Why Carl Sagan is considered a ‘good’ atheist

There is no doubt that the new atheists have ruffled the feathers of both religious believers and the accommodationists. But since the new atheists are on solid ground in their rejection of god, with science and logic undeniably supporting their position, the opposition to them often takes the form of chiding them for being supposedly belligerent in expressing their views. They sometimes get asked, in effect, why can’t you be more like that nice Mr. Carl Sagan and speak more softly about your skepticism and not offend believers?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer at Cornell University, a prolific author, host of TV shows, and a well-known popularizer of science who in his day was easily the most publicly recognizable face of science. He had an easy and engaging manner and the ability to explain science in laymen’s terms.

While he was clearly not a religious person, his views on religion and the way he expressed them are frequently brought up in discussions on the best way to deal with religious people. He is frequently held up as the model for a ‘good’ disbeliever, someone who can speak of his non-belief without antagonizing religious believers, in contrast to the supposedly unruly and uncivil ‘new atheists’.

Consider what Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and also an atheist, said recently when reviewing Sagan’s book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist, which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Sagan’s tone is always measured and humble, and yet he delivers (metaphorically) mortal blow after mortal blow to the religious in his audience.

Carl Sagan made the same strong arguments against god and religion the new atheists do, something that Pigliucci also concedes. And yet, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other new atheists are invariably described as bad atheists, while Sagan is classified as a good atheist. What is the difference? What is it exactly that makes him ‘measured and humble’?

Picking up on my earlier post about the good atheist/bad atheist split, there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a ‘good’ atheist.

Pigliucci suggests that a ‘measured and humble’ tone is one quality. But what makes an atheist ‘measured and humble’? Is it a willingness to concede that science and religion are compatible? This means a good atheist is one who is also an accommodationist. A bad atheist is one who isn’t willing to make this concession. But as one who cheerfully wears the mantle of a bad atheist, I don’t see why we should concede this point, since we think that at the heart of religious beliefs lies a deeply anti-scientific core. We don’t disagree with accommodationism in order to be unpleasant. We do so because we think accommodationism is wrong.

Another way to be classified as a ‘good atheist’ is to declare yourself to be an agnostic, the way that Charles Darwin did. Sagan has similarly said, “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.” Sagan seems to have bought into the notion that atheists are certain that there is no god, saying in an interview, “An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”

But as I have written before, that attitude reveals a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes atheism. What is true is that an atheist realizes that one cannot be logically certain there is no god. But at the same time he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They see no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason.

As far as I can tell, Sagan (and Darwin before him) was as functionally certain that no god exists as I or any other atheist, whatever he might have chosen to call himself. But religious people are more comfortable with people who call themselves agnostics because it is assumed that agnostics think that belief in god is plausible, thus making them accommodationists too. Thus a claim of agnosticism does not pose a direct challenge to their religious beliefs.

Is that all that distinguishes a ‘good’ atheist from a bad one? I think that there is a deeper reason that I will explore in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified

Mr. Deity explains why Jesus rode a donkey for his big entrance into Jerusalem.


  1. articulett says

    To me, accommodationism feels dishonest--like I’m enabling magical thinking or helping people fool themselves. I find religion more harmful than beneficial, and I want no part of the lie.

    I want religionists to stay in the closet they want other cultists to stay in-- the one they’d like to shove the “mean atheists” into. If they don’t mention their supernatural beliefs, I won’t be tempted to reveal how delusional I find their beliefs. That’s fair, isn’t it? I feel bullied when my silence on the subject is interpreted as assent or deference to an idea I want no part of.

    I’m willing to accommodate religionists to the exact same extent they are willing to accommodate those with conflicting beliefs. I don’t think respect, rights, or privileges should be allotted based on the supernatural entities a person claims to believe in. Freedom of religion requires freedom FROM the religions you don’t adhere to. And I don’t adhere to any of them.

  2. kural says


    Also consider the times Carl lived in. It was many years before the religious fanaticism that characterises the present times.

  3. says

    Since I did not know what the word meant I had to look it up and found this -- The term atheism originated from the Greek ????? (atheos), meaning “ungodly” or “deserted by the gods,” which was derogatively applied to anyone thought to believe in false gods, no gods, or doctrines that stood in conflict with established religions. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to self-identify as “atheist” appeared in the 18th century. Today, about 2.3% of the world’s population describes itself as atheist, while a further 11.9% is described as nontheist.[4] Between 64% and 65% of Japanese describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers,[5][6] and up to 48% in Russia.[5] The percentage of such persons in European Union member states ranges between 6% (Italy) and 85% (Sweden).[5]

  4. David says

    I prefer the term Secular Humanist, it shows what I do believe in, and not what I don’t believe. You can be an atheist but also a racist, or a sexist, or hate gay people etc.

  5. says

    I guess I can consider myself as an Atheist not because I reject the Idea of an Almighty divine being, but because I am convinced that one doesn’t need to have what many consider as God to become sane and morally good with yourself and with others. But, I believe any person, whatever their belief may be, must be that open minded to accept that not any party is really certain and can be certain on what really is the beginning of it all to be considered a good atheist.

    Take for example a conversion between a religious man and a nonbeliever. One would ask “if it l started with the big bang, who made the galaxies and everything around it?” Of course the non believer wouldn’t be so sure he has the logical answer to this. But in return, he then will ask the religious one, “So if you’re saying it’s God, then who made God?”. Now it becomes the religious one’s time to be uncertain of a logical answer. Here both parties fall on a dead end, but what a good atheist will do is to accept these facts but stay with what he believes still.

  6. Dashing Leech says

    What many fail to understand is that the New Atheism is largely a response to the aggressiveness of theism in the last 15 years or so, starting with the religious right takeover of the GOP and aggressive efforts to inject ID into schools such as outlined in The Wedge document. The ties between religion and shooting abortion doctors, terrorism (9/11), anti-contraception and the spread of AIDS, anti-homosexual bigotry, anti-atheist bigotry, faith-based initiatives, and abstinence-only sex education are further examples of the aggression of theists of late.

    I suspect that in the light of these activities, Carl Sagan would be as “offensive” as any of the new atheists in his attempts to defend secularism and critical thought.

  7. tonya says

    interesting post and video
    I consider myself to be agnostic. I believe in the presence of a God but I choose not to practice my religion, purely because I haven’t got the time.
    I like one of the previous comments re “secular humanist” it describes me. I am a good person and do good deeds and respect others.
    tonya:sports flooring
    commercial flooring

  8. says

    I prefer the term Secular Humanist, it shows what I do believe in, and not what I don’t believe. You can be an atheist but also a racist, or a sexist, or hate gay people etc.

  9. says

    I’ve always been a big fan of Mr. Sagan and have read several of his books. It is interesting to observe how highly educated scientists deal with the issue of the existance of God. You would think from a rational standpoint that they can’t, for where is the proof? Nonetheless, as one delves deeper into the mysteries of the universe, it often becomes apparent that there is some motive force, which could be called “God”. What Mr. Sagan believed personally and what he professed publically may be at odds, I don’t know for sure. But, I felt that in his writings that there was a certain awe-inspiring respect that he had for the order found in nature. Perhaps this was his own understanding of a supreme force or entity.

  10. says

    Wow. Layers within layers. Peel the onion. It’s all in perception: 1 person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.

    Actually, we lost the war, were thrown in jail (“Hall of Souls”), and our experimental rehabilitation to pacify us is for us to repeatedly inhabit human avatars on Earth in the hopes the repeated exposure to religion/pacifist ideas takes hold.

    Those prisoners of war that are pacified are “rewarded” with Heaven, those that aren’t pacified…well, oops.

    The set timeline for the experiment draws to a close and time for analysis of what worked and what didn’t.

  11. says

    Incidentally, it was only yesterday that I was involved in a debate on good atheist/bad atheist split, yes the writer may have a number of followers that may agree with is view because as he previously stated there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a ‘good’ atheist.

  12. says

    I believe that regardless of belief we should all be able to respect each other and voice our views. It does however concern me if the day were to come where there were more atheist then believers. The fundamental need to know there is a reason for right and an ultimate deterrent to wrong is the only thing that keeps us from going completely mad.

  13. says

    We should never forget to believe in GOD and to thank him for who we are now.

    We are nothing without GOD.

    But atheist doesn’t seems to be bad, it’s just so happen he/she don’t believe in existence of GOD.

  14. says

    It is understandable that scientists don’t believe what they can’t see and I understand this point of view. I have never been a religious person myself, but do believe that it is important for people to have a certain belief in whatever it might be, otherwise none of this here on this planet would make any sense.

    I don’t fault anyone for what they believe or don’t believe in, maybe it might work for everyone on this plane to simply accept that each and every one of us has a different point of view and be tolerant of each other.

    It is understandable that more and more people are becoming atheists, I wouldn’t categorize any of them into good or bad, it is simply our crazy times and the hopelessness. Unfortunately, religions have not helped in this respect, especially since most of them are quite hypocritical. This has always been the fact for me for not getting involved. But I do believe in more than what meets the eye, even though not everything can be proven. That to me makes our existence interesting and worthwhile.

    Of course religions can’t change people’s hearts or morality, being good and kind to others comes from one’s own understanding and compassion for our fellow human beings.

    I personally believe that most people are basically good and only their surroundings and circumstances play a factor of what they become and/or believe in.

    Great posts and interesting sharing.

  15. says

    While I am not religious and never have been in the sense of what certain religious groups believe, I do believe in the higher good. I think people who are atheists have lost hope because of some fanatical religious people, trying to force their belief upon them. This I completely understand and have fought against all my life. Especially those hypocritical believers, who think since they belief or go to church and what they do after that is all ok, since they are now redeemed! In my opinion that is not true, nor is it correct and for that reason, I respect people who are at least honest and tell me they don’t believe in anything.

    I used to be like that, but later in my life noticed that there has to be something I can believe in and after 50 years of searching for my purpose, I found my reason for existing.

    Therefore, what I am trying to say is, that everybody has the right to believe or not believe in something or somebody, and neither should be too critical of the other person. While there are lots of misguided people out there, but there are lots of good people as well. Therefore, none of us should judge anyone, or any group too easily, but look behind the reason for such actions and/or beliefs.

  16. says

    I remember Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech. It was a very inspirational and have a very important message for every human. I think the most important thing we can do is to respect their beliefs same with other people and their religion. I think the world will live in a better place.

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