The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World

I have read many, many, many books and articles concerning some of the things Sagan writes about in this book, including skepticism about the supernatural, fundamentalist religion, pseudoscience, fuzzy New Age ideas, etc.; as well as defenses of critical thinking. I have had less but still significant exposure to some of the other main themes of this book, including positive defenses of science (as opposed to refutations of anti-science and pseudoscience), and critiques of contemporary education.

So not a lot of this is new to me. Therefore it’s not the kind of book that’s going to have a big impact on me, or be some kind of eye-opening experience to read. But I think it’s pretty much all on the money. I’m sure there’s the occasional detail I see a little differently, but I have no problem endorsing virtually everything Sagan says in this book.

I also found myself reacting a little more favorably to the contents of the book based on the messenger. That is, given the enormous amount of time and effort Sagan devoted to public education, to translating science into something the masses could understand and appreciate, to inspiring people to share his sense of wonder about the world as revealed by science, (and given the fact that he himself was an accomplished scientist), I feel like he has “earned” the right to lecture us, I feel like the conclusions he’s sharing late in his life in this book are worthy of respect as sincere, well-intended, intelligent, and well-informed.

I will say the organization of the book is not very good. What the author has done is cobbled together a book out of various essays, many of which had already appeared in print in some form. So there’s a certain amount of repetition, and in general it just doesn’t read like all the parts hang together as a logically well-structured whole. More like a series of separate discussions of related topics.

I’m impressed that Sagan is able to come across as so impassioned and yet so respectful toward his readers and toward those with whom he disagrees. He somehow juggles alarm about the horrific past, present, and potential future damage caused by human irrationality, with a general optimism about people’s basic intelligence, good will, and educability.

I remember reading Steve Allen’s critical thinking book Dumbth a long time ago, and being struck by how much he came across as a bitter old man, whining about the bad service he got in restaurants, and generalizing from such anecdotes to a critique of just how foolish people are compared to the good old days of higher standards. Sagan’s laments never come across as petty or condemnatory like that. His message is more along the lines of “There’s much to criticize in how people construct their worldviews and make decisions, but by appealing to people’s better natures and rational capacities, we can work together to make the world a better place.”

Maybe some of that positivity and respect for his opponents is strategic. It would be for me, which is why I sometimes am not comfortable trying to communicate that way. I’ve developed into more of a cynic about these things. I think for the most part people are stupid, and it’s far, far more the exception than the rule that their beliefs and values and decisions are governed by any kind of assessment of rational merits. I believe I am morally obligated to limit myself to using rational argumentation and other nonviolent means to influence people, not because I think they work more than occasionally, but because other means are worse.

But my guess is Sagan is not like me in that respect, and he’s probably as optimistic about human nature and human potential as his tone and style indicate.

Which I assume would be welcomed by readers. Those that are reachable at all, that is. There are many, many people so emotionally committed to a contrary worldview, that not only will they disagree with him, but they will be convinced that his tone is a scathing and disrespectful one. For a certain kind of fundamentalist Christian, the very fact that he doesn’t affirm the central tenets of their religion is enough by itself to establish that he is part of the dark forces who disrespect and oppress them and trample on their Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

But for a person who is somewhat caught up in pseudoscience or religion or whatever, but retains some open-mindedness and some ability and willingness to listen to reason, this is one of the first books I’d recommend if I wanted to expose them to critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

In terms of the content of The Demon-Haunted World, one of the sections that most grabbed my attention is his discussion of the witch mania in Europe that led to Christians massacring an almost unimaginable number of people for no even minimally defensible reason whatsoever. It’s a very good (and depressingly not unusual) example of just how horrifically irrational people are capable of being.

How this species won’t end up annihilating itself is a mystery to me. To Sagan’s credit, he believed that regardless of the likelihood of success or failure, the way to deal with such mind-boggling irrationality is to believe in people and their potential, and to roll up our sleeves and get to work educating people and steering them toward science and rationality and humanism. More to his credit, he didn’t just write a book with that message, but actually lived his life in accord with that philosophy.

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