Sagan on Science and Religion - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Defending Christianity

Sagan on Science and Religion


In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Carl Sagan

What in the world is the man talking about? Has he seriously, honestly never heard of the idea of "religious conversion"?

In my church we have at least several people every month who make a public declaration that they have converted to our faith and who are then admitted to membership. It's a routine occurrence.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Forum research and polling group, if you consider "protestant" to be a single religion, then 34% of Americans have a different religion today than the religion that they were brought up in. That is, if you don't count someone converting from, say, Baptist to Methodist or Episcopalian to Aseembly of God to be a "conversion", then still, 34% of Americans have changed their religion. They go on to say that if you divide protestants into three broad groups, "evangelical", "mainline", and "traditionally black", then 42% of Americans have changed their religion. (See Religious Switching.)

This doesn't count people who left their parents' faith and then returned. It also counts each person just once, even if they have changed their religion multiple times.

The Pew Forum study is only counting people who have changed their religious beliefs at the most fundamental level, who have switched from being Catholics to Buddhists or from atheist to Protestant. To take Sagan's analogy, this would be like a scientist being convinced to switch from accepting the theory of relativity to rejecting it, or from thinking that a unified field theory is possible to thinking it isn't. I don't have statistics, but I suspect that a lot less than 32% of scientists have changed their minds about relativity or atomic theory or any other truly big scientific question.

How many people have, when presented with a convincing argument, changed their minds about a lesser religious question? This would be more comparable to the sort of changes of mind that Sagan is discussing in science. How many used to think that Saul really met the ghost of Samuel but now think that what he saw must have been something else; or used to think that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews but are now convinced that it was Apollos, etc. If 32 to 42% have changed their minds about the most fundamental questions, I'd guess that quite a few have changed their minds about lesser questions. Personally, I can think of a number of theological questions on which I've been convinced to change my mind over the years. Like I've been convinced to switch from the Pre-Tribulation Rapture theory to Post-Trib, and from rejecting the Q theory of Gospel authorship to accepting it.

Sagan is, I presume, trying to prove that science is rational and religion is irrational, that scientists are open-minded while religious people draw their conclusions first and look at the facts second. But his argument is patently absurd. He makes a statement of fact -- people never change their religious beliefs -- that is easily proven to be wrong by the briefest look at the evidence. Apparently Sagan drew his conclusions about the nature of religion first and never got around to looking at the facts.

© 2015 by Jay Johansen


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