Astronomer Carl Sagan’s theory of why man believes in God (“The Amniotic Universe,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1979) is a rather old-fashioned speculation, but with a few new twists. Sagan says our ideas of God and the afterlife are no more than remembrances of states we experienced as infants emerging from our mother’s womb.
Before elaborating on his birth theory, Sagan is quick to admit that anthropomorphism (which commonly means the idea that God was invented by man) is often simply a “desperate rationalist attempt to avoid a serious encounter with the mystical.” He also rejects as implausible the idea that religious experience is a mere evolutionary “wiring defect in the brain,” touched off in altered states of consciousness such as “near-death” and LSD experiences.
But Sagan’s own “new” anthropomorphic theory is weak and implausible in the extreme. He says he got his idea from a psychotherapist named Stanislav Grof. Grof asked patients undergoing LSD therapy to recollect memories of their birth, and subsequently he broke the birth experience down into four stages: initial restfulness and complacency, intense pain during the womb’s contractions, gradual passage into the light, and ultimate comfort, when the infant arrives in affectionate arms. Accepting Grof’s analysis, Sagan offers us his anthropomorphic guess: the relief experienced by the infant as he leaves the womb and passes into the light has created man’s notion of the kingdom of God, and the first figure who meets the newborn’s eyes, the midwife or the obstetrician or the father, forms man’s notion of God.
Has the astronomer, then, with one deft stroke invalidated the spiritual knowledge of Krsna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, and all other great religious thinkers? Not likely. Sagan’s attempt to explain it ‘all away as purely physiological phenomena may please the atheistically predisposed, but it leaves the more objective observer a bit less than satisfied.
Why does Sagan attempt to explain man’s noblest impulse—love of God—as no more than a remembrance of physical birth? Sagan admits to a frailty: he cannot reconcile belief in God with his belief in his own supremacy. “I would be delighted if there were life after death . . . but I am also a scientist . . .” Apparently he thinks that as a scientist, he has a right to demand that the Supreme Being come under his scrutiny, much as a butterfly comes under the microscope or a planet appears in the lens of a telescope.
But clearly the Supreme Personality of Godhead cannot be approached by such a mundane, materialistic method. So Sagan—rather than turn to standard transcendental processes for approaching God, as taught by the great religious thinkers—has created his own explanation. Sagan cannot accept that God exists in truth, and so he seeks an alternative, a reason why so many “good and great people” believe in Him. He thinks he’s found it in his birth theory, “thc only alternative, as far as I can see.” Is Lord Krsna, the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita; no more than a memory of an obstetrician? Are Jesus Christ’s prayers to God the Father just an inadvertent expression of thanks to the many midwives who deliver babies? Or perhaps it’s just Sagan who’s in illusion . . . forgetting God, creating vain “alternatives.”
Similar antireligious theories of God are discussed in the ancient Vedic scriptures. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna states, “I am never manifest to the foolish and unintelligent. For them I am covered by My deluding potency; and so the deluded world knows Me not, who am unborn and infallible……. Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” How can an ordinary human being make independent research into the nature of God? We are all beset with human limitations such as imperfect sensory perception and the tendency to make mistakes, to cheat, and to be illusioned. Because the existence of the Absolute is beyond our material vision, it is impossible for us to understand Him unless we take to one of the standard paths of spiritual purification.
When the atheist attempts to mock the Supreme—saying He is no more than the friendly father or obstetrician who welcomes the baby out of the womb—it is not actually the Supreme who is being described (and mocked and rejected), but an imagination of the Supreme created by the mental speculator. The transcendental position of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is not perceivable by the conditioned souls, who are accustomed to judging everything according to material vision and who cannot understand that the Supreme exists in His own abode, which is beyond that vision. Even if a scientist could count all the atoms in the universe, he would still not be able to understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Even if one tried to understand the Supreme for billions of years through the mental speculative process or by traveling at the speed of mind or the wind, still the Absolute Truth would remain inconceivable to him, because a materialistic person cannot measure the length and breadth of the Supreme Personality of Godhead’s unlimited existence.
We have to approach God by inquiring from realized saints and from the scriptures. This devotional method, bhakti-yoga, has itsown scientific standards, its own theoretical and practical aspects of perception, and only if one takes to them can he come to realize his relationship with the Supreme. For example, in this age the Vedic literatures strongly recommend the chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. If one chooses not to take to the bona fide process of understanding that which is spiritual, then he can never realize God. But whether one understands Him or not, nonetheless He is existing in His own spiritual potency, beyond the dabblings of the psychotherapist or the astronomer.
Carl Sagan is well known for his belief that superior life forms exist on other planets. He ends the exposition of his “birth theory” of God by predicting that “sooner or later [through space travel] we will find other intelligent beings.” Sagan believes that most of the creatures we will find in outer space will be more advanced than present humanity. “In some very real sense they will appear to us as godlike.” He concludes that perhaps these superior beings will give us superior knowledge of God and science. The Vedic sources also inform us that there is superior life on other planets within this material universe. At any rate, the astronomer’s concession that his own theory is human speculation and may one day be improved by knowledge from higher beings has a seeming modesty. But why isn’t Sagan modest enough to see that beyond the advanced intelligence that we may find in beings in outer space, there must be higher and higher stages of intelligence and ultimately the intelligence from which all intelligence is coming? This fundamental principle—that God is the original cause—is expressed in the Vedanta aphorism, “The Supreme is that from which everything is emanating.” Even the small fragment of the universe we see around us is so complex and highly organized that we must conclude there is a great intelligence or brain behind it. We may speculate on which theory—”big bang,” “steady state,” “oscillation”—best explains the universe, but whatever way it has come about, it has come about and is evolving due to a supreme will and intelligence.
Nor do we have to wait for millions of years in the vain hope that ultimate knowledge will come to us only through a chance encounter with higher beings. For thousands of years compassionate, ultimate wisdom has been coming from the Supreme Being to the suffering beings in this material world, and even today the transmission continues. Unfortunately, a scientist like Sagan is too busy straining his own imperfect brain and senses and mouthing “alternatives” to God—too busy to be a little humble and give his ears a chance.