Many years ago, on a now-defunct discussion board where I used to post, I noticed that Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was something of a bible for hardcore atheists who insisted that only that which was verifiable by the scientific method was “true.” I commented that I intended to read the book sometime, but was almost afraid to … maybe I thought it would turn me into an atheist.
One of my atheist cyber-friends quite rightly wrist-slapped me for this comment, pointing out that my faith must not be very strong if I was afraid to expose myself to challenging ideas. In some ways I think much of the reading and thinking I’ve done over the past five or six years has been an attempt to get past those fears, to ask the questions I’ve been afraid to ask, to see how my beliefs hold up if I really allow them to be closely examined. It’s been an interesting process.
So this year, while making up my Lenten reading list, I decided it was time to include Carl Sagan’s scary book. Not so scary, it turns out.
Carl Sagan loved science. I mean, he really, really loved it. Though he didn’t have much use for any organized religion, I think it’s fair to say that science was his religion: he believed that through the rigorous use of critical thinking and the scientific method, humanity could create a better world. Unfortunately, he also thought that critical thinking was becoming an endangered process in the late twentieth century.
Stories of alien abduction, UFO sightings, New Age channeling, faith healing, religious authority — anything that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny falls beneath Sagan’s withering critical contempt in this often witty book. He doesn’t entirely rule out the concept of a god of some kind, pointing out that the way the universe is organized is exactly what he would expect of a creator, if there were one. But sacred texts, religious observances, and belief in answered prayer are all in the category of “superstition” for Sagan.
Sagan has prior assumptions of his own here that he doesn’t examine or criticize (and although I’m writing in the literary present tense, it’s obviously a bit late for him to examine these now, since he’s dead), but he is right about the widespread credulity and lack of scientific knowledge in the general North American population. I find I can agree with much of what he says while continuing to believe there are other kinds of “truth” than those that can be demonstrated in the laboratory.