A Voice For Science And Religion

This was the acceptance speech delivered on Dec. 6, 1997, at the twentieth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which met in Tampa, Florida.

By Ann Druyan

I'm deeply honored to accept this.

I'd like to tell you, briefly, why science it so important to me and why the notion of freedom from religion and freethought is, I think, so centrally important to our society.

My interest in science comes from the moment I discovered one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, a man named Hippocrates who's known to most people as the person who developed the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take. He was an Ionian scientist of 2,500 years ago. He wrote: "People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don't have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it's divine. And so it is with everything in the universe."

If you are going to pick a moment when science was formally invented you might go back to this insight of Hippocrates, because it's a great aperture to the universe, revealed by science, to the magnificent images that Alan Hale presented to us moments ago, to that image of billions of galaxies, a trillion stars.

Science really delivers the goods. One of the billions and billions of reasons why I revere and cherish Carl Sagan's life is that he felt that it was his personal responsibility as a scientist to share with everyone the revelations, the great liberating power, the powers of demystification that science makes possible.

Not just as scientists but as citizens also, it's our duty to create a society in which everyone has that bologna-detection kit inside their heads, everybody can tell a good argument from a bad argument, can know when their buttons are being pushed, when they're being manipulated, when they're being lied to.

I see a quote up there from the great Margaret Sanger: "No Gods - No Masters." And this notion of no masters is almost in violation of our evolutionary heritage. We are primates, just like the other primates. We share more than 99.6% of our active genes with the chimpanzee. As we've begun to study natural chimpanzee society, not in zoos, but in the wild as Jane Goodall pioneered, we recognize that there is such a thing as chimpanzee politics, chimpanzee social organization. And so it is with us. We have certain tendencies to worship an "Alpha," to look for a leader who will tell us what to do and keep us in line.

The Bill of Rights and the method of science are error-correcting mechanisms that we've devised to compensate for these evolutionary tendencies that we have. The notion of no masters, the notion of a Bill of Rights that protects us from the Alpha pushing everyone else around, the notion of the method of science which says no argument from authority, that each of us should be equal in some sense, have equal access to the information, be able to determine on our own, independently, what is true, these are the great achievements of human society, the most precious thing that we have.

Very often you encounter in our society a kind of resentment and a fear of science. In fact, virtually all of the scientists depicted on television or in popular culture are monsters, really. Either they're socially completely alienated from everyone else, or they've made some pact with the devil, some Faustian bargain in exchange for this arcane information, they've sold their souls, and they're a threat to all of us. This is true in virtually every movie that you see.

We fear science. And for good reason. It has a kind of secret language and a methodology which is very ungiving, which is saying that it's not what makes you feel good, it's what's true that matters.

I think that Carl's voice in this regard was a great, great service to our culture and to our society, because not only did he convey the importance of skepticism, but also the importance of wonder, too, to have both wonder and skepticism at the same time. People think that if you are a scientist you have to give up that joy of discovery, that passion, that sense of the great romance of life. I say that's completely opposite of the truth. The fact is that the real thing is far more dazzling, far more goose-bump-raising, than any myth or childish story that we can make up.

I think, in fact, that the idea that our species has begun to do science earnestly and consistently only in the very recent past is an indication of a kind of adulthood maturity, that we can bear to receive the great demotions that science offers us. We're not at the center of the universe. We're not even at the center of our tiny solar system. We're very young, very new to the universe and to our investigations of nature. But the fact that we are willing to accept these great blows to our narcissism, to our need to be the center of the universe, is a sign that we are growing much more secure. It's something that gives me a lot of hope for the human future.

I remember that one time Carl was giving a talk, and he spelled out, in a kind of withering succession, these great theories of demotion that science has dealt us, all of the ways in which science is telling us we are not who we would like to believe we are. At the end of it, a young man came up to him and he said: "What do you give us in return? Now that you've taken everything from us? What meaning is left, if everything that I've been taught since I was a child turns out to be untrue?" Carl looked at him and said, "Do something meaningful."

I believe that is one of the great lessons of his life. I'd like to tell you how much this award means to me, and how much it means to me that you gather as a community of people who are determined to think independently. I know that in some of the communities that you come from, this can be a somewhat unrewarding and lonely kind of experience, but the fact that you're willing to do this moves me tremendously. I'm very grateful to be honored by you.

Thank you so much.


Questions & Answers

  • A question was asked about current skepticism of science.

Science is saying we reserve our highest rewards for those among you who can disprove our most cherished beliefs. Now what's a more efficient way to finding out what's true than that? Now it's true there's a community of science guilty of all kinds of prejudice--individual scientists, for instance, have excluded women until recently, have been guilty of the same kinds of prejudices you see elsewhere in our society, that's certainly true--and yet to me, what has been the single most liberating force in modern history?

When you think about what Charles Darwin accomplished in making untenable the notion of separate creation, that leads to so many other things. Who could take seriously the "divine right of kings," after you look at chimpanzee society, and notice all of the males kowtowing to the Alpha. Doesn't that take the little catch in your throat away? The very first time-- after Carl and I wrote Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, spending years steeping ourselves in the literature of primate social organization--that we saw a State of the Union address, with the President entering down the aisle and all of these men trying to be touched by the President, [we noticed that] it's exactly the way you see chimpanzees behaving! That's why science is so subversive, so much more subversive than any other methodology that I've ever come across.

Let the people who deplore scientism demonstrate another methodology that delivers the goods the way that science does. You saw those galaxies out there [in Alan Hale's slides]. Talk about prophecy! When Edmund Halley first figured out that this comet was returning on a certain regular basis and could predict events after his death, that was a level of prophecy unequalled in any kind of religious tradition that I know of. That's part of the great power of science. People resent scientists because they can be exclusive, because they have a kind of special secret language, so it's up to scientists to do what Carl did, which is open the doors to science--not just through public education. Even in the early sixties, in 1962, when Carl was a newly-minted Ph.D., one of the first things that he did was go to Alabama to the black colleges there (this was before the Civil Rights movement started), giving a lecture called "The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth." Can you imagine how resonate that talk must have seemed? Carl was an example of someone who was a totally developed human being, and he took the revelations of science not just to make himself feel better than other people, but to realize that this was the gateway of the wonder world opening up, and everybody should be allowed in.

In many ways, I'm deeply proud of it. I love that opening shot which is constantly moving back, further, further, further, so that the real context of the Earth in space is given. Usually, special effects are used really entirely to blow people up, to blow cars up, to destroy things. And here, finally, was the genius of Hollywood special effects put at the service of this beautiful universe revealed by science. I'm proud of that. I'm proud that the hero of the movie is a woman who says very clearly that she does not believe in God, and the fact that the ones who are quick to say they believe in God are very obviously the heavies in the movie. That was a kind of a triumph. And I think it conveys something of the romance of the scientific enterprise. I'm very proud of it, the fact that we're allowed to see Eleanor Arroway at the end of this movie not humiliated, not destroyed, but at peace, and also not paired off with someone, but a woman on her own, full of a kind of joy of discovery and a great peace. I think that in itself is also a good thing.

It was so much fun--it was great! What we did is we had a great big white board with one of those erasable Magic Markers and we would spend months, even years sometimes beforehand, constantly noting down sequences, chapters, subjects, questions. We'd have a huge grab-bag of ideas, then a winnowing process which would result in a white board with all of the chapters outlined. Then we'd put a little 'c' or a little 'a' next to each chapter. We both worked in our house. We'd go to our separate quarters to work, and one of the many, many joys of this 20-year period was the time when we'd meet in the dining room table, each with our chapters in hand, and we'd exchange them. It was like a great love offering, it was another way of making love really, to give what we'd found, what we learned from our research, what we'd written. Then we'd go to our separate rooms, and, if I heard that kind of wonderful, completely uninhibited laugh coming from his office, I would be thrilled, because I knew he was happy, and the same with me. Then we'd come back and we'd argue over every single word in the manuscript--there wasn't a single word that we didn't discuss. And he would make my stuff much better. And I would have a great time working on his stuff.

When it was over, very often, Carl would say, "You know, I just love your thing about this," and I'd say, "No, no, that was your thing." Or I'd say, "I love this that you wrote," and he'd say "You wrote that." We could never figure out who was who. I must say all the hard scientific stuff was his entirely, although I would sometimes rewrite parts of that as well. It was a feast of ideas and laughing and arguing, and it was one of the great joys of being with him.

I have every one of your and Carl's books, every one. But the picture of the blue dot is something I will never forget.

I'm glad you mentioned that, because Carl begged and pleaded with NASA to take that picture. The Voyager spacecraft are two of the greatest achievements, I think. I had no role in the engineering or the mission trajectories or the design of it, only of the message that happens to be on board. But I have to say that I think that the engineers and the scientists who created the Voyager spacecraft deserve the highest praise. They should be the heroes. We should know who they are, because what they did was give us, on schedule, under budget, exceeding their design specifications in every way, our first glimpse of some forty new worlds. It didn't hurt a person in the process of making it. It was a wonderful, brilliant achievement. It was Carl's great gift to plead with NASA over many, many months that as one of the spacecraft was beyond Neptune that it would turn its cameras for one look at the Earth--not the Apollo frame-filling Earth that is a great coming-of-age turning point in our history as a species, but instead: this little, tiny blue dot.

I remember Carl very frequently would give talks, and he would show that slide and he would just leave that last slide on. He would say, "Every writer, every scientist, every scoundrel, every corrupt politician, every great moral teacher, every philosopher, every young couple in love, every mother, every father, everyone you've ever heard of, lived there, on that tiny, pale blue dot. Who were the great tyrants in history but momentary rulers over a tiny fraction of that pale blue dot? Think of the rivers of blood that have been shed because of them." I don't think anyone was ever unaffected by that notion. Once you grasp that, nothing is ever the same.

I teach in a community college and every day am witness to the abysmal ignorance of basic scientific principles. I grew up in the sixties, in the middle of the space race, and there was this big national drive to produce scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists. Do you think we'll ever get back to that? And, if so, could you speculate about what kind of project that might be?

Well, I actually grew up in the sixties. I feel very lucky, actually, that that was my slice of time that I was dealt. Let's remember that the real motivation in the sixties, and even in the fifties, was the Cold War. It was late 1957 when Sputnik was launched. That was when I remembered my Weekly Reader really went into overdrive inculcating the love of science and the importance of science in the minds of young children so they would pursue a career in science. It was our terror that if the Russians could put a satellite in orbit, they could also deliver nuclear weapons with inter-continental ballistic missiles to the United States. So there was a good side, and a very bad side to that, as well.

I think if we had the kind of leadership which actually gave our kids a reason to be scientists, which had an overarching series of goals--not goals that would bankrupt us, not goals that would take the wealth of our society from the schools, the needs for healthcare and all of the other things that are important to our society, but something really realistic and impressive--then I think that would happen.

Our kids don't have a dream of the future anymore. It's been a long time since we've had one. You ask yourself, well, why would they want to be scientists when everything in their society is telling them you've just got to believe, and it will be true. We haven't had a national political leader in a very long time who was even comfortable with the language and the methods of science. Most of what we get is just a kind of pap, telling us that we should just believe in some kind of amorphous set of spiritual values that really don't mean much.

It's going to take a change in the goals of the educational system as well as a change in public leadership before we can get to that point. I sure would like to see it happen. I could tell from Alan's presentation that he is dreaming of a society in which some of these goals would be articulated and made compelling enough so that it would inspire the next generation to get to work.

'Elijah' is a movie that I'm writing for Twentieth-Century Fox about a putative modern-day prophet and a skeptic. Once again, it's about this question of how do you know what's true, and if it matters what's true. I'm really surprised and happy to say that in the development process of this movie, the people I've been working with at Twentieth-Century Fox, contrary to what you might expect, have been tremendously enthusiastic about a movie which questions the whole basis of religious thought! I'm very excited about it; we'll see what happens when the movie gets closer to being a reality how far we actually get to go with it. So far, it's been a very good experience. . . .

In "Contact," which was perhaps not as hard-hitting as one might wish, still we were able to get our message out, and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised that there were many other people who felt that way.

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