This Sunday on Fox, Neil deGrasse Tyson updates one of the most important television series ever created, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I can’t wait. I don’t remember when I have been this excited for a television event. Cosmos has been very precious to me since I was first introduced to the series by astronomy professor Doug McCarty at Mt. Hood Community College back in the early nineties. McCarty’s enthusiasm for the universe was infectious, inspiring, and filled with an appropriate sense of awe, just like Sagan’s
The winter I took his class, a friend of my parents let me borrow their ten inch telescope and use it in my back yard. On a cold February night, I saw all four major moons of Jupiter lined up across the face of the planet. It is a moment which has always remained with me.
Sagan, McCarty, and the personal exploration of the universe they inspired are a major reason I write science fiction. Cosmos helped foster in me a passionate belief in the need for our species to leave this planet and find our way to other places in our galaxy. It would be such a shame if our species died out before we had an opportunity to explore the beauty of the universe around us.
Yet for me, as a person of faith, I know that Sunday will be a bittersweet day. For there will be many others who in the name of faith will see Cosmos as something treacherous, something to be avoided like the plague. In doing so, they will miss the sense of awe and wonder a proper, fearless contemplation of our universe can create. For me the contemplation of the stars leads me to worship the creator who made them, who brought them forth with a word.
Neither the deceased Carl Sagan nor Neil deGrasse Tyson—nor Doug McCarty for that matter— share my worldview. Carl Sagan makes clear his position in the clip above. For Sagan, the universe itself is the sacred object of wonder and not any creator behind it.
For many physicists and astronomers, the existence of laws governing the processes of the universe is enough to cause them to reject the need for a creator of any form. In so doing, the physicist makes his leap from observation to faith. All human beings make this leap. By some weird farce of nature or some act of the divine, we all “make sense” of our observations. We all tell ourselves stories about the nature of existence and the cosmos. Human beings make profound meaning from their lives. At a very early age, we move from simply observing the world around us to asking the question why? In answering that question we always make a leap of faith.
The faith of the atheistic scientist is different from mine. However, that difference need not divide us when we look up in awe filled contemplation. We may see different sacred objects when we look at the night sky, but both of us recognize the act of looking up as an act of looking at the divine.
What makes me sad is that so much energy has been wasted, and will be wasted arguing with each other when our planet and our future as a species desperately need us to cooperate. No matter how you create meaning for yourself, it’s easy to get caught in the ritualized combat of identity politics and righteous indignation against the “heathens” on the other side of the divide. The real hurts we have received from those on one side of the culture wars or the other don’t help.
When I watch Cosmos on Sunday, I have no doubt there will be statements to which I can take offense if I am so inclined, but I will ignore them. Rather, I will try to keep in mind the future our species may hang upon our ability to love one another and cooperate across such lines.
It also hangs on our ability to be inspired, to dare and do great things. For me, and many like me, contemplation of the cosmos is a sirens song, an irresistible call to explore and expand our horizons. A call to something greater than ourselves. On Sunday, I will be watching in wonder.