A scientist and a 'saint.' (comparison between Carl Sagan and Mother Teresa)
Carl Sagan died in 1996 and Mother Teresa in 1997. Sagan was given a respectful and dignified farewell by the media. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (a.k.a. Mother Teresa) commanded newspaper front pages worldwide for ten straight days, as well as the attention of almost every syndicated columnist. Television news was no less tenacious in filling our screens with images of Mother Teresa's face, and there is no end in sight as specials are at this writing in production to honor the lady from Calcutta. Mother Teresa's death received about ten times more publicity than did Sagan's. I think it's time to reevaluate society's priorities.
Almost single-handedly, and with considerable resistance from his own peers, Carl Sagan changed the face of science. He rescued the wonders of science from their obscure, arcane, fiercely defended citadels and presented them to us to examine and admire.
More than anyone in recent memory, Sagan fired our imaginations in a way that made space exploration, and our general contemplation of our place in the cosmos, an understandable, exciting undertaking. We looked upward at the stars and thought, really thought about them - many of us for the first time. The possibility of life elsewhere in the universe was no longer the exclusive domain of science fiction. We were all treated to a wondrously new, breathtaking view of the universe, finally shaken free of its musty cobwebs and incomprehensible jargon. Sagan dusted off the universe and lovingly placed it in our hands.
The spectacle of the obsequious, worldwide eulogizing of Mother Teresa was a humanist's nightmare. Reporters fell all over themselves as they raced for microphones and searched for superlatives to describe this bland, head-in-the-clouds Macedonian with a ninth-century mentality. Mourners gushed, cheered by the expectation of sainthood.
We love our heroes, and perhaps there's nothing wrong with that. But how we go about nominating people for "hero-dom" is very important. Few would nominate Charles Manson, for example, and that's nice to know. But Mother Teresa most certainly was responsible for thousands more deaths than he ever was. The little bit of good she did was overwhelmingly dwarfed by the incalculable harm of her actions.
Comparing Carl Sagan to Mother Teresa is perhaps unfair, and perhaps a case of apples and oranges. But I do so only to emphasize our persistent, and dangerous, reliance on things ancient and utterly useless in today's world. Sagan looked ahead with a brilliance and wisdom that few of us will ever achieve. Teresa looked only backward, to a time when witches were deemed real and exorcisms eminently sensible. We can no longer afford to do that.
Mother Teresa's trite cliche about how "God will provide" is an insult to thinking people. Every, day 40,000 of the world's children under five die of starvation and easily preventable diseases.(1) About 3,000 of them die in the very country Teresa did her work - India.(2) God is obviously not providing for them.
Our population figures are not yet hopeless, but if we continue at our insane growth rate, they soon may be. The Earth's resources are Finite, notwithstanding the Catholic Church's ostrich position on population control, and we must look ahead, using every scientific tool at our disposal to avert the looming catastrophe. That includes the fairly easily employed practice of birth control. The amount of suffering that could be prevented by contraceptive measures alone is immeasurable.
Yet Mother Teresa said, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot. . . the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."(3) So much for compassion. When asked to agree that there were too many children in India, she answered, "I do not agree because God always provides."(4) Regarding world peace she said, "Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace."(5)
Mother Teresa's dogged, single-focused vocation as a Roman Catholic missionary directed her every move. She trained her workers to ask dying patients if they would like a "ticket to Heaven," and a positive response prompted a speedy baptism into Roman Catholicism.(6) She preached relentlessly against birth control even though she was surrounded by starving children.(7)
Compare that outlook to Dr. Sagan's: "If the world is to escape the direst consequences of global population growth. . . we must invent safe but more efficient means of growing food . . . . It will also take widely available and acceptable contraception, significant steps toward political equality, of women, and improvements in the standards of living of the poorest people."(8)
While Teresa prattled platitudes about a providing God, 423 million people in "her" India were living in absolute poverty, 73.1 million children under five were malnourished,(9) and the number of illiterates was 350 million.(10) Sagan said: "The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin."(11)
Eschewing strong painkillers, Mother Teresa told a dying patient in the agonizing last stages of cancer, "You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you." To which the patient reportedly replied, "Then please tell him to stop kissing me."(12) Sagan: "The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence."(13)
It may be difficult to provide proof that Mother Teresa performed miracles, a requirement for sainthood. But I say there is definite proof of at least one miracle. She managed to convince millions of people that she was good for humanity. Her medieval practices were packaged and sold as a boon to humankind, instead of the hindering, progress-impeding actions that they were.
What is more, while her "patients" were given little or no care, she herself, when ill, checked into some of the costliest hospitals in the world.(14) Then there was her incessant parroting of the Catholic position that birth control is "unnatural." Of course it's unnatural. So is having a pacemaker implanted in your heart, as Mother Teresa did in 1989.(15) And having surgery to clear a blocked blood vessel is likewise unnatural, though Mother Teresa had that done in 1993.(16)
Make her a saint? Why not? Mythical blue ribbons in a mythical afterlife mean nothing at all to rationalists. But I, personally, can find nothing about Mother Teresa's life or memory to revere.
In stark contrast, the solid contributions to knowledge in general and science specifically that Carl Sagan offered were of unarguable benefit to untold millions. It is probably impossible to estimate the number of people who were inspired and encouraged by Sagan's infectious enthusiasm for the wonders of science. Like some sort of Pied Piper, he led us joyously along the pathway to knowledge about the natural world. And we followed happily in droves!
When we speak of Carl Sagan, we are talking about greatness. I fear we will have to wait a very long time indeed before we again see the likes of him. The world is a sadder, more impoverished place without him, while at the same time being enriched for his existence. His memory is deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.
If the word saint may be allowed its secular, compassionate meaning as a true benefactor of humankind - someone who gave to the world so very much more than he took from it - then Carl Sagan, patron and purveyor of knowledge, reason, and kindness, is the walkaway winner in this two-horse race.
1. Carl Sagan (The Estate of), Billions & Billions (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 166.
2. "Disaster in India," editorial, Ottawa Citizen, October 2, 1993.
3. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position (London: Verso, 1995), p. 11.
4. Ibid., p. 30.
5. Ibid., p. 57.
6. Ibid., p. 48.
7. Ibid., p. 58
8. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Random House, 1995), p.10.
9. "Disaster in India," op. cit.
10. John F. Burns, "India's Facade of Democracy," Ottawa Citizen, January 25, 1995, p. A11.
11. Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, op. cit., p. 362.
12. Hitchens, The Missionary Position, op. cit., p. 41.
13. Sagan, Billions & Billions, op. cit., p. 215.
14. Hitchens, The Missionary Position, op. cit., p. 41
15. "Saint Teresa?" AP, The [Stockton] Record, September 6, 1997, p. A7.
Judith Hayes is the author of a monthly Internet column called The Happy Heretic and of the book In God We Trust: But Which One? (1996).