Carl Sagan, Bob Dylan and the varieties of religious experience


I’m not sure which creates a greater feeling of awe and wonder in me: the information contained in these videos, or the fact that you can now use a keyboard to make David Attenborough involuntarily sing.

These three songs by Symphony of Science would be perfect for the science classroom, but I found they work pretty well in an RE class too, since they deal with stuff like the origins of the universe, evolution and the vastness of space. The music’s ambient but hip, there’s repetition of key ideas and the videos are interesting enough to hold the students’ attention.

Carl Sagan has a real look in his eye. As far as I know, he wasn’t a religious man, but he sure as hell gives a “spiritual” vibe throughout his complete amazement at everything. I guess the study of physics is similar to religious activities, in terms of how it reminds you of the immense scale of things and provides you with a sense of order to a chaotic-seeming world. Or a sense of chaos to an ordered-seeming world.

A quick glance at Mr Sagan’s Wikipedia page reminds me that one should be cautious when describing someone as “religious” or “not religious”. Not just because you’re applying a binary concept to a complex issue, but also because world “religious” is open to a number of interpretations. I was using “not religious” to describe the fact that Sagan wasn’t a regular churchgoer, for example. But then I confused myself when I thought about a non-religious man having religious experiences.

Bob Dylan, San Francisco 1965

I was listening to some recordings of Bob Dylan press conferences yesterday, which got me to thinking about Plato and the Forms (please tell me there isn’t a band with this name). There’s a point where Bob is getting tired at answering questions about being a protest singer or a folk singer or a poet or what have you, and someone asks what he thinks of question and answer sessions. As it’s half term, I’ve got the time to quote it verbatim:

“I just know in my own mind that we all have a different idea of all the words we’re using, y’know, so I don’t have too much – I really can’t take it too seriously because – like if I say the word “house”, like we’re both gonna see a different house. If I just say the word, right? So we’re using all these other words, like “mass-production” and “movie magazine”, we all have a different idea of these words too, so I don’t really know what we’re saying here”

(29:38, SF Press Conference 12/3/65)

Well, we might be thinking of two different houses, but they’ll probably be similar enough for us to have a meaningful conversation about houses. Things get more complicated when our conceptions are further apart, (e.g. “protest singer”) and soon enough the struggle to have a meaningful conversation can start to get quite frustrating. “God” is a famous example. A question like “Do you believe in God?”  carries with it so many preconceptions that, like a lot of people, I hesitate to answer too quickly. The danger of being misunderstood is just too great (or worse, misunderstanding myself). Faced with a room full of thirty different conceptions, I usually end up keeping my cards close to my chest and saying something  non-committal.

A question like “Are you religious?” carries with it similar risks, and the same applies to “Was Carl Sagan religious?”. More interesting than just answering these questions, I think,  is unpicking the concepts behind them and drawing out the hidden ambiguities of human thought.

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