Carl Sagan’s 1985 Gifford lectures are really interesting. They have been edited and published in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
I highly recommend this book.
Massimo Pigliucci recently commented on the book at his blog Rationally Speaking (see Good point, Dr. Sagan!). He points out that Sagan effectively issued a challenge to theologians in his lectures. It’s a challenge they have not taken up.
Here is an extract of Pigliucci’s article:
“After contemplating all this [the immensity of the universe] for a moment, Sagan says: “And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions.” That seems exactly right, and something that is hardly discussed even in debates between atheists and theists: human religions are completely oblivious to the enormity of space. There is much talk about “intelligent design” and “anthropic principles” and other fanciful notions concocted to convince us that there is scientific evidence that this whole shebang was put in place by someone just so that we would eventually appear (and what a beautiful result he got for all his efforts!).
But Sagan’s observation makes it very clear that these people have no idea in what sort of place we really live. As Douglas Adams famously put it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Indeed. What sort of intelligent engineer would create a contraption (the universe) that takes upwards of 13 billion years to generate Homo sapiens, all the while wasting 99.999999999999+ percent of the space in the universe? Or maybe, suggests Sagan, this vast amount of space and time hasn’t been wasted, and God has created many other worlds with people. But in that case, did Jesus come and die on the cross in every single one of them? Are there separate Hells and Heavens for different species of ET? The theological implications are staggering, and yet completely unaddressed.
Ah, the religious will say, but who are we to question God’s plan? He (or she, or it, as Sagan repeatedly writes) notoriously works in mysterious ways. But that is the ultimate cop out. It is simply a fancy, and frankly insulting, way to say “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” People have a right to believe whatever inane story they like to believe (as long as they do not try to impose it on others), but many religious people since Thomas Aquinas actually want to argue that their beliefs are also rational, that there is no contradiction between the book of nature and those of scripture. If so, then they need to answer Sagan’s question about why it is that the so-called holy books don’t tell us anything at all about how the universe really is.
Sagan imagines how God could have dictated his books to the ancient prophets in a way that would have certainly made an impact on us moderns. He could have said (I’m quoting Sagan directly here): “Don’t forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. … You’ll understand this later. Trust me. … How about, ‘Thou shalt not travel faster than light?’ … Or ‘There are no privileged frames of reference.’ Or how about some equations? Maxwell’s laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew.” Now that would be impressive, and even Dawkins would have to scratch his head at it. But no, instead we find trivial stories about local tribes, a seemingly endless series of “begats,” and a description of the world as small, young, and rather flat.
Sagan’s challenge is virtually ignored by theologians the world over. And for good reason: it is impossible to answer coherently while retaining the core of most religious traditions. The various gods people worship are simply far too small for the universe we actually inhabit, which is no surprise once we accept the rather obvious truth that it is us who made the gods in our image, not the other way around. We miss you, Carl.”