Religion, and Christianity in particular, appear to be becoming less important among younger Americans, declining dramatically in the past two decades, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. So where can people turn to share a common culture and community?
For Sasha Sagan, the author of “For Small Creatures Such as We,” even a dinner party tradition or a shared song can generate the camaraderie people may be missing. Aimed primarily at atheist and agnostic readers, her book is both a memoir of growing up as the daughter of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer Ann Druyan in Ithaca, New York, where her father was a professor at Cornell University, as well as an exploration of connections and universal themes among religions, cultures, and secular communities around the world.
Her parents wrote and produced many acclaimed and popular science books and TV programs, including “Cosmos,’’ “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot,’’ and “The Demon-Haunted World.’’ The movie version of “Contact,’’ which came only seven months after Sagan’s death in 1996, included the line that inspired his daughter’s title: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Like her parents, Sagan has plenty of gifts as a writer and communicator. It’s her livelihood, in fact: She’s not a scientist but a TV producer, filmmaker, writer, editor, and speaker. In her book, she writes of the “immense brazen beauty of life” and argues that “from the genetic information in our blood to the movement of the Earth around the sun, our vast universe provides us with enough profound and beautiful truths to live a spiritually fulfilling life.”
Sagan follows the secular and science-driven philosophy of her parents, who themselves built upon the work of philosopher Bertrand Russell, among others. Though often critical of religion, they considered themselves agnostic — it’s impossible to disprove the existence of God, after all. In their worldview, belief requires concrete evidence. It’s important to cast a curious eye on the world, they taught her, testing and questioning both preconceived notions and authorities. But she avoids condescension, and her skepticism doesn’t mean cynicism; when addressing grim subjects, she knows how to find a beacon of hope. And there’s no shame in not having answers to some questions, such as about life after death.
She doesn’t really attempt to lay out an entire philosophy of life without religion, however. (In fact, she’s Jewish but doesn’t “subscribe to the supernatural elements.”) She has more modest goals for her book, to show that we all can find or invent our own meaningful celebrations and communities, and that many religious rituals and traditions actually have astronomical or biological origins.
She meets those goals in surprisingly lighthearted chapters that wander through challenges of adolescence, marriage, friendship, parenthood, life and death, and more. For example, while writing about her and her friends’ kids, some of whom are approaching teenage years, Sagan weaves in thoughts about how different cultures celebrate that tumultuous transition to adulthood. Amish teenagers have rumspringa when they explore the outside world, Maasai have an aggressive dance party and a circumcision, Japanese have seijin shiki, or Coming of Age Day, Jews have bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, and Latin American girls have their quinceañera.
Scientific elements often infuse her thoughts on this wide range of events in life. For example, she describes stars being so far away that they emitted their light long ago, and observed starlight is therefore like time travel, a vision of the past. Memories and books accomplish the same thing, allowing Sagan to remember her father’s voice in her head. “It’s like basking in the light of a dead star,” she writes. In another passage, she points out that prairie voles are monogamous, elephant seals are polygamous, and chimps are promiscuous. Humans have many kinds of relationships, too, she argues, and we shouldn’t judge them harshly if no one’s being hurt.
Sagan also makes observations about the seasons of the year, and she notes many universalities there, too, as people commemorate key moments in the Earth’s annual revolution. She points out how many religions and cultures celebrate something around the beginning of spring, whether it’s Passover, Easter, Egyptians’ Sham El-Nessim, the Greek myth of Persephone, or Zoroastrians’ Nowruz, which literally means “new day.” And around the winter solstice, when the Earth’s axis is tilted away the furthest away from the sun, we have Christmas — whether of the religious or secular variety — as well as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Shab-e Yalda, the Persian holiday for the longest night of the year.
For people whose social life revolves around their church or temple or mosque, it typically comes with groups for prayer, study, charity, or community service. Sagan didn’t have that, but she craved a community of women that regularly gets together, so she created one: the Ladies Dining Society. They met monthly at a New York restaurant with cocktails and a photo booth, and they enjoyed each other’s company, swapped stories, and caught up on each other’s lives. Most traditions ebb and flow, and there’s nothing wrong with inventing your own.
Simple rituals like that might not have the same significance as attending mass with friends and neighbors, but Sagan seems to be saying that they have as much meaning as you bestow on them. In a world governed by chance, it’s up to you to say what holds meaning, what’s important, and what’s right or wrong. And that can change over time.
Sagan will inevitably be compared to her father — and her mother, for that matter. In these essays, a few of which she adapted from her writings in O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Cut, she comes across as less political and less an advocate. Her parents, on the other hand, vociferously advocated for world peace, actively opposed nuclear weapons and weapons in space, and argued that the world’s nations should work together to address global environmental threats and to explore space together, of course.
But her view is wide in scope and she draws connections between many fields of science, history, and pop culture. She’s not afraid to speculate about the future, including the future of humanity. Her poetic, engaging prose will resonate with many readers, as will her refreshingly breezy and open-minded approach. While some writers today dwell on threats to humanity as if an apocalypse is already upon us and all our children will live horrible lives, Sagan suggests that, regardless of what’s to come, we should make the most of the little moments we have on our little corner of the pale blue dot.
“Even when any record of our individual lives is lost to the ages, that doesn’t detract from the fact that we were. We lived. We were part of the enormity,” she writes, “on this little world that orbits a yellow star out in the great vastness. And that, alone, is cause for celebration.”
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in San Diego. He has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, and Science, among other publications.