Its credo asserts that life began by chance and evolved from there.

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, begins with the dogmatic statement, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” When the dean of American humanists asks. “If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?” (p. 243), the challenge calls for a theological response.

The 350-page book by the Cornell University professor is produced in connection with the 13-installment series aired by the Public Broadcasting System on astronomy in the broadest sense. An able scientist, Sagan guides us through the universe in our imagination and shares with us the very latest in theory and observation about the heavenly bodies. The TV camera often inordinately presents him in a pose of rapt communication with nature. The medium is the message of a humanist metaphysic. Its credo asserts that life began by chance on an obscure planet in one of a billion solar systems in the universe, and evolved from there. The grand epic started with a mysterious explosion and will end in oblivion, but in the meantime, what a show!

In time, man emerged king of the earth, and is just about ready to begin exploring the universe in earnest, whereupon, according to Sagan, he is almost certain to discover other civilizations more advanced than our own. This may, by the grace of nature, bring him to his senses. Man on earth, you see, is a nasty and quarrelsome species and needs the correcting, even saving, influence of other intelligent beings to bring him to his senses. When that happens, mankind will be relieved to know it is not alone in the universe, and finally realize how foolish all its petty parochialisms of politics and religion are. If not, nature’s judgment will surely fall. Thus endeth the first lesson.

The grandeur of this epic myth is undeniable, but there are a few questions a Christian theologian would wish to put.

First, why is it, if it is so important that we adopt scientific ways of thinking, that it is so much in jeopardy here? Sagan reveals a strong tendency to blur the important distinction between fact and theory in the interest of making his case.

Now, I am not one who holds that the universe was created rather recently, more or less the way it is now. Nor am I inclined to dismiss the possibility that a good deal of evolution has occurred and is occurring. But it does make me nervous to hear Sagan advance his theory about how it all happened, as if there were no serious problems with it. If he were truly open-minded in these things, he would have to state that his reconstruction of past events is very hypothetical. No intelligent observers were around to watch it happen, and so his view of evolution is theory, not fact, and only one of several conflicting theories.

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To believe that creatures as highly complex as human beings were produced by a gradual process of evolution from the primeval soup takes a good deal of effort unless it is believed uncritically. Sagan really ought to assist the intelligent reader with a little more hard evidence and critical interaction. Is this an example of thinking scientifically? Would it not be more accurate to call it faith (in the scientist)?

Second, concerning the history of science, why does Sagan suggest so often that religion and superstition held scientific progress back when he must know that most of his heroes in the field were and are believers? It is fitting that he should teach at Cornell whose first president was A. D. White, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), and who perceived religion to be the great opponent of progress in science. Without wishing to deny that institutional religion has oftentimes opposed new ideas in science in the fear that they might upset theological convictions, I think it only fair to state somewhere in the course of a long book that modern science was born on Christian soil and in connection with a Christian understanding of the world, and nowhere else, and that what motivated many of the founders of modern science, like Newton and Boyle, was precisely their faith in the Creator. It is historically false as well as counterproductive to set religion over against science. Is it possible that Sagan does not know this?

Third, the way of salvation for Sagan is for humans to celebrate nature and to get into contact with extraterrestrials, which he hopes will have a good influence on them. If that happened, he says, “the history of our species and our planet would be changed forever” (p. 314).

Why would it have this effect? They might turn out to be more egotistical and aggressive than we are. But even if their motto was to love one another, have we not known this for centuries? And has it transformed our behavior? There is an extraterrestrial I think Sagan ought to meet, but sadly he denies God’s existence.

Naiveté also comes out in the political realm. Like the rest of us, Sagan is worried about the threat of nuclear annihilation and wants to do something about it. His suggestion is that we all disarm, with the West leading the way. But is it not obvious what the result would be if we did that? We would certainly come under the sovereignty of a state that is not only scientific and secular, but also the most despotic and ruthless, and which now rules a large part of the earth. Indeed, is it not ironical that the one state that endorses all that Sagan is saying in terms of scientific materialism is also one of the least free and humane? Sagan does not want a society like the USSR, of course, but it ought to give him pause that it is the one obvious example built on his ideals.

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Finally, why would anyone celebrate nature if in fact it is the product of blind chance and part of a pointless process? Sagan appears to think that people ought to imitate his own loyalty to evolution and reverence for life. But why should they do such an irrational thing? Surely a more sensible response to the cosmos as Sagan presents it would be to adopt a nihilistic outlook and try to derive as much pleasure from life as possible before it is snuffed out. Perhaps he should go back and read Nietzsche, who really understood where materialism leads you. If Sagan and his readers want to feel at home in the cosmos and celebrate the adventure of life, they would be wise to forsake his world view and accept the message of the Bible. It glories in the beauty and worthwhileness of the universe and sees it rooted in God’s gracious and eternal plan.

If Sagan can be taken to be expressing a major alternative to Christian faith in our Western scientific culture, the future outlook for the gospel would appear to be excellent.

CLARK H. PINNOCKDr. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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