Carl Sagan and Life After Death
This week I read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. It's a book about the need for scientific literacy and skepticism, but it's not an anti-God or anti-religion book like the ones that became popular a few years later, so it's interesting how he tiptoes around the elephant in the room that much of what he says could be used against God and religion. He does get into a few religious topics like the efficacy of prayer and claimed sightings of the Virgin Mary and the torture and murder of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but mostly he debunks alien abductions and psychic powers and stuff. He spends a lot of time on aliens. I came to the same conclusions as him when I wrote a folklore paper about aliens for graduate school. I was trying to avoid the question of their veracity altogether, since it's irrelevant to their role in folklore, but I still couldn't avoid determining that they aren't visiting Earth, they aren't making crop circles, and they aren't kidnapping and raping people. Which is good. But these experiences are still very real to the people who imagine them, which is almost as scary and just as worthy of study.
It's very frightening to me - and I'm not just going off this one book, which reiterated and expanded on a lot of things I had already learned - how deceptive and unreliable our brains are, how prone they are to cognitive biases, logical fallacies, false memories, and straight-up hallucinations. It takes great effort and more education than most people ever get to disentangle oneself from all of this and strive for what one can only hope is something approaching an accurate understanding of the world. Humankind's inherent irrationality has, in my judgment, caused more persistent and widespread problems than evil itself. Frankly, it threatens my belief in God because I don't see what purpose he could have for making us this way. I don't think it was to make us trust in him instead of ourselves, because spiritual feelings and experiences seem to be the least reliable of all. That is, when they're being used as a guide to truth. Simply having spiritual reactions to things is harmless. Sagan's opinion of spirituality:
"'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe'. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
On life after death, he writes, "My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are - really and truly - still in existence somewhere. I wouldn't ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There's a part of me - no matter how childish it sounds - that wonders how they are. 'Is everything all right?' I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were 'Take care'.
"Sometimes I dream that I'm talking to my parents, and suddenly - still immersed in the dreamwork - I'm seized by the overpowering realization that they didn't really die, that it's all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there's something within me that's ready to believe in life after death. And it's not the least bit interested in whether there's any sober evidence for it."
He then segues into debunking mediums who claim they can talk to the dead. He doesn't try to debunk the existence of an afterlife itself. Of course he couldn't, because at the time of writing he'd never been dead. But if one does exist, how could we know? Maybe he's been trying to tell us about it for years but he can't find a good medium to talk to because they're all frauds. I used to be so confident that I knew exactly what would happen to me after I died. I would be compensated for every injustice I ever suffered and enter into eternal happiness. Now I wonder if instead I'll just enter an eternal dreamless sleep. I wouldn't mind that, except that I'd never get to listen to music again or see anyone I love again. Sagan missed his parents. His wife, Ann Druyan, misses him. She has said, "When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me - it still sometimes happens - and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl."
I thought about this when I recently watched a video clip of Russian soldiers committing one of their many war crimes, in this case executing a Ukrainian prisoner of war. It was a short clip. He calmly smoked a cigarette and then they shot him and he fell to the ground so fast it almost looked fake. Were all his memories, his personality, and the very core of his identity permanently erased from existence in that moment, faster than the blink of an eye? In another instance I read about, a Ukrainian soldier sacrificed himself to protect his son, also a soldier, from an artillery shell, but it exploded near their heads and his son died with him anyway. I think of all the premature and undeserved deaths, the heroic sacrifices and the cannon fodder and the murders and the diseases and so on, and I think what a sick cosmic joke it would be for all these people to be erased, and for any species to have evolved to the point of having these existential questions and fears in the first place. But then, people of one kind or another have been dying for hundreds of thousands of years longer than any religion that teaches an afterlife has existed. So we're in good company. I shouldn't spend too much effort fearing or resenting the most universal experience in the world.
The only thing I would really need to worry about is the possibility that God exists but is not loving or good. Maybe I will be tormented for eternity for failing to discern the correct religion that God hid among a thousand other religions and/or for giving in to the sinful nature that God gave me. I don't care what anyone says, I don't deserve to be tormented for eternity. Maybe a decade at most. And I think a lot of my experience on this planet should count as time served.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.