A Space in Time

A bookstore, a weblog, a magazine, all these things take on the personality of their proprietor, and if that personality resonates sufficiently with your own, you find yourself coming back again and again, chuckling that someone should be able so consistently to amuse you, sight unseen. So it is for me, I find, with The Atlantic magazine. I can’t say exactly how they keep choosing articles that interest and entertain me, but they do. I will read anything by William Langewiesche, and he’s written the cover story this month about “unbuilding” the World Trade Center. Actually, the web version is an extract, and the magazine version is only one part of what will become a book on the same subject.

In the same issue, and fully available on the web, is beautiful lyrical essay
(“A Space in Time”) by Michael Benson about imagery from NASA’s various space probes. It’s long for an onscreen read, but it’s worth the effort. Near the end, he uses a long quote from Carl Sagan that I will include here. Carl says


In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

This echoes very much the teachings of Joseph Campbell, who pointed out that a healthy working mythology (religion) is one that puts you into accord with the universe as it is currently understood, not as it was understood by nomadic tribes in the Near East two thousand years ago. I’m with Carl. The religion we need is the one that lets us hug those improbable spacefaring robots from JPL. You go, God!