In 2014 the FOX network revived the 1980s PBS documentary series hosted by Carl Sagan entitled “Cosmos”. This time around the host is renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
When I was growing up, like most Americans I watched Johnny Carson a lot. Because I did, I know that he was a big fan of Carl Sagan. Once he gave a copy of Carl Sagan’s book “Cosmos” to a child guest. He made jokes about how Sagan pronounced the word “billions”.
He also interviewed Sagan a couple of times. During one of the interviews, Sagan stated his reasoning in rejecting the authority of the Bible. He said that the Bible teaches that the universe is only 6,000 years old, and science has proven that it’s closer to 14 billion years old.
Sagan once stated:
“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”
While Sagan might have been a great astronomer, he was a lousy theologian. The Bible doesn’t describe God as an oversized white male. God is a spirit. (John 4:24) He is not confined to a body, to a location, or by time. As for the set of physical laws that govern the universe, former MIT physicist Gerald Schroeder says that these laws pretty much describe the god of the Bible.
Astrophysicist and creationist Hugh Ross is what we refer to as an Old Earth creationist, placing the age of the universe at the generally accepted 14 billion years and the solar system at about 4.5 billion years. On the other hand young earth creationist Kent Hovind interprets the Genesis account quite literally and believes that the universe is in fact 6,000 years old. Between these two views a wide range of opinions and interpretations of Genesis exist, and there is no consensus within the theological community as to which view is the only acceptable view.
The Gap Theory for example, sees an indeterminate length of time (potentially millions of years) between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 where the original earth fell into chaos, presumably from the rebellion of Lucifer. The Day-Age Theory states that because the Hebrew word for “day” (yôm) in the Genesis account of creation can also mean “age”, each day of creation could have taken place over an extended period of time. This would be compatible with Psalm 90:4 and I Peter 3:8, which state that with God a day is as a thousand years. The Apparent-Age theory states that since God created Adam as a mature adult, He could have created the universe with the appearance of age as well.
Regardless of which theory (if any) is correct, the point is that Sagan apparently never even considered the fact that there were various interpretations concerning the Genesis account of creation, and ascribed to the Bible something that it doesn’t say. This wasn’t his only mistake.
Sagan stated that there were two things required to sustain life as we know it – a star like our sun, and a planet like ours the right distance from the star. He theorized that since there were multiplied billions of planets meeting that criteria, there clearly must be intelligent life out there for us to contact. Along with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), an organization seeking to make contact with other lifeforms in the universe, he set out to prove the validity of his theory. Sagan even wrote a novel based on his views entitled “Contact”, which was made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. However, after decades of searching, their efforts produced absolutely zero results, or as our Latino friends say “nada grande”. It turns out Sagan’s “two things” was just a tad low. Today we know of over 100 things that are necessary to sustain life as we see it on Earth. As the number of the criteria increases, the number of planets meeting the criteria obviously dwindles exponentially.
Sagan also attributed “near-death” experiences to nothing more than memories of the trauma of childbirth, passing through the birth canal. He took these views from the research of Stanislav Grof, who conducted experiments with LSD and Shamanism, and their relation to psychology in what he called “transpersonal psychology”, and what his critics called pseudoscience. Maybe the fact that Sagan was an avid pot-smoker made him less skeptical of Grof’s work than others.
When Saddam Hussein set the Kuwaiti oil wells on fire Sagan said that it would lead to a nuclear winter. While the fires did devestate the environment within Kuwait, it had no effect on the weather.
Carl Sagan was a pop culture icon, and by most accounts his views on astronomy were respected within that field. But as you can see his views on matters outside of that field were often wrong. Even within the field he was wrong at times. The media is saturated with these pop culture icons who are frequently wrong about things they’re “experts” about, from Jim Cramer to Dr. Phil to Suze Orman to Dr. Oz. It’s a mistake to assume that because someone’s famous they must be right. Bear that in mind as you hear Tyson pontificate on all things cosmological.