Carl Sagan and Contact: Defiance of God and promotion of ET
Dr Carl Edward Sagan (1934–96) was a US astrophysicist and astronomer, renowned for his popular science broadcasts and writings. From the 1950s he was an adviser to NASA and vigorously promoted the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Born in New York to a Russian Jewish family, he rejected religion from an early age and throughout his life. He died of pneumonia brought on by myelodysplasia1 at age 62.
He is probably best known worldwide for three things:
- His epigram “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be”, which encapsulated his atheistic worldview.
- His 13-part TV series Cosmos, said to have been seen by over 500 million people in more than 60 countries.2
His science-fiction novel Contact,3 published in 1985 and then made into a movie with the help of his third wife, Ann Druyan, and released in 1997. It is a story about Ellie Arroway, an atheist scientist (played by Jodie Foster in the film) searching for signs of extraterrestrial life via radio signals from space. Biographer Keah Davidson calls the novel “Sagan’s most intense effort to defend SETI”, and Ellie “a thinly disguised version of Carl Sagan”.4
In the Special Features at the end of the DVD of the film, Ann Druyan says, “Carl’s and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like. But it would also have the tension inherent between religion and science.” However, Sagan goes far beyond a mere “debate between faith and reason” and uses the story (in both book and film) to express his intense personal antagonism to the Bible, God, and Christianity. In fact, these could be termed ‘the villain’ in Sagan’s story!
In this article we shall concentrate on these aspects of Contact and supply some biblical and scientific answers in a form that readers can click on and access immediately. Finally we shall ask whether Sagan was honest in his portrayal of his characters and the issues.
Pi and other ‘problems’ in the Bible
In chapter 1 of the book, we are introduced to pi (π), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Ellie’s seventh-grade teacher says, “ … π was about 22/7, about 3.1416 … it was a decimal that went on and on for ever and ever without repeating the pattern of numbers” (p. 18). Ellie asks, “How could anyone know that the decimals went on for ever and ever?” This gives Sagan his first swipe at the Bible; he comments: “According to the Bible, the ancient Hebrews had apparently thought that π was exactly equal to three” (p. 18). (For our answer see Does the Bible say pi equals 3.0?)
In chapter 2, nine-year-old Ellie attends a Bible class at a church, identified as “one of the respectable Protestant denominations, untainted by disorderly evangelism” (p. 27). The Bible is gratuitously described by her father as being “half barbarian history, half fairy tales”. Young Ellie’s problems with the Bible include “that there were two mutually contradictory stories of Creation in the first two chapters of Genesis” (see Genesis contradictions?), light and days before the sun (see Light, life and the glory of God and How could the days of Genesis 1 be literal if the Sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?), who Cain’s wife could have been (see Chapter 8: Who was Cain’s wife?), and the fact that the Bible-class leader did not discuss the inappropriate actions of Lot,5 Abraham,6 and Jacob7 and Esau (p. 27).
Then in the New Testament, the two different genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are described as “a transparent attempt to fit the Isaianic prophesy after the event—cooking the data, it was called in chemistry lab” (p. 28). (See Reliability of the birth narratives.) In one Bible study, Ellie asks how the maidservants of the daughter of Pharaoh knew that the baby Moses was a Hebrew child, but the teacher was too embarrassed to say the word “circumcision” in response (pp. 27–28).8
All these appear in the book but only the question about “Who was Mrs Cain?” is rehashed in the film. The rest is replaced by Ellie asking her father, Ted, if there are people living on other planets, to which he replies, “If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”
In the film there is a graphic sequence where Ted has a heart attack and Ellie rushes upstairs to get her father’s medicine, but it’s too late! A minister of religion then tells Ellie that she just has to accept Ted’s death as God’s will. She replies, “We should’ve kept the medicine in the downstairs bathroom, then I could have gotten to it sooner.”
Comment: This is not only a put-down of a minister of religion, but is also Sagan’s way of suggesting that God’s will is all about the nasty things in life, but it can be circumvented by as simple a matter as keeping one’s medicine handy!
Ellie, as an adult, becomes the Director of Project Argus, a search for extraterrestrial intelligence using the multi-linked radio telescopes in New Mexico. In due course she and her team detect a “Message” in the form of a sequence of prime numbers coming from outer space in the vicinity of the star Vega, 26 light years away.9 Manipulation of this Message produces a screen clip of the first ever TV broadcast on Earth, which was the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games by Adolf Hitler. This is accepted as being the Vegans’ method of saying “Hello, we heard you” (p. 99), i.e. by their recording the broadcast (which took 26 years to reach them), amplifying it, and playing it back (which has taken a further 26 years to reach Earth).
Further analysis of the Message produces an instruction manual and the plans for a “Machine” for Earth-dwellers to travel into space. All of this occasions considerable dialogue in the story as to whether the Message is from God or Satan. Sagan also compares the mutually contradictory beliefs of Christianity and other religions about the origin of the universe, as an excuse for skepticism (p. 165). (See Christian Apologetics Questions and Answers)
Throughout the story, Sagan has Ellie interacting with a Christian character, Palmer Joss, called (somewhat ambiguously or perhaps inclusively) both “Father” and “Reverend” in the film. On the day Ellie and Joss meet, she expresses her hope of there being intelligent life on at least one of “the 400 billion stars” in our galaxy. Joss replies “If there wasn’t, it’d be an awful waste of space.” That evening they have a one-night stand, and while they are in bed Joss tells Ellie how he met God!10
Surprisingly, in a later conversation with Joss, Ellie, the atheistic skeptic, says, “I am a Christian in the sense that I find Jesus Christ to be an admirable historical figure … but I think Jesus was only a man. … I don’t think he was God or the son of God or the grandnephew of God” (pp. 171–72). (See Is Jesus Christ the Creator God?). Was Sagan trying to “muddy the waters” with this comment?—because Ellie then claims to be an agnostic: “When I say I am an agnostic I mean that the evidence isn’t in. There isn’t compelling evidence that God exists—at least your kind of god—and there isn’t compelling evidence that he doesn’t” (p. 173). (See Does God exist? Chapter 1: Does God exist? and Atheism, agnosticism and humanism: godless religions—Questions and Answers.)
The Machine is built and a team of five is selected to go on the first trip to look for alien life (in the movie it’s just one person—Ellie). In the book the Selection Committee asks Ellie her opinion of “the world population crisis”. She replies, “Overpopulation is why I’m in favour of homosexuality and a celibate clergy. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity towards fanaticism” (p. 245). This may be just a snide remark by Sagan, or a hit at biblical morality (See Homosexuality: What are the biblical and scientific issues?)
In the film the Committee asks Ellie, “If you should meet these Vegans and you had only one question to ask of them, what would it be?” She replies, “How did you do it—how did you evolve? … That more than any other question is the one personally I would like to have answered.”
In the book Palmer Joss tells Ellie about his near-death experience (pp. 138–39) as evidence that he had “seen God face to face”. Ellie easily demolishes this argument:
“You saw a radiance with a human form that you took to be God. But there was nothing in the experience that told you the radiance made the universe or laid down moral law. The experience is an experience. You were deeply moved by it, no question. But there are other possibilities … like birth. Birth is rising through a long, dark tunnel into a brilliant light. … Maybe, if you almost die, the odometer gets set back to zero for a moment” (p. 252).
Ellie then brings up the matter of judgment. She says to Joss:
“Your religion assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they’ll behave. You want people to believe in God so they will obey the law. That’s the only means that occurs to you: a strict secular police force, and the threat of punishment by an all-seeing God for whatever the police overlook. You sell human beings short” (p. 253).
In another of their many discussions about God, Ellie says to Joss, “Either an all-powerful mysterious God created the universe or we created God so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone.” See Is Belief in God a case of Christian wish fulfillment?.)
In the film, the site of the Machine is ‘the best show in town’ and a crowd of locals take part in a noisy poke-fun carnival with much singing and dancing, car-revving, etc., and people made up to look like Jesus, Elvis or astronauts. A sign says, “Jesus is an alien”. An open-air preacher with shoulder-length blond hair glares at Ellie and shouts, “Are these scientists the kind of people that you want talking to your God for you?” as she drives by, and a choir dressed in blue robes sings “Hail to Vega” to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
When the Machine is about to be launched, it is destroyed—by a malfunction in the book, but by the long-haired blond preacher with a bomb in the film. That night the local news channel plays a video which the preacher has left as a suicide note in which he says, “What we do we do for the goodness of all mankind. This won’t be understood, not now, but the apocalypse to come will vindicate our faith.”
A second Machine is built and those selected go aboard. This one leaves Earth and travels through “a series of wormholes” in space and lands on an idyllic beach with palm trees beside a beautiful calm sea, with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s (no space suits are needed), at a place “somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy”.
Here Ellie meets her deceased father, Ted, “It was as if her father had these many years ago died and gone to Heaven, and finally—by this unorthodox route—she had managed to rejoin him” (p. 357). The locality is again referred to as Heaven on p. 362. Ted, along with other extraterrestrials (this is a hint that he is an alien in the guise of her father), is engaged in diverting material from a black hole with mass of five million suns to Cygnus A, 600 million light years away, and thus “making Cygnus A” … “to prevent space from getting more and more empty as the aeons pass” (p. 364–65).
Sagan here adds: “If Cygnus A was 600 million light years away, then astronomers on Earth … were seeing it as it had been 600 million years ago” (p. 365). (For our response to this evolutionary assumption, see How can we see distant stars in a young universe?)
Ellie asks her father, “I want to know about your myths, your religions. What fills you with awe?” He replies that in pi, in the ten-to-the-twentieth-power place, the randomly varying digits disappear, and for an unbelievably long time there’s nothing but ones and zeros, which constitute a message in eleven dimensions from someone in the universe. Asked about its meaning, by Ellie, Ted replies, “We’re still working on it” (pp. 368, 373).
Comment: Sagan has used an intelligent but non-personal mathematical agency to replace the concept of a personal God who (according to the Bible) is not only Creator but also Judge of all mankind. (For a perspective on the heavenly dimensions, see The Gospel in time and space.) Also, “Heaven” is a Christian concept, as in The Lord’s Prayer “Our Father who art in Heaven … ” (Matthew 6:9), so why would an atheist like Sagan invoke Heaven? Is he perhaps aiming to trivialize it to extinction?11 And if his worldview actually allows for such a place as Heaven to exist, is tertiary mathematics what exercises the inhabitants? (See Did God create man to be an eternal companion for His son Jesus Christ?.)
Ellie now returns to Earth. But wait! What happened to that one most important question that Ellie told the Selection Committee she personally wanted to have answered more than any other by any Vegan she met—about how they evolved? Why didn’t Sagan have his character, Ellie, ask it when she had the opportunity? Presumably because then he would have had to have his Ted character answer it. With no evidence as to how life got started on Earth, Sagan obviously had no explanation as to how it could ever get started in space! See Did life come from outer space? and Origin of Life Questions and Answers.)
Back on Earth
Back on Earth, Ellie (along with the four other astronauts in the book) finds that the 24-hour space round-trip had lasted only 20 minutes of Earth time (p. 375). During this time, as far as those involved on Earth had experienced, the Machine had merely malfunctioned without leaving the ground. Ellie now finds that 18 hours of video footage she had taken of the Vegan localities, including the beach, had been erased by the time-changing magnetic fields of the wormholes. There is thus no proof of her story, other than her own word that it happened, and she is accused of making it all up.
In the book at Ellie’s debriefing session, her interrogator says,
“ … you get visited by your dearly departed father, who tells you that he and his friends have been building the universe … Our Father Who art in Heaven? This is straight religion. Not only do you claim that your father came back from the dead, you actually expect us to believe that he made the universe” (p. 379–80).
The reference to “Our Father who art in Heaven” suggests that Sagan intended this to be a blasphemous parody of the account in Genesis of God’s creation of the universe. A further hint is the interrogator’s reference to Ellie’s claims as “the biggest cock-and-bull story of all time” (p. 380). (See Could recent creation be true, but not Christianity? .)
This conversation and any mention of Heaven were omitted from the film. Instead there is a Senate Enquiry where Ellie’s story is said to be either a self-reinforcing delusion, or a hoax. A speaker invokes Occam’s Razor to show that a hoax is a better explanation than Ellie’s faith in her experience.12 (See Occam’s Razor and creation/evolution.)
Asked by the Senate to withdraw her testimony and concede that this journey to the centre of the galaxy never took place, Ellie gives an impassioned speech:
“I can’t.13 I had an experience. I can’t prove it or explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am, tells me that it was real. I did something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how real and precious we all are, a vision that tells us we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone. I wish I could get everyone, if even for a moment, to feel that awe and humility and the hope. That continues to be my wish.”
Comment: At first glance it seems surprising that Sagan would put such a ‘mirror image’ of Christian testimony into the mouth of his atheist scientist—until we remember how powerful a contribution Christian testimony is to the preaching of the Gospel. Sagan was a pragmatist and knew that testimony to an experience trumps conjecture about a theory 24/7. He therefore used this powerful spiritual-warfare technique to substantiate, not the blessings of life in Christ, but the omnipotence and omnipresence of alien life. In doing this, he contradicted his own creed that “Science asks us to take nothing on faith, to be wary of our penchant for self-deception, to reject anecdotal evidence.”14
In chapter 23, Ellie says to Palmer Joss, “If God wanted us to know that he existed, why didn’t he send us an unambiguous message?” (p. 418). Well He did! It’s called the Bible. So what is the “unambiguous message of the Bible? There are many parts to it, like “God is love” (1 John 4:16); and “God is light” (1 John 1:5); and “You shall be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16); and “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). We now see why Sagan set out to undermine credibility in the Bible, through young Ellie’s Bible ‘problems’ in chapter 2.
The End—in the book and the film
The book ends with the revelation of the ultimate Message deep within pi. In base 11 arithmetic, the numbers could be written out entirely as zeros and ones, which when reassembled into a square raster,15 form “a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in a field of noughts” (p. 429). This is followed by Sagan’s dénouement of his story:
“The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. … In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. … there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.
The circle had closed.
She found what she had been searching for” (p. 429).
Comment: Sagan’s alter ego, Ellie, was too easily satisfied. So she had found a circle within the digits of pi (which after all only exists because of the properties of a circle). Is this what life and the universe are all about? Did tertiary mathematics (whether hypothetical or factual) also satisfy Carl Sagan, whose lifelong maxim was “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be”? He could, instead, have had a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of the universe, Judge of all mankind, and Saviour of all who put their faith and trust in Him.
Not surprisingly, none of the above is included in the film. Perhaps the task of manipulating the digits of pi in base 11 to the 20th power so that they formed a rasterized circle was too demanding for the film makers, without their “cooking the data” as it’s called in chemistry lab. Instead, in the film, in case you missed it, or had forgotten it, or had not realized its vital significance, Sagan repeats for the third time (previously uttered by Ted and then by Joss) his only ‘evidence’ (in 429 book pages and 2½ hours of film) for the existence of extraterrestrial life. He has Ellie say to a group of children as the very last words of the film,
“The universe is a pretty big place, bigger than anyone has ever dreamed of. So if it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”
(For a comprehensive rebuttal of this specious supposition, see Did God create life on other planets?.)
How honest was Sagan in his presentation?
A science-fiction story by definition involves the voluntary suspension of some aspect of reality (such as instantaneous space travel, time travel back to the past, superhuman ability, etc.) by the reader/viewer for the sake of being entertained—without this there would be no story. So we are not concerned with the fairy-tale aspects of this yarn, but rather with how Sagan presented his characters and their roles.
Ellie, the atheist evolutionist, is presented as a model of scientific zeal, intelligent and single-minded, dedicated to looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, and even willing to give her life to achieve her goal of finding out why we are here.
On the other hand, Sagan’s Christian characters are caricatures:
- In the film a minister of religion (unnamed) spouts heartless and inept counsel about God’s will to the orphaned Ellie.
- In the book a preacher called Billy Jo Rankin is said to have operated a scam selling “the actual amniotic fluid that surrounded and protected our Lord”, a form of “deviant Christian fundamentalism” (p. 140).
- In the film Rev. Palmer Joss’s Christian principles do not preclude him from adultery with Ellie, before telling her how real God is to him. Also (later) he lies to Ellie about why he doesn’t want her to go off into space.
- The people objecting to the launch of the Machine are predominantly religious nuts, portrayed with extreme ridicule and deliberate offence to Christian viewers.
- In the film it is a religious preacher who blows up the first Machine, thereby murdering a number of people in the vicinity.
All this leads Sagan’s biographer to write, “In these and other ways, the film’s representatives of faith are ‘trashed for their dishonesty, hypocrisy, bad faith and fanaticism.’ Hence the film offers no hint of religion’s ‘source of truth or of its power’.”16
As to honesty of presentation: in the film Rev. Palmer Joss, although the principal Christian, does not fairly represent the Bible in any discussions, and obviously does not believe what the Bible says. He denies a short age to the Earth (p. 175) and so presents no evidence for Genesis creation. (See Age of the earth for 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe,)
One argument Joss was not allowed to present by Sagan is that design in the universe points to a good Designer. In the book, Sagan preempts this by putting into the mouth of a financier, S.R. Hadden, a long diatribe in which he objects to the giving of the Ten Commandments, circumcision, blasphemy, adultery, etc., and ends up, “No, there’s one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He’s not good at design; he’s not good at execution. He’d be out of business if there was any competition” (p. 287). Of course, how God requires people to behave has nothing to do with how well He designed the universe or the biological cell. (For truth about design see Refuting Evolution Chapter 9: Is the design explanation legitimate? and A brief history of design.)
Another argument that creationists were using in the 1980s when Sagan wrote (and are still using today) is the effect of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, namely that all systems of matter/energy tend to run down,17 to proceed from order to disorder, and from information to non-information. This universal scientific law indicates that the organized complexity of life could never arise by itself. (See The evolution train’s a-comin’ (Sorry, a-goin’—in the wrong direction) and Thermodynamics and Order Questions and Answers.)
Sagan avoids giving this or any further evidence for Creation by dismissing creation science in a single sentence, “In debates on the teaching of ‘scientific creationism’ in the schools … he [Palmer Joss] attempted in his way to steer a middle course, to reconcile caricatures of science and religion” (p. 141–42).
After the Senate Enquiry, Sagan’s Rev. Palmer Joss character tells a now-cheering crowd he believes Ellie. But if this is so, he believes a story that is contrary to the first chapter of Genesis concerning Creation, contrary to the last chapter of Revelation concerning Heaven, and contrary to everything in the Bible in between.
Interwoven through the plot is the theme: What happens after death? and what evidence should we use in arriving at the right answer to this question? There is one person who does have the evidence for what lies beyond the grave. He’s been there and returned—the Lord Jesus Christ. He said,
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Gospel of John 11:25–26).
He invites people to put their faith and trust in Himself:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Gospel of John 3:16–18).
- A disease of the bone marrow that reduces immune function. Return to text.
- Carl Sagan, Wikipedia. Return to text.
- Page numbers in this article are from the Orbit paperback, Time Warner Books, London, 1997. Return to text.
- Davidson, K. Carl Sagan: A Life, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999, p. 349. Return to text.
- The Bible does indeed spell out the results of these actions. For example, Lot’s life illustrates many spiritual truths: (1) the degenerating influence of a selfish choice (Genesis 13:11ff.); (2) Lot needs to be rescued from the kings who attacked Sodom (Genesis 14:8–16); (3) the effect of the wicked environment on his family (Genesis 19); (4) the loss of his testimony within his own family (Genesis 19:8); (5) the offspring of Lot’s two daughters became the Moabites and the Ammonites, both of which nations became enemies of Israel (Genesis 19: 36–38). Return to text.
- The action of God’s prophet, Abraham, in twice pretending that Sarah his wife was his sister, is stated but not commended. He was rebuked the first time by Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10–20), and the second time by King Abimelech (Genesis 20), and the knowledge of this may well have swayed his son Isaac (although born later) to follow his father’s example and do the same thing (Genesis 26:1–11). Isaac too was rebuked. Return to text.
- Jacob’s action in deceiving his father, Isaac, in order to take the birthright away from Esau returned on his own head when his father-in-law, Laban, deceived him concerning his bride, Rachel, and also when his own sons deceived him by pretending that Joseph was dead (Genesis 29:15–30 & 27:2–36). Return to text.
- According to Sagan’s biographer, this latter episode was a retelling of a similar event that Carl himself experienced when he attended a Bible class as a boy (ref. 4, p. 11). Return to text.
- This means that it would take light (or a radio signal) travelling at 300,000 km per second 26 years to reach Earth from Vega, or Vega from Earth. One light year is almost 10 trillion km. Return to text.
- This appears to be his near-death experience, given in much greater detail in the book (pp. 138–39), see later in this article. Return to text.
- Our knowledge of Heaven is from the One who Himself came from Heaven to live on Earth, to die for the sins of mankind, and then to rise from the dead—the Lord Jesus Christ. In His teaching, His many parables, and in the Book of Revelation, we learn that Heaven is not only the dwelling place of God, but it is also the future home of those who love and serve Him in this life—they continue to do this in Heaven. They will see His face and they will reign with Him for ever and ever (Revelation 22:4–5). However, those who in this life reject God’s offer of forgiveness for sin have no place in Heaven—for them the future involves Judgment (Revelation 20:11–15). Return to text.
- Occam’s Razor is the principle that “Other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.” Return to text.
- Was Sagan here reprising part of Martin Luther’s response to his interrogators at the Diet of Worms?! Return to text.
- Sagan, C., Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Hodder Headline, London, 1997, p. 141. Return to text.
- A TV raster is “a complete set of scanning lines appearing at the receiver as a rectangular patch of light on which the image is reproduced” (Chambers Dictionary). Return to text.
- Ref. 4, p. 423. Note that Davidson is quoting from Daniel Silver’s article “God and Carl Sagan in Hollywood”, first published in the Jewish journal Commentary. Return to text.
- Even open systems, in the absence of specific programmed mechanisms to the contrary—such as those involved in the growth of a tree from a seed, for example. Return to text.