July 15, 2014

Carl Sagan Was Not An Atheist:
What does atheism really mean?



I shared last week that we had been watching Cosmos (which was beautiful and I am so sad that it is over), so naturally, when a piece from the Washington Post about Sagan's nonbelief popped up in my newsfeed, I clicked with great curiosity.

The piece by Joel Achenbach explores what Sagan had to say about God and atheism during his life.

Here's a telling quote from an interview that Achenbach did with Sagan in 1996 to start us off. Sagan said:
An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.
When I first read this, I have to be honest, it made me pause and reflect on my own nonbelief. I describe myself as an atheist. Why do I do this when I can't definitively say that there is no God? I can't prove it, anymore than believers could adequately prove to me that here is a god.

So I began to consider my own nonbelief and what I really feel about God (or the lack thereof) and the universe.


For starters, the piece brought to mind a quote from Jennifer Michael Hecht in the conclusion of Doubt: A History. Hecht wrote:
I think politics drives a lot of clinging to the three terms, but I also think it is easier to force yourself to be clear if you avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what's out there.
On the one level, I really agree that the best way to convey what you mean is to say what you mean. Labels are fraught with connotations in the mind of your audience--connotations that existed long before you did, or at least before your message did. Connotations which you have no control over.

As writers--okay, okay, I'm just a blogger, but it is what is--we try to say what we mean. We try to manipulate and control our message until we are able to get from readers the reaction that we want--or at least, until we are able to know that readers are receiving the message as we intended it. Connotations that we can't control, triggered by labels, are not conducive to the process. I want to tap into your experiences and emotions, yes; but I also want to be able to draw you from them into mine.

Thus, if I say, "I am an atheist" and you disconnect from the conversation because of what you have experienced of atheists, then I have failed as a communicator. I've sent you scuttling back into yourself instead of drawing you into my message.

So it is incredibly important to be precise, much as Sagan was. Sagan was not an atheist. He may have lived as an atheist. He may have believed in no god. But because he did not have that knowledge, he never felt comfortable with the title of atheist. Thus to posthumously apply it to him because it is more comfortable to us is a type of violation, in my mind.

In another letter, Sagan wrote:
I am not an atheist. An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. I am not that wise, but neither do I consider there to be anything approaching adequate evidence for such a god. Why are you in such a hurry to make up your mind? WHy not simply wait until their is compelling evidence?
His widow, Ann Druyan, explained when Achenbach asked her to illuminate:
Carl meant exactly what he said. He used words with great care. He did not know if there was a god. It is my understanding that to be an atheist is to take the position that it is known that there is no god or equivalent. Carl was comfortable with the label ‘agnostic’ but not ‘atheist.’
Is it, then, an affront to science to call myself an atheist? Is it to claim knowledge that some of the greatest minds of our species weren't even bold enough to claim?

I don't think so, but then, I'm not a scientist. I'm just an atheist.

What does it mean to me? Quite simply, it means that I believe there is no God.

Of course, I can't ever say for certain there is no God, because in a world of infinite possibilities, there's always the possibility that there was one and now isn't, or that there will be one some day. But based on my experiences, on my feelings, on my beliefs, I believe that there is no God.

Personally, I find this adequate for a definition of atheism. I have been told that this is agnosticism, but I disagree. Agnosticism says "I can't know that there is or isn't a god", yes, but there's also a belief that there could be a god. I don't share that belief.

I think that when we look at labels, they are too precise. If you are looking at belief, it should be a spectrum, from fundamental "this is absolutely literal" religious belief moving through more progressive thoughts, agnosticism, and then atheism. Belief is a complicated matter, and the idea that labels could ever completely convey the concepts is naive. They can't.

Perhaps "secularist" or "humanist" are more accurate. I don't know. I'm still just starting on this journey. But for now, much like Sagan was comfortably 'agnostic', I'm a comfortable atheist.

And that's good enough for me.

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