no god. Atheists reject the claims that there is a god that religions make, nothing more. It’s the same way that rational people don’t believe in fairies. No thinking person would claim to know with 100% certainty that fairies don’t exist, but until there is proof of their existence it is assumed that they do not .

        • Me says:

          That isn’t true.
          From the dictionary:
          n. one who believes that God does not exist

          An atheist is one who believes there is no god. Because you want the term to mean something else does not make it so.

  3. MHal007 says:

    That reminds me of Phil Plait’s talk at The Amazing Meeting:

    Sadly, when I am honest with myself I have to admit that I am extremely ignorant about science and thus cannot consider myself a skeptic of any merit.

    • Tort says:

      It’s exactly the opposite of Phil Plaits talk or to be more correct what Sagan was saying about Astrology could apply directly to what Phil said. He was arguing for skepticism which is good but he railed against an approach to skepticism he never defined and refused to site examples of (so we’d know what he was talking about) and sited another approach as better knowing that evidence to back that claim did not exist. I love Dr Plait but that speech just bugged the crap out of me.

  4. What I find more disturbing about all the pseudo-sciences is the lack of curiosity. The curiosity about the mechanism that makes things work like they see it working is either not there or very secondary to the whole field, invoking things they don’t understand – like “gravitational alignments”, “magnetic fields”, “resonant harmonics” and such to justify the mechanisms.
    What I admire (and sets apart) real science is the security of knowing that everything that you know might be superseded by better explanations and theories, and that that’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Real scientists don’t need the safety net of absolute truths.

  5. Alex says:

    Carl Sagan can always be counted on for good quotes. One of my favorite bits is from his last public address for CSICOP in 1994. The speech was reproduced on an episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast back in 2006. It’s what first exposed me to Sagan.

    It starts at about 44:30

    • Alex says:

      Err, in case anyone actually wants to listen, it really starts at 51:30 unless you want to hear Paul Kurtz introduce him for 7 minutes…

  6. Ben says:

    If you’re interested in this topic you would probably very much enjoy the book “History and Philosophy of Science” by Cover. Was the uni textbook for the course of the same name at the University of Sydney and was actually quite readable.

  7. Mathew Walls says:

    That’s not why it’s stupid to call yourself agnostic. Atheism is limply a lack of belief in deities, not a certainty of their non-existence. People who call themselves agnostics generally do so because they believe that atheists believe in the non-existence of deities, which is simply not true. Any given atheist _may_ believe in the non-existence of deities, just as any given theist may be a Christian, but one is a subset of the other, they’re not the same thing.

    There is actually no middle ground between theist and atheist. If you claim to be neither you are simply wrong. If you believe that one or more gods exist, you are a theist. If you don’t, you are an atheist.

    • OtherRob says:

      “There is actually no middle ground between theist and atheist. If you claim to be neither you are simply wrong. If you believe that one or more gods exist, you are a theist. If you don’t, you are an atheist.”

      But what if you simply don’t know whether there is a deity or not? That’s why I call myself an agnostic. I don’t know whether there is one (or more) and if there is one, I have no idea of his/hers/its/their nature. Agnostic. Lack of knowledge.

      • Jamie says:

        I think Matthew is saying that unless you can state “I believe in a god” you’re an atheist. Not saying I agree with him but I’m just trying to clarify as it seems to be a pretty common position. As such you could be both agnostic and an atheist (or agnostic and a theist).

        • Me says:

          That isn’t true.
          From the dictionary:
          n. one who believes that God does not exist

          An atheist is one who believes there is no god. Because you want the term to mean something else does not make it so.

      • Will says:

        Again, If you don’t know (i.e. don’t hold a belief for a god/ gods) then you’re an atheist (a- theist). It doesn’t mean you think there is NOT a god, it just means you do not think there is. It’s subtle, but what Mathew is pointing out is that, logically speaking (and with the words taken literally) a-theism and theism cover all the possibilities.
        Many (myself included) atheists DON’T believe that a god/ gods does/do not exist. We simply don’t believe that a god exists. The whole “agnostics are atheists without balls” thing, crude as it is, isn’t (in my experience of talking to other atheists I know, and in my own opinion) a statement about the actual beliefs of self-professed agnostics. It’s a statement about how some atheists perceive the use of the agnostic label to avoid the social stigma that can be associated with being an atheist.

      • Amy says:

        Why don’t you know? Do you have evidence both for or against the existence of deities that are of equal weight but point to different conclusions?

        Some agnostics say that they don’t know whether there is a deity or not because no evidence has been provided for or against the existence of one. However, many of them would say that they don’t believe in fairies, elves, or rainbow ponies because they lack the evidence for them.

        A consistent skeptic would say: I’ve never seen evidence for deities or a rainbow colored horses, but I don’t know that they don’t exist because I don’t know everything.

        That’s not a bad thing to be. A consistent skeptic would always be open to accepting the existence of fairies if a good amount of evidence comes up. When it’s not there, however, they work with what they know. “Natural laws being what they are, I probably should look for my keys in my coat or in the front door, but I won’t start appealing to the magic pony to reveal them to me, or ask a psychic or look for fairy trails.”

        Mathew Walls is all right by me. You either have belief (theist) or you don’t (atheist). You don’t have to have belief in the non-existence of deities to be an atheist.

        The trick is to stay open minded and not collapse into belief or non-belief without sufficient evidence. I think this is the essence of the skepticism that Sagan and Weiner are championing. Once sufficient evidence for deities, appears, conscientious atheists would no longer be atheist or “lacking belief.”

    • Me says:

      You are ignoring the spiritual philosophies embraced by others that do not suit you and are making declarative statements about them.

      n. one who believes in one or more gods, deist

      n. one who believes that God does not exist

      n. person who believes in the existence of a supreme being

      Deism is a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator. According to deists, the creator never intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Two main forms of deism currently exist: classical deism and modern deism.

      n. one who is unsure whether or not God exists; person who refuses to declare belief in the existence or nonexistence of God; skeptic, person who is doubting or suspicious about something.

      Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the difference between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who is undecided about the existence of a deity or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively. In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify the belief that deities either do or do not exist. Within agnosticism there are agnostic atheists (who do not believe any deity exists, but do not deny it as a possibility) and agnostic theists (who believe a deity exists but do not claim it as personal knowledge).

  8. Donnchadh says:

    While I agree with both you and him it doesn’t look to me like you’re talking about the same thing. You’re talking about accepting the possibility of the supernatural whereas he seems to be talking about holding criticisms of the supernatural to the same standards as criticisms of everything else.

  9. John Sharp says:

    As for the origin of uncivil atheists:

    Not to stereotype, but I totally see a large part of the acrimonious atheists as being “Dawkins-fans”. Dawkins, while I appreciate his work and his writings, has a tendency to have a smug air and be put-downer. He’s more of a salesman of ideas and likes to jeer opponents until crowds cheer.

    I also see how a large part of the “rude” atheists, like Dr. Plait in that video above mentions, could be rooted with the same defenses as religious-defenses. People aren’t necessarily “frustrated with irrationality”; but rather feel attacked themselves by other people’s beliefs and react defensively, instead of realizing they’re just a human being in a different psychological state of affairs.

    Anyway, knowledge shouldn’t yield arrogance!


  10. Baylink says:

    My personal opinion is that atheism is itself faith: being *certain* there is no higher power requires proving a negative, which is, if not actually impossible, close enough.

    I’m a militant agnostic, myself: I don’t know, and *you don’t either*. :-)

    Liked the NOM Effect, BTW.

    • Jamie says:

      Interesting how you slip that “certain” in there, some atheists are certain but others aren’t.

    • Will says:

      Except for that most atheists don’t profess such certainty! I certainly don’t. To be honest, under your labeling scheme, I’m probably also a militant agnostic, but I call myself an atheist anyways because it invites discussion of the issue (which I think is important) in a way that the agnostic label does not, and because most self proclaimed atheists I met during my formative period expressed views more like mine than like the stereotype of certainty you bring up. The self-professed agnostics I met were few and far between, and they avoided discussing the issues at hand.

  11. Callan says:

    Baylink, did you not read anything posted above? O_O

  12. kaharz says:

    I typically identify myself as an agnostic for two reasons.
    The primary and general reason is because I use it to indicate a much broader lack of belief in ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ entities as opposed to just god. I realize this is a personal definition, so I usually explain it when necessary. The earliest known uses of “gnosis” has absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural, so what the hell if I want to use it a bit different from the modern vernacular.

    The other reason is to distance myself from the “angry atheists.” Regardless of what one or two posters above claim, there are self-identifying atheists who actively vigorously disbelieve in any type of god as opposed to just lacking belief. In the last few years I’ve encountered much more of them then I used to, although that might just be from changes in my social circles and I don’t claim there are more strident disbelieving atheists then there used to be. I have been told numerous times by self-identifying atheists that god does not exist and it is provable.* These are not truly skeptical or scientifically minded people, they are anti-religious people who self-identify as atheists.

    There is no actual difference between atheism and agnostic in a purely semantic argument and there may be no middle ground between those who believe in a god of some sort and those who lack belief. But since these are modes of (dis)belief we are talking about, various people with a range of attitudes will claim membership. There is a group of people who actively assert the non-existence of a god or gods based solely on their belief that no gods exist. I don’t know what to call those people, but in my anecdotal experience, they have called themselves atheists every time.

    *They are never able to tell me how they can prove it. They usually just mumble something about the burden of evidence indicating that religion is made up. You can prove a negative with an exhaustive search and sometimes I run into that as argument too. “I can prove a negative, I can prove there is no elephant currently in this room.” But an exhaustive search for god requires dieing by most standards I know.

  13. OtherRob says:

    Hello. I’ve been an occasional reader of SMBC, but I hadn’t found your blog until Phil Plait linked to your post about NOM — I really like what you did there, btw. I just wanted to say that I really like this, especially your last paragraph.

  14. Theomack says:

    I think what this boils down to is that there’s no problem with people believing whatever they want to, nor does it matter. Problems arise when a group of like-minded individuals get together and decide they are right and everyone else is wrong; whether they are theists or atheists is irrelevant. As Mel Gibson said “FREEEEEDOM!!!”.

  15. Khaitor says:

    First of all, sorry for my low-skilled English. I cannot understand last paragraph, so sorry if I misunderstood you, I see this topic really interesting.

    “although if the contentions violate well-established laws of physics, such objections of course carry great weight”

    When that weight is the life of some people, I really think is important to negate God(Allah, or whatever). There are lots of Skeptics that dont know really why they are Skeptics(kind of faith?) or that cannot explain themselves properly. I’d like to remember you the garage dragon from Sagan.(And I’d like to encourage people that have not read it to search it now in the webz)

    Of course there’s no proof for God’s nonexistence(does this word exist?), as for the dragon. So it’s up to you to believe in God or not, as believeing in the dragon or not.
    I prefer not believing in God as I dont believe in the dragon, or faeries or whatever because a lot of people have already died due to believe in such a being.

    And of course, just believing in a supreme deity doesnt kill you. But lots of people believe in more than that and lots of other people use that faith for their own business( for their own good). I can understand that angers anyone. The idea of God for the humanity means far a lot more than just believing or not believing in a supreme deity.

    The failure is to think you are right for what you think. Johannes Kepler thought about a geometric universe and that slowed his work. That’s just another believe(really relationed with God), other kind of Faith, but the same feeling about something we cannot prove. Now we look back and see this really stupid, why not the idea of God?
    None of us(i hope xD) will say: “i’m agnostic about Kepler’s idea”, why is it different about God? Not a single evidence (physical)of its existance, as for Kepler’s geometrical solar system, just only coincidences, not evidences.

  16. Daan says:

    I totally agree with what Zach wrote: more than anything it’s important to be proportionate in your claims, to what you know and can know.

    For all practical purposes (say, if I had to fill out a survey), I’d just call myself atheist. But I’ve never been really satisfied with the precision of either that or ‘agnostic’, mainly because to me ‘atheist’ feels like a sort of reactionary answer to ‘theist’, and I’d rather just distance myself from the whole ‘theo’-idea that the discussion started from in the first place.

    So, recently I found out about ignosticism (, and it perfectly fit my ideas! By the definition in the comments above, that still makes me an atheist, but I just think this is a worth-while clarification that not enough people have heard about. (the gist is, basically in the spirit of the later Wittgenstein, that the concept ‘God’ is either vague or undefined, and so not only affirming and denying it is impossible, but also talking about it is a waste of time until someone comes up with a definition that makes sense. It comes down to: it’s better to renounce a bad question than give a bad answer to it.)

    So when I meet a theist, I just say “what do you mean, God?” And until they can give me a definition that can relate to other things I believe about the world, they might as well be talking about invisible pink unicorns. Definitions of God I will whole-heartedly accept are 1. God is synonymous with the material world (in which case I’d just rather call it “the world”) and 2. God is the feeling of being in love with life (what I just call “being in love with life” and neurobio-explanations do not compete with or threaten). The second version, I am actually all for! It never hurts to have a word for that feeling.

    • Me says:

      I am agnostic and my understanding is that there are two schools of spiritual agnosticism:

      1. If God or a god (or whatever supreme architect/s one chooses to refer to) exists, they he/she/it is far beyond human comprehension. For that reason, humans are not required to concern ourselves with the question or to understand. It is too far beyond us.

      2. There is no way to prove or to disprove the existence of God or gods, therefore we cannot know and it is a waste of time and effort concerning ourselves with the question or attaching ourselves to theologies and dogmas. If there is actually a supreme being out there, he/she/it is just fine with our lack of interest and faith.

      I am an agnostic of the second school.

  17. chrisb says:

    become agnostic, touch him on the penis

  18. WaffleJesus says:

    Lulz tl;dr

  19. Cathal says:

    The phrase “I don’t belive in god” is inherently flawed. Gods have always been holding-places for the unexplained, the Xs found in the ultimate equations, the parts of the universe that we do not understand, and the things that we do not know that we do not know.

    I believe there are forces in this universe that no living human will ever comprehend, and I have hope that the unknown quantities of my reality will do me good more than ill.

    This is God.

    Relgion, and assigning God a personality, is another matter entirely.

  20. hayduke says:

    So, can someone just give me the word for someone who finds the idea of a god kind of laughable and superstitious but would readily admit the existence of said god if proof were ever offered?

  21. Me says:

    What’s with all the debate over the meanings of atheist and agnostic. You’re educated people. Don’t you know the definitions are in dictionaries and that despite the attitudes of the less educated among us, words are not really open to whatever we want a word to mean? Is this what contemporary education is allowing? If so, how disappointing and disconcerting!

    n. one who believes that God does not exist

    n. one who is unsure whether or not God exists; person who refuses to declare belief in the existence or nonexistence of God; skeptic, person who is doubting or suspicious about something

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