To the bible-believer, the death of any humanist is a repudiation of what he or she stood for. Many a time I've heard it said of the death of one who was publicly irreligious that he or she "knows better now." Fear is a powerful influence on the ability to think clearly. I've often been asked "what if you're wrong? You would spend eternity in hell." This argument-by-threat is equivalent to a prosecution attorney telling a jury "There is no good reason to suppose the defendant is guilty of murder, but what if he is? He would sneak into your houses and kill your families. So you'd better convict him." The vivid imagery of hell actually makes that tactic work.
It's possible, as Sagan demonstrated on his deathbed, to be an atheist in a foxhole; to see the biblical mythology the same way that a bible-believing Christian would dismiss a threat from Allah or Hare Krishna; to not be cowed by the groundless fears of folklore. As Sagan famously said, "I don't want to believe, I want to know." This confidence makes it possible to do as he did, and stare one's own obliteration in the face with a level of coping skill few achieve even in adulthood. As Eric Hoffer wrote, "Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill." Sagan exemplified this distinction. Once I began to realize what it was like to go out and experience for one's self instead of taking someone's word for it-- to research and find out rather than to postulate convictions-- faith seemed a paltry stop-gap measure for knowledge, if not a symptom of downright insecurity.
Thank you, Carl Sagan. I wish I had not missed out on your life.
This has been part of the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon.