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Convention honoree: Ann Druyan — Reality, yes, but kindness and love, too

Ann Druyan (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Ann Druyan is given FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker on Nov. 21, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston.
(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is the (slightly edited) speech that Ann Druyan gave at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 20, 2021. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. To watch the video, go to:

Dan Barker: We first met Ann Druyan in 1997, which was less than a year after [Druyan’s husband] Carl Sagan had died. It was just a few months after the release of the blockbuster movie “Contact,” which was based on the book that Carl wrote and the movie which Ann co-created. She is a Peabody and Emmy award-winning writer, producer and director of the two seasons of “Cosmos” she helmed alone.

Ann wrote the original “Cosmos” series, along with books like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. She also served as the creative director of the NASA project to design the images, music and ideas for possible alien civilizations that was placed on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. 

Twenty-four years ago, Ann received FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award. Today she’s receiving our Emperor Has No Clothes Award. It’s inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story of the honest and fearless child who saw the naked emperor and just told the truth — “He’s got nothing on!” So, Ann, come on up to receive your Emperor Award.

By Ann Druyan

I am humbled to be with this community, a community whose embrace of reality is so completely central, not only to an appreciation of the romance of life, of the beauty of life, of the need for us to stand up for life now at this crossroads, but, also, so completely central to our survival as a civilization. 

What is called for? What form of human agency can save us from ourselves at this moment when the destruction of our environment and our climate casts such a long shadow over our future? What is it, if not the fearless embrace of reality? What is it, if not the employment of an error-correcting mechanism which will give the highest rewards to those who prove our most cherished beliefs are wrong? 

This is what we need now. How do we reach our fellow citizens and inspire them to embrace this perspective, this way of looking at things, this error-correcting mechanism which has the power to save us from ourselves? We know that science can deliver the goods. You can’t lie your way to Mars. Every step of every spacecraft mission is something like 100,000 people deciding to tell the truth about what they’re doing. And, of course, there are redundancies and ways of preventing disaster if one fails. But it’s a chain of trust that people believe that it matters, what’s real. 

So, to be with this community that feels so strongly that we have to face squarely what are true circumstances in the universe, what existence really is, what the little we know about it, that’s why it moves me so much to be here with you and to receive this award, which I have to say I do not feel worthy of.

There are others who’ve been given this award because they were willing to risk their very lives to tell the truth. Not me. All I did was follow my bliss. I had a loving family, grandparents who believed completely and had a totally different worldview than mine and my parents, but who did not believe in a God that was so weak and defenseless that they had to punish someone else for not believing in it. My grandparents actually did believe, which was the amazing thing.

And that gave me a model of what it means when a person really believes something — they are secure, they don’t have to resort to violence or cruelty because they really do believe. And I honor that, even though that’s not my personal belief, because what I think is called for now is not just an adherence to reality, the kind of adherence that science demands, but also fearless acts of kindness and love. Because the basis of our disagreement with people who are traditional believers it’s not amenable to logic very often. 

I’d like to recall for you a kind of miracle, a secular miracle that Carl Sagan performed in the early 1980s. He was asked to testify in one of the so-called creation science trials in the South. He was asked by the ACLU to be a friend of the court and to testify to the court, to bear witness why the notion of creation science was a kind of oxymoron. He gave his testimony, and about a year later he received a letter from the opposing expert witness, the “creation scientist.”

This man had since given up his job teaching creation science and gone back to school to become a biology teacher. I can still recall his letter very clearly. He said, “If you hadn’t have been so patient and so thoughtful, and if you hadn’t listened so carefully to what I was saying, and taken my questions to heart the way that you did with such humility and without any attempt to demean me or my beliefs, I never could have seen the truth of what you were saying. But you were so open-hearted to me that I felt I had to pay attention to what you were saying. And once I began to pay attention, I realized that my life was unraveling, that my belief system, that what I had completely staked everything I had on, was worthless.”

That’s what’s called for. It’s not the haughtiness. We all know how good it feels to hate. We all know how good it feels to feel superior, to say to ourselves, “I’m better than that person because my beliefs are so much better, because my identity is so bound up in those beliefs.” But that’s not what is going to grow our community.

I just came from the Free University of Brussels, which was founded in 1834 as a way for higher education to break the stranglehold of the Church. And its motto is “Science vanquishes darkness.” It’s a thriving community. They know all about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They were very excited that I was on my way here and they asked me to tell you that they want to join with your community.

It’s an enormous university with more than a third of its student body coming from around the world. It was thrilling to address that group and to see all of the hope and conviction on the faces of these young, intellectually curious people. 

What I’d like to suggest is that winning the argument is not necessarily going to get us where we want to go. There is a need to embrace and to welcome and to talk positively, because I think that we have a better story to tell.

We are talking about a continuity of life that’s 4 billion years old, just on this little planet. That’s something so precious. We’re not talking about a disgruntled parent, who, in Diderot’s fantastic formulation, loved his apples more than his children. We’re talking about a family of life that includes every living thing on this planet. We have looked at other planets in the vicinity, just a few — just a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the multitude. And to see them is to know how magnificent our little world is and how worthwhile it is to fight for its future.

So thank you for this award. Ever since I was a child, I always loved the story of the emperor having no clothes. The idea that it matters what’s true and that you should stand up and say what you see, what you know to be true. I will try to be worthy of this wonderful award and your great kindness to me. 

I’d just like to say that I think of myself as certainly one of the most fortunate people who has ever lived. I spent 20 years with Carl Sagan, who was as extraordinary in his capacity for love as he was in his genius, his intellectual prowess, his learnedness, his courage.

So, I feel like I’ve seen the best of us. And now you’ve all seen the love that exists between my beautiful daughter and me. What more is there in life, really, than such goodness? Thank you so much.