Sasha Sagan explains how the faithful and the skeptical both use rituals to celebrate life events and honor the wonder of nature.
Writer, television producer and speaker Sasha Sagan – daughter of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan and acclaimed writer Ann Druyan – tackles religion and science with startling clarity, intelligence and grace. Exploring links between religious customs and the natural sciences, Sagan delves into the origins of both in various cultures throughout history. The author hopes to create a new set of rituals for secularists who want to pay homage to religious traditions while honoring the natural rhythms of the human life cycle and the planet.
Sagan, an able and earnest writer, strongly evokes the work of pioneering psychologist C.G. Jung, who also sought to merge rational scientific analysis with an embrace of the world’s spirituality. Like Sagan, Jung was at heart a pragmatist who understood that humans cannot comprehend the most significant aspects of the universe through intellect. To explicate this viewpoint, Sagan cites myriad religious and spiritual practices while offering a relatable self-portrait of her spiritual thinking.
Good Housekeeping said, “This lyrical exploration of how we can find beauty in the natural world comes from the daughter of Carl Sagan, so it’s no wonder Sasha’s reverence for the cosmos shines through on every page.” And Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and The Magic of Reality, called this, “A charming book, ringing with the joy of existence.”
Beauty and Magnificence
Sagan reminds readers throughout that science is not the enemy of spirituality. She underscores that finding the scientific underpinnings of a phenomenon doesn’t detract from its splendor.
Science is the source of so much insight worthy of ecstatic celebration.Sasha Sagan
Sagan regards herself as a secular nonbeliever. She self-identifies as culturally Jewish, but rejects religious doctrine. She seeks to merge science, spirituality, and tradition to create and establish annual practices and rituals that celebrate human existence.
Sagan learned from her parents that her DNA connects to preceding generations, all the way back to the first life on Earth. She found comfort in knowing she was an essential link in that chain. Her father told her that the air particles people breathe stay in the Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years. Sagan urges you to imagine you’re inhaling the same air as your ancestors and that, one day, your descendants will breathe your air.
Sagan observes that most religions name a weekly holy day as a transition from work to rest. Jews celebrate the Sabbath at sundown on Friday. Most Christians’ holy day is Sunday; Islam celebrates on Friday; and the Buddhist weekly holy day changes in accordance with the phases of the moon. Weekly rituals hold a prominent place in the secular world, Sagan adds; people enjoy sharing family dinners, television shows or sporting events.
As with so much of culture, we adopt the part we like, the part that speaks to us. Sometimes this is theft or appropriation, but sometimes it’s an homage.Sasha Sagan
Always alert to metaphors from the natural world, Sagan describes how eggs, symbolizing new life, play a role in many spring observances – from colorful Easter eggs to a place on the ceremonial Seder plate during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Pre-Islamic people of the Persian Empire, she discloses, decorated eggs for Nowruz – the New Year.
Sagan finds that many religions offer a process for making amends. Catholics do so through confession; Jews observe Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement; Hindus practice Prāyáscitta; and Muslims seek forgiveness from Allah daily through Istighar.
Sun and Moon
Sagan reveals that sunshine releases endorphins in the brain and boosts people’s mood. Therefore, throughout history, human beings have worshiped the sun. Egyptians honored the sun god Ra; ancient Babylonians worshiped Utu. Amaterasu Omikami is the sun goddess in Shinto philosophy. Sagan cites light as a common metaphor for hope and enlightenment.
Many religious rituals incorporate fasting. Jews fast on Yom Kippur and a few other holidays; Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for the month of Ramadan; Baha’i people fast during the day for 19 days; and Mormons fast one Sunday a month. Fasting, Sagan believes, helps you to appreciate what you have and to become more charitable. She finds that it makes her think with respect of her great-grandparents who died of starvation during the Russian Revolution.
Sagan sees ritual as protection against the seasons; for example, Christmas counteracts the cold and darkness of winter. Winter solstice holidays, Sagan explains, included pagan Europeans decorating trees as reminders of springtime to come and Druids using mistletoe to symbolize fertility.
I cannot deny feeling a vague, ancient, wholesome warmth when I follow in the footsteps of my ancestors. Some deep part of me doesn’t want to be the one to break the chain.Sasha Sagan
Sagan points out that all cultures and religions perform rituals to process the death of loved ones. The brevity of life, she states simply, makes it precious.
Sagan writes with wit and a light touch. She’s at home with her contradictory beliefs and offers them as typical of all but the most devout. Her upbringing granted her an unusually broad, compassionate perspective rooted in the vastness of space. Her generosity of spirit and intellectual scope make this a thoughtful, even inspiring, read.
Books that both illuminate and gain illumination from Sasha Sagan’s thoughts include her father Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World. And because Sagan’s mélange of scientific, rational thought and worldwide spirituality evokes the work and outlook of C.G. Jung, a worthy prism into Sagan’s approach is Jung: A Very Short Introduction by Anthony Stevens.