Carl Sagan and the Bible
When it came time to write my final college paper, for a class in Christian theology, I proposed to write about Carl Sagan's ideas -- particularly his views on religion -- as he layed them out in Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, and Broca's Brain. I had recently devoured these books as well as his celebrated PBS series with great fascination, and I was eager to make an exploration of his ideas as they might impact religious truth. But my professor was not keen on the idea of any theology paper based on Carl Sagan's thought. He argued that Sagan was not a universally respected scientist (which was true enough due to Carl's reputation as a popularizer of science), and that he could even be regarded as a pseudoscientist. I quickly pointed out that an entire section of Cosmos was devoted to a critique of pseudoscience, and that I wasn't going be writing about Sagan's scientific work anyway; it was actually his views on religion and God that I found compelling. Still, my professor persuaded me to write instead about the Counter-Enlightenment views of Giambattista Vico. I did so. I gave exactly one paragraph to Vico, and devoted my paper after all to Sagan's books and to other popular discussions of science. It was one of the most wide-ranging and, perhaps, unfocused things that I ever wrote. It got a D+.
Sagan has always had my respect, and probably always will. I am reminded of him now after reading a transcript of the answers he gave in a Q&A session at the 1994 CSICOP conference in Seattle. The acronym stands for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He delivered the keynote address, "Wonder and Skepticism," and the Q&A session was transcribed but forgotten until this summer, when the Skeptical Inquirer published it (see the July/August issue).
Sagan answered some questions about pseudo-scientific claims, like the "Face on Mars", and claims of alien abduction. The evening's final questioner asked whether religion should not receive the same kind of scrutiny. Well up to now I was not aware of any in-depth comments from Sagan about the Bible, but that is exactly what he offered, and his response was so worthwhile that I've reproduced nearly all of it:
This is a really good question, and I know that Richard Dawkins talked about this a year or so ago, and drew the conclusion that many religious beliefs were not noticeably different from any of the parasciences or pseudosciences beliefs, and why one of them is the object of our attention and the other is off-limits, and he urged that we be, if I may use the expression, more ecumenical in our hostility. I will answer in the following way: first, that there is no human culture without religion. That being the case, that immediately says that religion provides some essential meat, and if that's the case shouldn't we be a little careful about condemning something that is desperately needed? For example, if I am with someone who has just lost a loved one, I do not think it is appropriate for me to say, "You know, there's no scientific evidence for life after death." If that person is gaining some degree of support, stability, from the thought that the loved one has gone to heaven and that they will be joined after the person I'm talking to, himself or herself, dies. That would be uncompassionate and foolish. Science provides a great deal, but there are some things that it doesn't provide. Religion is an attempt to provide, whether truly or falsely, some solutions to those problems. Human mortality is one of those where there isn't a smidgeon of help from science. Yes, it's a grand and glorious universe, yes it's amazing to be part of it, yes we weren't alive before we were born (not much before we were born) so we hope we're alive after we're dead. We won't know about it. It's a big deal. But that's not too reassuring, at least to many people.
Take the issue of the Bible. The Bible is in my view a magnificent work of poetry, has some good history in it, has some good ethical and moral scriptures -- but by no means everywhere, the book of Joshua is a horror, for example -- and on those grounds is well worth our respect. But on the other hand, the Book of Genesis was written in the sixth century B.C. during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The Babylonians were the chief scientists of the time. The Jews picked up the best science available and put it in the book of Genesis, but we have learned something in the intervening two and a half millenia, and to believe in the literal truth of the attempted science in the Bible, is to believe too much. I know there are Biblical literalists who believe that every jot and tittle in the Bible is the direct word of God, given to a scrupulous and flawless stenographer, and with no attempt to use the understanding of the time, or metaphor or allegory, but just straight-out truth. I know there are people who think that. That seems to me highly unlikely. I think the way to approach the Bible is with some critical wits about us, but not dismissing it out of hand. There's a lot of good stuff in the Bible. Case-by-case basis is what I'm saying. Where religion does not pretend to do science, I think we should be open within the boundaries of good sense. I think that you cannot extract an "ought" from an "is," and therefore science per se does not tell us how we should behave, although it can certainly shed considerable light on the consequences of alternative kinds of behavior. From that we can decide how to arrange our legal codes and what to do. So the idea of an all-out attack on religion I think on many grounds would be foolish, but the idea of treating Biblical literalism, for example, with some skeptical scrutiny is an excellent idea. But it is being done, has been done for the last century by Biblical scholars themselves. I don't think there's any particular expertise in this movement for a critical examination of the Bible. There are other people who are doing it just fine.
I hope that sort of middle ground is not too different from what you were asking about, but I certainly don't think that religion should be off-limits. I don't think anything should be off limits. We should feel free to discuss and debate everything. That's what the Bill of Rights is about. And in that sense, and many other senses, the constitution of the United States, particularly the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, and the scientific method are very mutually supportive approaches to knowledge. Both of them recognize the extreme dangers of having to pay attention to and do whatever the authority says.
I run across contempt and dismissal of religion so often in arguments by skeptics that it's gratifying to find Sagan saying that science knows nothing about death, that there's good history in the Bible, and that the Bible deserves our respect. His way of defining the Bible by distinguishing its genres is very nearly what I would say if I had to define the Bible. His description of the creation story as attempted science, cutting edge for its time -- rather than describing it with the word that everyone uses, myth -- is a real compliment from a scientist. Overall, as a non-literalist, I can see eye-to-eye with Sagan's prescription of taking everything in the Bible case-by-case and with neither uncritical reverence nor eager dismissal.
But particularly I'm pleased to hear Sagan arguing that Biblical scholars themselves have been doing the necessary work, and that secular skeptics have no cause to think of themselves as better able to do critical studies of the Bible than those who are already doing it. All of this hits home especially when I think of Jesus mythicists, who run against the consensus of most Biblical experts and would therefore certainly agree with the general statement, taken out of context, that there is no particular expertise in critical studies of the Bible. But I think they would find themselves disagreeing with the context, namely Sagan's ensuing claim. I would paraphrase that claim as such: skeptics who lack training in the Bible and wonder how best to disprove its historicity need not look any farther than those "other people" who are fully trained in Biblical studies. Jesus mythicists usually try to account for the existence of a consensus that runs counter to their thesis by speculating that biblical scholars are too emotionally tied to the Bible, and to their careers within the church or the ivory tower, to dare shake the boat on the controversial question of whether Jesus existed -- a speculation which implies that most of these scholars secretly believe or would like to believe something else, and which imputes cowardice to them. Mythicism, per this speculation, is more courageous -- a claim that is plainly stated before long.
Of course, such claims fail to account for atheist historians and for Biblical scholars outside the chuch and the ivory tower who all disagree with mythicism. But all that aside it should still be said that Biblical scholars are no less capable of examining their subject than anyone else; their thought is not homogenous, and their ranks include many agnostics and even atheists. Jesus mythicists use the work of the latter, and even much of the work of traditionalist scholars, to ply their theory -- which they should not do if their speculation about weak-minded scholarship is correct. If Sagan is wrong, and Biblical scholars are not doing the necessary work, then Jesus mythicists should stop citing the certified scholars, and simply proceed on their own. Some of the worst mythicists, like Acharya, do exactly this, and are rejected even by a great many mythicists. Those with the best standing have earned it by basing their work to a greater degree on the Biblical text and on some of the work done by trained scholars -- but this calls into question the whole idea that Biblical scholars are muddling along in political correctness. If scholars are less than courageous, or they're lazy, or complicit, then their work cannot be trusted on any score. Yes, a mythicist may assume that it's safe to use the most skeptical layers of a scholar who believes in a historical Jesus, but that assumption is unwarranted, if that scholar is wrong about what is surely the chief underlying assumption of their work. If Jesus did not exist, that changes everything in New Testament scholarship. (Whether it discredits everything, including for instance the ethical teachings, is a distinct question and should not be confused here). All specific claims would then have to be re-evaluated. If a specific claim is made within the model of a historical Jesus, no mythicist should trust or use it -- particularly if the scholar is deemed to be less courageous than yourself. Why trust the work of someone you look upon that way? If their work is trusted as sound, then the question returns: why do these trustworthy models always point to a historical Jesus?
That's just one of the questions Sagan prompts me to ask.