The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The Demon-Haunted World is nothing shy of a manifesto for science, reason, and wonder. Indeed, the balance (required!) between both healthy skepticism and wonder is Sagan’s introduction to the book, and he weaves the theme throughout.

The book should be read by almost every human – but most especially Americans, whose distrust and ignorance of science might be our undoing. No less important are the legions of teenagers and young people who would benefit from a read.

I do wish Sagan had organized the book a little better, if only rearranging some chapters and putting them into sections, since he talks about, say, UFOs quite often. Still, the bulk of his chapters are well contained.

I must never forget that I did, essentially, believe that aliens were here since that unforgettable 10 May, 2003, when Earl rocked my world with the words “they’re already here.” It is telling, of course, that I told almost no one of this belief. He was old, wise, a retired veteran… I respected his opinion. And I took the bait, convincing myself that the evidence was obvious and in plain sight – remember my 5-6 video documentaries which, logically and in-order, could “show anyone” how aliens were here! – even while I still doubted some alien fanatics. Sadly, I slowly realized he believed in quite a large amount of conspiracy-like ideas, despite any shreds of truth that may exist in them. Still, I held this belief throughout all my travels and my time in the military, flying over the earth’s skies with my security clearance. This waned in Arizona, but it did not die until reading this book.

As I have realized in the past year or two, we have a tendency to grow increasingly irrational in our older years, a pattern often seen with important scientists throughout history. (Darwin is an amazing scientist for this additional reason; I’ve never heard such arguments against any scientific investigations or claims of his in later life.)

And what a place for my “belief” in the presence of aliens to completely die! The book, decades old now, provides the most logical, beautiful explanations of human hallucinations. It illustrates how a shared culture of religion would provide, hundreds of years ago, hallucinations (sleep-induced or not) to be described with religious imagery, as much as today’s events will be described in terms of aliens and extra-dimensional beings. As a good argument for why these hallucinations are not real, we need only examine how imaginary they really are: as Sagan notes, most zoology or microbiology textbooks contain pictures of natural phenomena far more original (and interesting) than these “aliens from other worlds.”

“So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 × 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today. Where are they?”

The quote stimulates my anti-desire to go into politics. Am I not the type of person who should be in public service, particularly for this very reason? If nothing else, we obviously need more education of science within our elected officials. At least the judicial branch provides some fresh air on this topic!

Sagan provides at least his final chapter – in addition to other passages throughout – on explaining why education is so important, and why governments and their peoples benefit from increased knowledge and science. He gives (at the end of the highlights) two opposing quotes from Presidents Reagan and Washington. He also discusses why our weapons are dangerous, with their abilities to exterminate us: not solely because of their destructive power, of course. But moreover because they are in the hands of governments, and governments, always throughout history, fall. When the fall, the control of those weapons might fall into the hands of the insane, or malicious, and doom us all. He notes stories that ancient women would hide poison arrows and weapons when the men fought. “Today our poison arrows can destroy the global civilization and just possibly annihilate our species.”

Want to provoke blacks to read more? He has a good, if brief, description of slavery and how reading was prevented among slaves, in order to keep them stupid and ignorant. This was done, obviously, to prevent rebellions and ensure compliance. An African American’s ancestors would all have rebelled, violently (some did), for the ability to become educated, had they known of its benefits. Yet today’s black youth and adults – just like their white brethren – squander the ability to read. I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine only our immigrants regularly exercise this skill in America, a fact that at least gives me hope in the future of our country, even if that feeling is tempered with sadness for the growing ignorance of people, say, in my family.

His note regarding how in our evolutionary history, children would rarely have been alone, is poignant. “In the enlightened west we stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have difficulty understanding why they’re sometimes upset.” Indeed…the least we can do is teach them to meditate, to observe the processes of their minds, is it not?

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

Sagan writes with eloquence and respect, especially for the ignorant, as noted above. We need to be kind to those who believe in pseudoscience or unlikely explanations. Elsewhere, he makes the great point that astrology provides what science, as it is usually presented, fails to evoke in people: a need for connection, importance, and hope.

His sections on religion are also excellent, and he walks the line between respectful acceptance of the benefits these beliefs provide to their adherents, and a healthy criticism of these institutions, wonderfully. Sagan gives a poignant note (I think the quote isn’t from Sagan, so check if quoting) important for any American to remember:

“Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments … The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”

He does note that by making predictions, religion enters the realm of science. Here, perhaps more than any other aspect of life, it fails magnificently. Furthermore, he argues against cherry-picking scientific beliefs – like religious adherents do with the scriptures they choose to follow and believe:

But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened—again, because we are not wise enough to do so.”

One thing gives me hope for our country, and I certainly hope this is still true today and into the future:

“You go to these museums and you’re struck by the wide-eyed looks of wonder, by kids racing from exhibit to exhibit, by the triumphant smiles of discovery. They’re wildly popular. Almost as many of us go to them each year as attend professional baseball, basketball and football games combined.”