Carl Sagan: Death After Life

Freethought Today, April 1998

By Dan Barker

In 1980, I was right in the middle of my swing from fundamentalist minister to atheist, moving out of evangelcalism. The reason I didn't stop and settle anywhere along that spectrum was that there was always something more to learn.

That was the year that Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series was broadcast on public television, and the year that Sagan founded the Planetary Society, which I joined as a charter member. (I still have all the original magazines.)

I watched every single episode of "Cosmos," enthralled. It wasn't a religious experience--it was much better. (I should know.) I was wide-eyed, seeing the real world, finally. I remember as a child giving one of our kittens a taste of fresh tuna, watching that little animal, who had been raised on canned cat food, go crazy chowing down some real food. That's how I felt watching "Cosmos."

The impact of that show was due to more than just the hard facts of science. It was how they were presented. Carl Sagan stepped right into my living room, like a favorite uncle, making me share his enthusiasm for the wonder of the universe. He was nonthreatening, approachable. He made me think I was with the scientists, not beneath them. He was obviously in love with the topic--he wasn't just doing a job--and his excitement was infectious.

When Sagan succumbed to pneumonia in December 1996, the human race lost its favorite uncle. And we freethinkers know, as Sagan did, that the loss is forever.

Carl's wife Ann Druyan, in the Epilogue to Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (published posthumously in 1997), gives a moving account of Carl's last days. They both acknowledged the fact that their final farewell would indeed be final:

"Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever."

In his chapter "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" from The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark (Sagan's last book while he was alive, and the one most critical of religion), Carl wrote:

"If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy."

Sentiments like these are infinitely more moving, more courageous, more meaningful than any hymn or sermon that I have ever heard.

As Ann Druyan noted in her address before the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention last December, although Carl Sagan has died, he is still "with us," in a naturalistic sense. The effects of his work continue to resonate in the real world. (I am still "infected" with the joy of scientific learning that he transmitted through my television set 18 years ago.) The organizations Sagan founded continue to make a difference, and the books he wrote are still enlightening millions.

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