September 04, 2009
Why Carl Sagan is considered a 'good' atheist
There is no doubt that the new atheists have ruffled the feathers of both religious believers and the accommodationists. But since the new atheists are on solid ground in their rejection of god, with science and logic undeniably supporting their position, the opposition to them often takes the form of chiding them for being supposedly belligerent in expressing their views. They sometimes get asked, in effect, why can't you be more like that nice Mr. Carl Sagan and speak more softly about your skepticism and not offend believers?
Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer at Cornell University, a prolific author, host of TV shows, and a well-known popularizer of science who in his day was easily the most publicly recognizable face of science. He had an easy and engaging manner and the ability to explain science in laymen's terms.
While he was clearly not a religious person, his views on religion and the way he expressed them are frequently brought up in discussions on the best way to deal with religious people. He is frequently held up as the model for a 'good' disbeliever, someone who can speak of his non-belief without antagonizing religious believers, in contrast to the supposedly unruly and uncivil 'new atheists'.
Consider what Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and also an atheist, said recently when reviewing Sagan's book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:
At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist, which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Sagan’s tone is always measured and humble, and yet he delivers (metaphorically) mortal blow after mortal blow to the religious in his audience.
Carl Sagan made the same strong arguments against god and religion the new atheists do, something that Pigliucci also concedes. And yet, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other new atheists are invariably described as bad atheists, while Sagan is classified as a good atheist. What is the difference? What is it exactly that makes him 'measured and humble'?
Picking up on my earlier post about the good atheist/bad atheist split, there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a 'good' atheist.
Pigliucci suggests that a 'measured and humble' tone is one quality. But what makes an atheist 'measured and humble'? Is it a willingness to concede that science and religion are compatible? This means a good atheist is one who is also an accommodationist. A bad atheist is one who isn't willing to make this concession. But as one who cheerfully wears the mantle of a bad atheist, I don't see why we should concede this point, since we think that at the heart of religious beliefs lies a deeply anti-scientific core. We don't disagree with accommodationism in order to be unpleasant. We do so because we think accommodationism is wrong.
Another way to be classified as a 'good atheist' is to declare yourself to be an agnostic, the way that Charles Darwin did. Sagan has similarly said, "My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic." Sagan seems to have bought into the notion that atheists are certain that there is no god, saying in an interview, "An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God."
But as I have written before, that attitude reveals a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes atheism. What is true is that an atheist realizes that one cannot be logically certain there is no god. But at the same time he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They see no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason.
As far as I can tell, Sagan (and Darwin before him) was as functionally certain that no god exists as I or any other atheist, whatever he might have chosen to call himself. But religious people are more comfortable with people who call themselves agnostics because it is assumed that agnostics think that belief in god is plausible, thus making them accommodationists too. Thus a claim of agnosticism does not pose a direct challenge to their religious beliefs.
Is that all that distinguishes a 'good' atheist from a bad one? I think that there is a deeper reason that I will explore in the next post.
POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified
Mr. Deity explains why Jesus rode a donkey for his big entrance into Jerusalem.