Convention speech: Sasha Sagan — Finding beauty, joy in our togetherness
This is the (slightly edited) speech Sasha Sagan gave at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 20, 2021, in Boston. She was introduced by FFRF’s then Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel. To watch the video, go to: ffrf.us/speeches-2021.
Andrew Seidel: I’m thrilled to introduce my friend Sasha Sagan. She’s been a regular guest on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” and “Ask An Atheist.” She is an amazing speaker and writer and television producer and filmmaker.
She was inspired by the work of her parents, who you may have heard of — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. They had a gift for inspiring, and inspiring with beautiful writing. It’s very clear to me that they passed that gift on to Sasha. Her wonderful book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals For Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, is beautiful. It’s part memoir, part guidebook and part social history, and it’s one of my favorites over the last few years.
Please welcome Sasha Sagan.
By Sasha Sagan
I’m so happy to be with you tonight.
Tonight’s honoree later this evening, my wonderful, brilliant mother, Ann Druyan, and my dad — the late astronomer and educator Carl Sagan — raised me with a sense of awe and wonder about the universe that you can also find in their many books and essays and the original season of the television series “Cosmos” that they wrote together and created that my dad hosted. This sense of the majesty of nature and the beauty of it and the interconnectedness of life on Earth and how much there is to rejoice in nature as revealed by science is one of the guiding ideas in my life.
I’m so grateful to my parents for this concept that now seems somehow to be getting away from us. This idea that science isn’t just a way of knowing things, but a source of deep beauty and understanding. We have this idea sometimes that facts are cold and hard and that science is so devoid of emotion. I think that my parents’ work contradicts that so beautifully in so many ways.
So many of us crave that feeling of being part of the grandeur and part of the majesty of the universe and the idea that there’s a way to feel those feelings and understand that deeply in the information in our DNA, the cells in our body, our place in the solar system, the information that we are able to glean almost every day, a new revelation that brings us deeper understanding of who and where we are.
I’ll tell you a little something about the way that I grew up and the stories that were passed down to me through my parents’ elegant and colorful, beautiful storytelling. One story comes from my mother and her family that stayed with me powerfully from early childhood. Her grandparents were Orthodox Jews who came from Eastern Europe, and her father, Harry, was born in New York, and he lived to be 99. I knew him very well. He was one of the closest people to me. When he was a young man, growing up with the customs and traditions and beliefs of his parents, they were passed down to him carefully. He was the first person in his family to enroll in college and went to New York University. And you know how it goes when you go off to college and get cosmopolitan and skeptical. He started to question. One day he decided that he was going to have to tell his parents that he had had a change in his philosophy.
Harry told his father, “Look, I’ve got to tell you something. I’m not going to keep Shabbat. I’m not going to keep Kosher. I’m not going to do all of these things because I don’t believe. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any of it.” And his father, Benjamin, looked up at him and said: “The only sin would be to pretend.”
And that idea of openness and welcoming a different philosophy and letting go of the sense of rejection and personal slight and forcing belief on someone else set Harry free, and he was able to be secular, which he was for the remaining 75 years of his life. And he and his father remained close. This idea, this almost mantra, that the only thing would be to pretend that going through the motions doesn’t do anyone good, was so profound. It was this idea that my mother, by telling this story, and in the ways that our legends, our family legends, all kinds of legends have to be retold to children in order to be remembered.
I can picture hearing it, and it stayed with me as a real crystallization of the ethos of my family.
The other phrase, the other sentence that stays with me powerfully as a perfect crystallization of a similar ethos, is this one line that appears in the novel Contact. It’s the only work of fiction that my father ever published, and he and my mom collaborated on the novel and the film, as they did with everything that they wrote in the 20 years that they were together before his death.
The line is “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” It’s a line that my mom wrote. This idea that when we zoom out and see ourselves as this pale blue dot, as this tiny world against this enormous vastness of space, where we don’t know if there’s anyone else out there or anything else that happens after we get to spend a blink of an eye here, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious.
And the existential crisis is something that many of us have to go through. But on the other side of it, once we accept the brevity of our time here and the mysteries unsolved about what else there may be, what do we have? What is the solace that we can find that is true and real? I think that it’s one another. It’s that we’re on this little lifeboat together at this moment, with so many tributaries in history that could have gone another way.
Yet, still here we are in this moment. And I think that those deep connections and appreciation for this moment and our place in this vast universe, the consciousness and awareness of being here at all is so profoundly moving.
For those of us who don’t believe that there is anything else or don’t claim to know that there is anything else, there’s often a sense of cynicism that can come. I often talk about this idea that my parents were so good at teaching skepticism without cynicism and finding the joy and beauty of our place in the universe as it really is, and as we’re able to understand it, as opposed to either leaning on things that are not substantiated by evidence or just letting the fear and the existential crisis take over.
I think there’s something so profound and so magnificent as we view ourselves as smaller, as our picture widens from over the last few millennia, from our little communities to our world to our solar system and zooming out further to realize that our galaxy is just one of many and that there is vastness in all directions that we can only begin to comprehend.
I think that there’s something deeply profound about taking solace in knowing that we’re in it together. Those lessons bestowed to me by my parents are one of the reasons that I’m so grateful for them. But, also, for those of us who don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, who do not believe that there is rhyme or reason, that there’s a system in place to which the good guys will get their reward and the bad guys will get their comeuppance.
I think that there is an impetus on us to make the world more fair and more just. If we don’t think that there is any other way for the things to even out fairly, I think that there is an argument that it’s our duty through this philosophy and through this way of seeing things, to motivate ourselves to fight to make the world more fair, where maybe more of those things will happen, and there will be more evenness to how it all shakes out. That’s something else that my parents taught me.
I think that there’s so much a sense of beauty and awe for the universe as it truly is, where we can look at a secular worldview, a humanist worldview, not just as a reaction to religion, but as something that is in many ways more ancient and more traditional.
This idea that understanding nature deeply as it truly is and our sense of — for lack of a better, perhaps more secular word, — our spirituality, our sense of awe and wonder is something that my mother likes to call post-Copernican stress disorder, which is so brilliant. It’s such a great way of thinking about it. I think there is a way to find that feeling of our deep connectedness and not forsake our understanding of science and our evidence-based view of the world and go back to a perspective where those things were one and the same, and find the beauty and joy in that view of our tiny place in this grand universe.