A nice barely-planned symmetry: we begin the second half of our semester in A&S with Carl Sagan, who also began the first.
In Demon-haunted world the “elegant and witty” exobiologist again implores us to light a candle and neither curse nor fear the darkness. Cursing and fearing are inveterate bad habits of our species, going back to St. Paul’s “high places” and beyond. How delightfully, wickedly ironic, that “demon” means “knowledge”… and that women have so frequently been demonized in our sexually repressed, male-dominated society. And, how appalling that more than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence. They should read the Devil’s Dictionary: FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
In the Gifford lectures that became Varieties of Scientific Experience we’re reminded it’s very easy to call people who believe in a different kind of god atheists, and in fact anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do. Sagan brings the same perspective to bear in sifting the differences among Abrahamic believers as he does when comparing ours to the gaze of an extra-terrestrial. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities.But those trivial differences, comic though they are (as with the naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard) have been deadly. Maybe it’s time to give Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God a hearing.
Sagan: Certainly it is insufficient to say “I believe in that sort of god because that’s what I was told when I was young”… We cannot depend entirely upon what people say. We have to look at the evidence, or else admit that we’re just not interested in trying to defend rational beliefs.
There are a few arguments Rebecca Goldstein missed here. The argument from atomic combinations and the argument from the suspension of the world fail, but they try.
Is Sagan being impertinent when he asks why God wouldn’t have engraved the Ten Commandments (say) on the Moon?
Also in today’s reading: an excerpt from John Updike’s Roger’s Version (Updike was a theist, btw), J.L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, Michael Shermer’s “Genesis Revisited,” A.J. Ayer’s weird oxygen-deprivation account of “what I saw when I was dead” (not God), and Dan Dennett’s more sensible (and grateful) reflections on his own near-death experience in “Thank Goodness!”
[NOTE to A&S students: the syllabus got ahead of itself. For Thursday read thru the next Dennett piece, "A Working Definition of Religion"]