Reading Notes: Marilynne Robinson and Carl Sagan

Note to Regular tNPs Readers (you hardy few!): I have less time than I’d like to write for the blog these days, partly due to work pressures, partly due to an increased focus on other writing projects. I don’t want to be neglectful, however, so I’ve decided to repurpose some of my reading notes from the past year or two, in case anyone is interested. They’re bound to be a little rough, so caveat lector. This is a first installment.

  • When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
  • The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience collects the transcripts of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures (always given on the topic of “natural theology”), complete with beautifully printed images of the slides he shared while lecturing. As one might judge from the write-ups by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on the back of the volume, the book is being re-packaged these days as a relevant text for foot soldiers of the so-called New Atheism.

I think it’s appropriate to be at least a little suspicious of this co-opting. When Sagan talks about astronomy and science in general, and the history of science, he really is compelling. His sense of awe and commitment to inquiry are infectious. But I wonder if his aim isn’t different than the aims of Dawkins and Harris et al. Sagan isn’t really interested in snuffing out any sense of, or longing for, the divine in his audience, but to deliver a lesson in epistemological humility.

That said, the book frankly bores when Sagan ceases to lecture on science per se and moves on to dismantle the Mr. Potato Head arguments historically forwarded to (supposedly) demonstrate the existence of God. Anyone who’s sat through a basic Philosophy course in college and paid any amount of attention will know with what relative ease this may be done. But of course religion, whatever it is and for all its accretions over the millennia, is (like life itself) not founded upon or honestly reducible to rational argument or experimental demonstration.

The title of Sagan’s book recalls the American philosopher William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was similarly drawn from his own Gifford Lectures, delivered eighty-some years earlier. These two books are not, despite the implication, arguing from diametrically opposed positions. Both are open and curious. But I think James’s book has aged better than Sagan’s (which suffers from scientific progress in his own field as well as from an excess of Cold War hand-wringing) and is, both literally and figuratively, more substantial.


Speaking of science. In one of the essays from her uneven but often compelling collection, Marilynne Robinson writes: “Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom.”

Sagan, I’m sure, would agree with the bare statement, though he may disagree on what exactly “our problem” is. For Sagan, perhaps, the big problem is our tendency to engage in tribal warfare, which in a nuclear era entails the risk of destroying all life on earth as so much collateral damage. In Robinson’s view, however, the trouble with us is that we so often “turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired.”

Compared to Sagan’s more focused concern, Robinson’s is vague and metaphysically loaded, but she spends most of her book arguing, in a roundabout way, that this fuzzier diagnosis is the only really satisfying one. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made here between collective and individual ends. Solving Sagan’s problem would remove a mortal threat to the species as a whole, which is no small thing. But if you grant Robinson’s diagnosis, perhaps you’ll concede that successful management of it (she doesn’t envision a permanent solution) would probably contribute more to our individual self-knowledge and joy in life than the eternal bunkering of the arsenals of decayed superpowers.


In another of her essays Robinson writes: “My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said.” It strikes me that so much of Marilynne Robinson’s work, fiction and non-fiction, can be summed up in this single sentence.

Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote a blog post for The American Scholar, titled ‘My Atheism: An Interim Report,’ in which he came to the same conclusion: that we need religious language in order to say the most important things (he actually invokes Robinson’s Gilead in his post). There is a real divide between persons, Deresiewicz says (I’m paraphrasing), but it’s not between believers and non-believers, it’s between people who imagine that truth is only a matter of factual statement about material phenomena and people who believe that there is an inward truth too, inaccessible to material investigation.

He tells one of his more religiously-inclined literature students: “You and I understand what a lot of the people around here don’t, that books are temples of the spirit.” He clarifies: “I meant the human spirit, he undoubtedly heard me as meaning the spirit of God, but we were taking different routes, I knew, to the same destination.”

There’s something to this, I think. Perhaps we might say that there are the Marilynne Robinsons of the world on the one hand, and (though it might be a bit unfair to him) the Carl Sagans on the other. This is not necessarily a division between “believers” and “atheists.” The late Christopher Hitchens, such a charming and exuberant blasphemer, might plausibly be a Robinson, as are most religious persons or persons (like Deresiewicz) raised in religious families. The difference that counts – and I see it all the time among my own friends, acquaintances and colleagues – is between those for whom stories are the most important thing in the world, and those for whom they are mere decoration.


1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

One response to “Reading Notes: Marilynne Robinson and Carl Sagan

  1. Thank you for this. Very astute.

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