Carl Sagan on Jehovah’s Witnesses

If there ever was a great mind in the modern history of mankind, it was undoubtedly Carl Sagan’s – author, astrophysics etc. Religiously, he – like Charles Darwin – maintained the position of, not atheist, but agnostic.[1] Sampling his rationale, behind this otherwise guarded position, reveals a mind that is truly actuated.[2] Now, while I don’t necessarily espouse the full parameters of his views, thinking Witnesses would be interested in dissecting the observations of Carl Sagan on Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically, on their much cherished views on the year 1914.

Broca’s Brain: 1914

In 1979, Sagan published the book Broca’s Brain – Reflections on the Romance of Science (“Broca’s Brain”).[3] He makes no explicit reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses per se, but the narrative is self-evident:

‘Doctrines that make no predictions are less compelling than those which make correct predictions; they are in turn more successful than doctrines that make false predictions.

But not always. One prominent American religion confidently predicted that the world would end in 1914. Well, 1914 has come and gone, and – while the events of that year were certainly of some importance – the world does not, at least so far as I can see, seem to have ended. There are at least three responses that an organized religion can make in the face of such a failed and fundamental prophecy. They could have said, “Oh, did we say ‘1914’? So sorry, we meant ‘2014.’[4] A slight error in calculation. Hope you weren’t inconvenienced in any way.” But they did not. They could have said, “Well, the world would have ended, except we prayed very hard and interceded with God so He spared the Earth.” But they did not. Instead, they did something much more ingenious.

They announced that the world had in fact ended in 1914,[5]and if the rest of us hadn’t noticed, that was our lookout. It is astonishing in the face of such transparent evasions that this religion has any adherents at all. But religions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration were needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.’[6] [Emphasis mine]

Broca's Brain - Carl Sagan on Jehovah's Witnesses

Broca’s Brain (1979); features statements by Carl Sagan on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the year 1914.

Themes: 1914

A few pivotal themes can be extracted from the above-mentioned quotation. Firstly, the theme of antecedent false prophecy; you make a claim about something, namely, that 1914 is the End of the world,[7] only to be proved otherwise.

Secondly, the theme of cognitive dissonance. When reality betrays your belief, it creates a conflict in your mind; and, so, to extract order out of that particular chaos, you contrive a system to vindicate your beliefs by manner of reformulation and reclassification.

Thirdly, the theme of abrogation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have abrogated their thinking ability; they do their thinking by proxy, namely, through their religious leaders, the Governing Body (the self-titled ‘Guardians of Doctrine’) – only they can originate ideas (this so-called ‘New Light’). Their collective dictum carries the weight of something gospel, while the rank-and-file Witness does not enjoy the same mental latitude, but must instead espouse to obedience, even when gripped with serious doubt. In fact, when an ordinary Witness originates ideas – valid or not – such ideas fall within the scope of misconduct, the devilish crime of ‘independent thinking.’ Thus, the phenomenon of groupthink flourishes, while all other thinking is put in abeyance, destined to ossify in the recesses of ones mind.

Fourthly, the theme of self-deceit. Even as an active Jehovah’s Witness, I came to realise that there is something ‘special’ about religion in general; it gives people permission to deceive themselves. It makes it okay to not know everything, in that the adherent must simply follow, that there is something ‘magical’ about belief and confidence in something, even in the absence of concrete evidence. Faith is rewarded. Assurance and conviction is part of the religious experience, and, granted, it may not necessarily be wrong in of itself, but it does open room for much exploitation – and exploitation there has been, as a cursory look at history will richly document.

Strangely enough, the bible itself seems to warn of such deception in saying that people should not put their trust in nobles or in the sons of earthling man,[8] not to put trust in every inspired expression but to test such,[9] to make sure of all things,[10] that man has dominated man to his injury[11] etc.

But, I suppose, one of the key problems is that religions are, at the very least, selective of which cautionary scriptures to canvass, or, at worst, adopt a particular eisegesis that deflects such scriptures on to other religious communities – not themselves. As an entrenched Witness, it didn’t occur to me to apply this advise onto the Governing Body; I was too busy looking at the Pope, looking at Tutu, Miscavage, McCauley, Pastor ChrisMboro etc. Why would I apply it to us – I mean, we’re in the truth for Christ’s sake; we’re God’s chosen people? You feel me?

Alas! Such folly. Such narrow-mindedness. Truly, some lessons take longer to learn. Religions make us judgmental; at times, even sans conscious intent. There exists this latent, and systemic, proclivity towards condemnation. A fundamental flaw really.

But, now, I think to myself, Rutherford must have known. He knew. Why else would he emphatically proclaim that ‘religion is a snare and a racket.’ He must have known the errors of his own fledgling movement. Surely. Or else, am I really to believe that he genuinely got ‘high’ on his own supply?

Hmh, haikhona! I struggle to reconcile.

But one thing’s for sure though, ‘religions are tough’ – even in the face of inexculpable circumstances.


[1] In his letter to John Fordyce (May 17, 1879), Darwin reportedly said: ‘What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to anyone except myself. But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally […] an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’

[2] Sagan is quoted as having said: ‘An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.’ – Tom Head, Conversations with Carl Sagan University Press of Mississippi (2006).

[3] Carl Sagan Broca’s Brain – Reflections on the Romance of Science Ballentine Books (1979).

[4] And if they’d said that, Ooooo they’d be in trouble now – what a hot mess that would have been, y’all feel me. I mean, we’re already at the brink of 2016 here.

[5] I initially wondered about the correctness of Sagan‘s statement here; I mean, did the post-1914 Witnesses (“Bible Students”) really say, or maintain, that the world had ended in 1914? I reckoned Sagan was over-reaching here. But… lo-and-behold, it turns out they in fact did. Consider this Watchtower quotation: “The year 1914 marked the end of the world and the time when Jehovah placed Christ Jesus upon his throne as the rightful King of the world. Three and one-half years thereafter, to wit, in 1918, Jesus came to the true temple of God, first for judgment upon the house of God, and then for judgment upon the professed house of God, which judgment includes the complete destruction of Satan’s organization, including that professed temple.” [Emphasis mine] –  The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence October 15, 1928 page 318. (PDF). More than that, to my further surprise, the Watchtower journals of that time – those of 1928 at least – under the journal’s mission statement, had a heading entitled: “To Us the Scriptures Clearly Teach,” and one such “clear” teaching was (in bold) “THAT THE WORLD HAS ENDED.” In explanation of this, it went on to say “That the Lord Jesus has returned and is now present; that Jehovah has place Christ Jesus upon his throne and now commands all nations and peoples to hear and obey him.” – The Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence – February 1, 1928  page 34. (PDF) What should be borne in mind is that this was a time when the Witnesses still held to the view that Christ’s presence began in 1874, and that, therefore, “the end of the world” – or “conclusion of the system of things” – would be in 1914. With what we’ve established so far in this footnote, it now heightens our appreciation of Sagan‘s further statement, namely, that this “world does not – at least so far as [he] could see – seem to have ended.” Now, the powers that be at the Watchtower corporation, (Joseph Rutherford) must have known that the statement about the world having ended was misleading, surely. If experience is anything to go by, I now imagine that they would have justified that statement by saying something to the effect that only true Christians could see it, that only those with the spiritual aptitude could discern that the world has ended, that God has revealed it to his chosen people, while keeping the world under Satan in spiritual darkness about this magnificent truth. Oh yes, I can totally see that argument being raised. And this–this, right here, is the art of spin; in this instance either as a desperate product of cognitive dissonance, or, at worst, just plain outright contempt for people’s intelligence. And this ecclesial “subterfuge” isn’t assisted by the fact that religious people generally crave belief; and so, sometimes, adherents will accomodate even the most proposterous presentations.

No, people, the world has not ended. We’re still here. (And on that note, another argument posited could be: “We’re not refering to the physical world, but to a condition of the world etc.” This could go on for days…)

[6] Broca’s Brain pages 332-333.

[7] Founding member, Charles Taze Russell said: ‘We consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished at the end of A.D. 1914.’ [Emphasis mine] – The Millennial Dawn Vol. 2 The Time is at Hand (1889) page 99. (PDF)

[8] Psalm 14:3, 4.

[9] 1 John 4:1.

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

[11] Revelation 8:9.