Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark can be effectively summed up as a guide to critical thinking as a platform to weigh reason against pseudoscience and religion. The book opens with Sagan recalling an experience sharing a cab and having a conversation with an intelligent yet misguided man and the realization that unsound reason and pseudoscience is prevalent in today’s world because it may often seem more exciting than actual scientific fact. The remainder of the book attempts to guide the reader to think rationally and critically when evaluating unreasonable or suspicious claims. Sagan explains that claims of paranormal activity, demons, angels, extraterrestrials, faith-healing, and fortune telling can all be explained or disproved by modern science.
My favorite portion of the book is the chapter titled “Newton’s Sleep.” This chapter functions as a subtle rebuke of many religious claims while still respecting that there are many religions that can co-exist with modern science. However, religion becomes dangerous when it attempts to limit critical and impartial thinking. While religions like modern Catholicism can be compatible with science, many still rely on keeping their followers in the dark scientifically, even to the point of claiming that anything less than complete blind faith is sinful and will result in eternal damnation. Sagan quotes William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s Faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.
This discouragement of a healthy doubt and criticism of religious claims is still a large part of many faiths. Alarmingly, this are not just the message of a crude religion from an under-developed nation, but also the hallmark of the religions claimed by some of the Western world’s most influential leadership. Below is a Bill Maher segment explaining the presence of religion on American politics.
As a result, politics and laws become subject to pseudoscience and asininity of religion, negatively affecting many lives and limiting medical advancements among other things. In addition, these concepts go directly against the principles to becoming a fairminded thinker as outlined in the course’s first lecture. Independence (being able to figure things out by yourself) and courage (not being afraid to question your beliefs) are two of the principles that are contrary to what religious leaders instruct their followers to do. Sagan’s critical analysis of religions’ hindrance on modern science is a bit milder than I would have expected from him, but it is respectable that he takes a tactful approach of the subject and acknowledges that not all religion is incompatible with science. In fact, he explains that in some cases, they can complement each other.
As a person who was raised in a home heavily influenced by the teachings of an ancient book used as a guide to explain every un-explainable situation, and taught to use that same book to encourage hate and discrimination before learning to think for myself, I have enjoyed Carl Sagan’s work since being introduced to it eight years ago. I first read A Demon Haunted World as a high-school senior and it was a major factor in my ability to eventually utilize critical thinking and rationalism in my approach to what I had been taught my entire life.