Anthony Pinn kicks off his new podcast with Sasha Sagan, author of For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World.
Daughter of astronomer/educator Carl Sagan and writer/producer Ann Druyan, Sasha was raised with a sense of awe and wonder about the majesty of the universe, learning to see science not just as a series of facts but as a pathway to deep understanding and connection to our place in the grandeur of it all.
Sasha and Tony talk about finding meaning and creating rituals in a fully human way.
ANTHONY PINN: As I was reading, I was asking myself this question: Can secular humanism actually qualify as a religious orientation?
SASHA SAGAN: Oh, that’s such an interesting question. I mean, there is this implication that there is a lack of questioning implied in religion, like when someone says, “Well, I mean, I don’t do it religiously.” There’s the sense of orthodoxy, no room for your own interpretation, or your own experience. So I don’t really see it as a religion. I think of it more as a philosophy, something that is very ancient.
My mom talks about “post-Copernican stress disorder.” The more deeply we understood our world and our universe, and how the seasons change, what we’re made of, the more deeply we understood our god or gods. And I think that it’s only in the last few centuries that the tension between the information we’ve been able to glean through the scientific method, and the lore that we were taught from a time before that information was available, have been at war. And I think that there is something profoundly beautiful about the idea that, you know, that sweeping sense of awe and majesty, the hair on the back of your neck standing up, that feeling of connection, and of a deep, powerful understanding of our place in this vastness…
I sometimes hesitate to use the word spiritual because it has such a monotheistic connotation, but that’s because English is a language that evolved among mostly monotheists. So we have the words that they used to describe what they were feeling about their experience and their worldview. But until we have a better word, I think it still captures that feeling that, you know, when the first image of a black hole came back, or you have these moments where there is a scientific revelation, or even just your own realization about something you never understood before, even if you’re the last person on Earth to understand it, I think that there’s something really powerful about that. I don’t necessarily think of it as religious, but as deep and profound and beautiful. And as you know, I think still fulfilling the same need that religion seeks to fill.
AP: You mentioned that word, spirituality. And it seems to me in the book, an underlying argument is there is no necessary conflict between science and spirituality. And I imagine for a whole lot of folks that is just difficult to wrap their minds around. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by spirituality, and the possibility of transcendence?
SS: Absolutely. I’m coming from such a privileged perspective where I didn’t have to shake off a religion to come to this philosophy. This is how my parents raised me, and I completely understand for people who were brought up, especially with a very strict, oppressive, religious upbringing, and who had to go through the very painful and difficult and courageous process of shaking that off and finding their own way, how, of course, there’s going to be an aversion to certain elements of religious life and certain elements, even words that evoke all the emotions that went along with that change.
But for me, I’m able to sort of cherry-pick the things that I love that I think are beautiful. And I think that the connection to your ancestors is a really powerful thing. And there are a lot of ways in which that can bring a lot of joy, even if your philosophy is totally diametrically opposed to whatever theology or worldview they had, I think that there’s a way that you can sort of find the beauty in, you know, certain traditions and let the parts that stand the test of time continue on, and shake off the rest.
Everything, traditions and rituals and rites of passage all have to mutate in order to survive right now, even if you’re the most orthodox, the most traditional person alive today, you are not doing things exactly the way your ancestors did them 1000 years ago. It’s impossible, right? We’re all letting these traditions grow and change over time. And they have to, because it’s the only possibility other than just letting them fall by the wayside, which is fine, too. But I think that there’s sometimes this weight of obligation, this feeling of like, “Oh, my grandmother made such an effort to do these things this way. I don’t want to be the first person in thousands of years to not do the special thing, the same way she did.” There’s so much guilt. There is this sense of, do I want to be the first person to break this chain.
The amazing thing is when we pull out and actually see the scope of human history, everything we’re doing is brand new. It’s all completely just from the last few seconds of human history. And so we can feel a little bit more freedom, I think, in letting the things that we don’t feel connected to fall away, but still finding ways to mark time. And to acknowledge that, you know, every day is not the same thing, the seasons change, and children grow up, and people get married, and people die. And we have these phases in life that are beautiful and deserve recognition, the heartbreaking ones and the joyful ones. And I think that we have to be able to find a way to get that without relying on theologies that we no longer think reflect our reality.