Someone reading Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot.'

Someone reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot.’ Photo courtesy lovelyemy via Flickr Commons.

Astronomer Carl Sagan is widely credited with inspiring a generation of scientists—and with good reason.

In fact, when I recently asked Sagan’s first doctoral student David Morrison what Sagan’s legacy is, Morrison replied: “Carl Sagan inspired a generation of scientists.”

But Sagan’s humanistic words and actions also inspired a generation of other people to better understand themselves and others, and to work for a better world. Sagan was an agnostic, and openly shared his skepticism about religious claims—but he also offered a positive, vibrant vision for a humanistic society.

When Fox-TV launches the reboot of “Cosmos” tonight, a new generation will be inspired by Sagan’s legacy. To celebrate, I’ve compiled (out of many others) five of my favorite quotes from Sagan that represent his humanistic worldview. Please share your favorites in the comments.

May his words inspire you to love more deeply, find meaning in your own smallness, strive for understanding, and do more to help others along the way.

1. A reminder that every person deserves dignity—even those who disagree with us: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” —Cosmos

2. A reminder of our own smallness, and a call for humility: “Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” —Cosmos

3. A reminder of the importance of love: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” —Contact

4. A reminder that humans need to work together to solve our problems and expand the circle to see one another as more alike than different: “Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group… Groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together [is] surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.” —Cosmos

5. A reminder of our place on the Pale Blue Dot: Sagan’s writing was rife with reminders of human interdependence, and frequently spoke to the importance of working together to improve our world. This excerpt from Pale Blue Dot may be Sagan’s most popular quote—and among the most compelling, poetic, and succinct expressions of the Humanist conviction that it is up to human beings to care for our world and for one another. The world would be a better place if we all remembered this message more often:

From [the] distant vantage point [of deep space], the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every 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 lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

23 Comments

  1. “…there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”

    Actually, given that this pale blue dot is optimal — UNIQUELY optimal, both in terms of what it contains and where it located — for human life to survive and thrive, a rational person might be forgiven for thinking that “help from somewhere else to save us” might not be so impossible after all. Perhaps this kind of help, for example:

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

    • I’m down for forgiving people for thinking that the elements contained on Earth are unique.

      Forgiven, too, for thinking that Earth’s position from a star similar to ours could be unique in a universe where “billions” is an exponent to the number of possible stars and worlds.

      Hopefully we can move on from a mutual understanding that they aren’t.

    • @DOC,
      “whoever believes in Him should not perish…” (John 3:16)

      The Cosmos functions with absolutely no evidence of any gods.
      We all perish. Case closed.

      Now it is time to put away the Bible and the Quran and start seeking answers
      in more promising, less stifling places:
      science, philosophy, art, literature and elsewhere.

      • Rob T,
        I hope that you have done the research to know that a statement like yours is as close minded as the one you are trying to defeat. For the research in the name of more promising, less stifling places, you call them, are the direct answer your looking for. Because we know through deductive research as you would call it, that all of the science,philosophy, art. came from the very thing you are denying. For if we all new from the beginning that there was no purpose in life, why would we be earnestly be looking for it.

        • @Jkirby153,
          “if we all new from the beginning that there was no purpose in life, why would we be earnestly be looking for it.”

          #1. who said there was no purpose to life? No me.

          #2. why would existence of a God answer that question?

          #3. the fact that you are looking for a purpose indicates you need to construct one. Why not declare it for yourself? Who needs God – which is itself invisible to you?

          #4. Who is to say God is not your own internal construction anyway?

  2. All due respect humanism is the poison of humanity. Only faith centered centered around what Christ did at the Cross and the Power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, and souls can ever change anything. Anything that is of our own efforts, and humanist anything including psychology is doomed to fail and will doom our souls to hell.

    • @Rev. Katherine Appello,

      “And as for these enemies of mine who didn’t want me to be their king–bring them and EXECUTE THEM right here in front of me.’” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

      The “Parable of the 12 Minas” contains perhaps the most dangerous commands in the Bible (it appears to have been Hitler’s favorite)
      “I see myself as a soldier for Christ” – Hitler, Mein Kampf

      What kind of God could utter such evil words?
      What kind of salvation could ever be achieved by despicable words?

      The idea of human sacrifice – let alone on ‘a cross’ – is primitive nonsense.
      The Iron-age scapegoating theory of spilling innocent blood to redeem something is disgraceful.

      And so, Your absolutist claim that “Only faith centered around Christ” can change anything – and your outrageous assertion that our own efforts to think clearly outside of such doctrine will only “doom ourselves to Hell” is exactly the blood curdling totalitarianism which must be rejected on its face.

      You have no evidence for any of it. I could just as breezily claim we must reject science because it flies in the face of The Magic Leprechaun.
      Enough already with religion stifling science and celebrating ignorance!

    • After all the dignity of human existence is not really worthy of consideration nor is respect for the lives of others and finding the greater good in humanity. It is all poison, only your sectarian admonishments should matter.

      Your views are unworthy of any kind of respect. It is simply narcissistic nonsense told to give yourself an elevated feeling of worth over others. No good can ever come from it and it leaves our society a much worse place for it.

    • REV. KAT, ‘anything of our own efforts…is doomed to fail’ ???
      that is ridiculously bleak. especially since religion itself is clearly man-made. just because you have given up on people doesn’t mean everyone else shoude

    • You don’t need God to understand “Be excellent to each other” or “never stop asking questions”. In fact they work better without one.

      Christians are the most morally relativistic people out there. Its easy because they gladly outsource their moral judgments to authority figures rather than take responsibility for themselves. Always looking for hard and fast rules to apply to others and excuses for themselves. Everything under the sun is permitted if you claim to do it in God’s name. Murder, hatred, greed, hubris….

  3. Love the work of Sagan. Religious apologists have a tough road: making rational ideas that are not so, according to evidence. As Sagan said, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’ and somehow second and third-hand centuries-old stories of ‘miracles’ witnessed by bronze age nomads don’t qualify. Science is imperfect but it’s the best we have. Sagan was wonderful.

  4. This has given me opportunity to revisit Astronomy and Carl Sagan writings and his lectuers and Interviews again. I must admit, like today’s so called conservatives I also complain about high taxes. But similarity stops there. I would take the Carl Sagan legacy and liberalism over today’s brand of conservatism in my sleep.

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