Carl Sagan and a Crisis of Faith

In his excellent book Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost Faith and Found it Again Through Science, Mike McHargue, AKA Science Mike, recounts his traumatizing crisis of faith.

He recounts reading the beautiful words from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Sagan writes of a photo of earth at a great distance:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, ever human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lives there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Sagan describes what has haunted me since college. When I started to grasp just how incomprehensibly vast the universe is, it filled me not with a sense of God’s glory, but another kind of terrible awe: an awe at our insignificance, at how small our religions and accomplishments and brains truly are.

McHargue recounts, with vivid detail, how these words effected him,

Sagan’s words wrecked me. Nothing ever had shifted my perception of reality so violently. The universe is unspeakably vast and our planet an immeasurably small point in our solar system. Our solar system itself is just a speck of the Milky Way galaxy, which is just one member of the Local Group of galaxies.

And we think we’re so important?

After reading Sagan, he tried desperately to pray. He prayed for guidance, and for evidence of God’s existence. But his prayers led him to this:

That morning, I said these words: “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real.”

Two things happened immediately. First, the feeling I associated with the presence of God left me, like morning mist burned away by the heat of the sun. Second, I felt as if a trapdoor opened beneath me and I fell through it.

A series of dark insights entered my mind with terrifying speed. I realized that all the people I had loved and who had died before me were gone. Forever. I’d never see them again, because the only thing waiting on the other side of death was infinite blackness and the annihilation of self.

There was no heaven. There was no hell. Beyond this life, there was … nothing.

Without God, life had no objective purpose. All those tough days I had pushed through, believing that I served a higher purpose – that purpose was nothing but a comforting self-delusion. My life was meaningless. So were the lives of my children and of every person who had ever lived or ever would. It didn’t matter what kind of husband or father I was, because all my hard word would be erased when the sun exploded in four or five billion years.

I felt a profound grief, an inky-black darkness, as I realized there was neither mission nor redemption for humanity. The universe was indifferent to us. We were all just an accident of the self-organizing principles of physics – mere quirks of gravity, electromagnetism, and chemistry. This was it. This was the end of my search.

“God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real.”

In the time it took to say those 11 words, I’d become an existential nihilist.

I share these passages with you because they resonate so deeply with my own struggles of faith, and because they make a point that I’ve been making over, and over, and over again: crises of faith is unbearably painful and at times even horrific. Communities of faith and the non-religious alike must embody greater compassion and empathy for those who suffer this shattering paradigm shift.

To be left in the darkness by your own faith community for threatening their world view, and to be belittled and ridiculed by atheists for having held onto delusion for so long: these are damaging, hurtful experiences that no one should ever have to live through.

2 thoughts on “Carl Sagan and a Crisis of Faith

  1. It’s interesting that you talk about the “fire of doubt”. Everytime I have been there it is icy, see your breath, numbing cold. I am a teacher at my church. I teach adults. I am in the Bible quite a bit. When I see what I think are inconsistencies in scripture, this is when I doubt. As I go there, I begin to see everything I will lose if I give it up and then it starts to get really cold. There would be nothing holding together my 60 years of life, 50 of which were spent resisting what I now regard as my natural sexual desires.

    It is hard. Doubt is the fissure in the glacier, cold, dark and deep. I fear it.

    So I’m sticking with the blue pill.


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