Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Excerpt from Varieties of Scientific Experience, Part Three

The part of Sagan's new book The Varieties of Scientific Experience that I enjoyed most was the Q and A section. After each lecture, audience members were invited to step up to a microphone and ask Sagan a question. I can tell by how some of the questions are worded that some questioners were hostile toward Sagan and his ideas. Yet he was able to respond to their challenge with a grace and wisdom that puts other religious skeptics to shame. When confronted by a religious claim, someone like, say, Christopher Hitchens might reply, "You're wrong, that's foolish nonsense, and here's why." But Sagan would respond more like, "I understand why you would feel that way, but I can't agree with your position, and here's why."

Questioner: Can religious beliefs adapt to the future?

Carl Sagan: Well, it's certainly an important question. My feeling is, it depends on what religion is about. If religion is about saying how the natural world is, then to be successful it must adopt the methods, procedures, techniques of science and then become indistinguishable from science. By no means does it follow that that's all religion is about. And I tried to indicate at the end of my last lecture some of the many areas in which religion could provide a useful role in contemporary society and where religions, by and large, are not. But that's very different from saying how the world is or came to be. And there the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions have simply adopted the best science of the time. But it was a long time ago, the time of sixth-century B.C., during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. That's where the science of the Old Testament comes from. And it seems to me important that the religions accommodate to what has been learned in the twenty-six centuries since. Some have, of course, to varying degrees; many have not.

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