Celebrate Carl Sagan and All Who Advanced Reason, Science, Free Inquiry and Wonder

Introduction: Irrationality in America

While the influence of religion is reported to be waning, or so it seems if the latest Pew findings on religious affiliation in America are accurate, certain elements of religious dogmas are as pervasive as ever. Consider, for example, belief in miracles or even demonic possession. The strength of these ancient superstitions is on the rise.

In addition, there has been an increase in conspiracy thinking, led by birthers, moon hoaxers, antivaxxers, Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists and so on.

H. L. Mencken had a term for the propensity of our citizenry to embrace nonsense - Boobus Americanus. The Boobus strain is a national embarrassment.

Republicans are fond of claiming a quality of exceptionalism for our nation. We’re exceptional all right, but not in a good way. We are exceptionally irrational. Of course, this criticism does not apply to all Americans. Mencken believed America was populated by a small elite of educated, cultivated and intelligent human beings - and then there were the masses. The latter he considered frighteningly ignorant and capable of being led and bamboozled.

In a recent personal message, Perry Street Palace blogger SJ expressed more or less the same idea, explaining that rational, evidence-based critical thinking takes practice, lots of it for most people. SJ rhetorically asked, And just who in the public domain is modeling evidence-based reasoning? I'm waiting for your answer...Americans are in thrall to absurd notions about supernatural forces.

Which brings me to two figures in recent American history - one a paragon of reason, science, free inquiry and wonder; the other a model of fear-mongering, ignorance and superstition. I’m thinking of Dr. Carl Sagan and Reverend Billy Graham, respectively.

Billy Graham


I first encountered the televangelist as a teen in the 1950’s. My parents were spellbound by Graham’s televised revival performances. The hell-fire and brimstone condemnations of sinners performed pretty much as Bert Lancaster played Elmer Ganty in the movie were dramatically different from the Roman Catholic culture to which we were accustomed. In my eyes, the Catholic masses and other rituals were boring; Billy Graham, on the other hand, appalled me. How could my parents watch this foolishness, I wondered?

Now I realize that, compared with Catholic ritual, Graham must have been both entertaining and effective. After condemning sin, sinners and backsliding Christians, Graham would soften his tone and, with a little help from an orchestra, a choir and George Beverly Shea, invite the fallen to come forward, renounce their wicked ways and be saved. All the audience members had to do was accept Jesus as their personal savior. Not much was said as to what that meant, but the assumption seemed to be that everything would be all right once they did so - and especially after they wrote a check for Billy Graham’s crusade and sent it off to the address conveniently shown on the television screen. Shea would sing, How Great Thou Art at this critical point as the revival audience moved toward the stage. For a sense of what a Godgasm the show provided, go to YouTube and search for a video of Mr. Shea reprising this big time Christian hit. It’s powerful stuff for the faithful - and a truly toxic hallucinogen.

And that was the nature of all Graham's crusade shows - singing and healing after condemnations and visions of a vengeful God exacting a terrible wrath on sinners. Babble, fantasy and irrationality were the gate passes to peace with the Lord, until the next Billy Graham show a week later. Then TV viewers and the revival audience would have to again undergo condemnation as sinners, visions of hell-fire and, cue the music, forgiveness for proclaiming once again Jesus as Lord and Savior - with checks made out to the Billy Graham Crusade.

Unlike my parents, the effect for me was confirmation that religion was nonsense. More than the nuns, the priests, the bible stories or the work of Lucifer, I have Billy Graham to thank for helping me realize that religion really is pretty much what Bertrand Russell declared it to be - a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race.

In 2007, books by William Hughes’ and Cecil Bothwell appeared entitled, Rev. Billy Graham: A Prince of War Exposed and The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, respectively. Both dealt with Graham’s role promoting the Evangelical Right. The books documented how Graham amassed a multimillion dollar media empire while never encountering a U.S. war he couldn’t bless. Graham was also dedicated to eliminating separation between church and state and rebranding the U.S. as a Christian nation. He saw America's armies as rightful instruments of a Christian crusade and a Christian empire. Sound familiar? That’s essentially what today’s jihadists of the Islam persuasion seek for their religion, as well.

In the half century or so since observing my parents taken in by this preacher's totally irrational television rants, Billy Graham has symbolized religion as a great barrier to reason, skepticism, science and rational thinking. It’s almost as if Auguste Chartier (1868-1951) had Billy Graham in mind when he wrote, Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when a man has only one idea. I would add - especially a religion as put forward by this crusader for theocracy.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996) was a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and creator of the Emmy and Peabody award-winning PBS television series, Cosmos. His life was devoted to the same qualities Graham’s life undermined - reason, science, free inquiry and wonder. Freethinkers celebrate Sagan Day annually on November 9, the good man’s birth date.

Carl Sagan played a key role in NASA's robotic spacecraft missions. As a consultant and adviser to NASA since the 1950's, Sagan briefed Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. A participant in the Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to the planets, he designed the Golden Record embedded in the two Voyager probes, now departing our solar system. This record contains the sounds and images of life and culture on Earth. Perhaps, someday, this record will be discovered and enjoyed by advanced life forms from a wondrous spacefaring civilization. What a thought.

Sagan won nearly as many honors in his lifetime as Billy Graham conducted religious revivals. He was awarded NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service. An asteroid was named after him. He was given the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American Astronautical Society, the Public Welfare Medal (the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences), the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award, the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal of the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation and the Masursky Award of the American Astronomical Society. The latter included a plaque that read, in part: ... for his extraordinary contributions to the development of planetary science…As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, Dr. Sagan has made seminal contributions to the study of planetary atmospheres, planetary surfaces, the history of the Earth, and exobiology. Many of the most productive planetary scientists working today are his present and former students and associates.

Carl Sagan helped millions recognize and appreciate the wonder and importance of science, in part by books like Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence and The Demon-Haunted World, which would have been antidote sufficient for anyone in order to resist the folly of a Billy Graham revival. Anyone who read this latter work would be 100 percent immune to the fear-mongering, ignorance and superstition which were employed to enrapture vulnerable victims of the bogus genre.

Who better to summarize Carl Sagan's legacy than his co-collaborator and spouse, Ann Druyan?

I think that his voice was a great, great service to our culture and to our society, because not only did he convey the importance of skepticism, but also the importance of wonder, too - to have both wonder and skepticism at the same time. People think that if you are a scientist you have to give up that joy of discovery, that passion, that sense of the great romance of life. I say that's completely opposite of the truth. The fact is that the real thing is far more dazzling, far more goose-bump-raising, than any myth or childish story that we can make up...The Universe revealed by science is one of far more awesome grandeur than any religion has ever posited.