Chances are when you hear the words “billions and billions” spoken, you do not hear them in your own voice, but in the voice of the late Carl Sagan – that is if you’ve ever seen Cosmos, the fascinating 13-part science series he wrote and narrated. (Although he really never said that in Cosmos. We only think he did because Johnny Carson would often do a funny bit imitating Sagan and he would say “billions and billions”). And that is the voice I heard as I settled into The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, published in 1996, the year of his death. The book is so Saganesque that nearly two decades later, that slightly nasal, roundish voice is what I heard on every page.
Sagan takes on all manner of magical thinking, without reservation: pseudoscience, superstition, zealotry, witchcraft and “biblical literalists.” UFO encounters, miraculous healings, beatific visions, claims of being teleported to alien spaceships all have prosaic explanations, he believed, once subjected to common sense analysis. “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing them.” Living in what is considered the most haunted city in America, I must take umbrage with his scoffing at the existence of ghosts, however, for they most certainly do exist. Savannah has oodles of them; we’ve built a burgeoning tourist industry on them. One stormy night I’ll tell you about my own experiences. But, for now we will only speak about this incredibly enthralling book.
In short, Carl Sagan was the nonpareil scientist who believed only that which can stand up to scientific proof. One might come away with the conviction that Sagan was an atheist; however, he denied this. Sagan explained faith as belief in the absence of evidence; he would simply withhold belief until there was evidence. If one could actually prove an infinitely old universe, he argued, then one might be able to disprove the existence of a God Creator. An atheist essentially declares there is no God – a theory which Sagan believed was impossible to prove - at least in his lifetime with the tools currently at our disposal. He fit more comfortably into the cloak of an agnostic. I believe if God could be proven there would be no need for faith; and, science requires that we skeptically interrogate the universe. But I find no discordant notes between the two, probably because I’d rather not.
As dismissive as he was regarding the validity of “miracles” and a life after death, he was nevertheless very careful to acknowledge the positivity religion can bring to the lives of humans: history, ethics, compassion, morals, and poetry can, and often do, find their roots in religious belief. Where he found fault was in what he termed “biblical literalists” who believed in a God who spoke to an unerring stenographer, leaving no room for allegory or metaphor or interpretation. Sagan did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily.
It is no surprise that Sagan was a great champion of reading and critical thinking, which are delightfully subversive and dangerous in any unjust society. This was true in the days of American slavery and is true today in cultures that can only thrive if certain segments of the population are kept in the darkness illiteracy breeds. As he rightly points out, tyrants have always understood that literacy and the free expression of ideas through books and newspapers encourage thought. Thought begets disobedience and skepticism and, ultimately, power over the tyrant. “The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running.” Sadly, not much has changed since he wrote those words a generation ago. One only needs to look at reading scores (if students are even tested anymore in our culture of “everyone wins so no feelings are hurt.”).
Sagan tells the story of a young slave named Frederick Bailey who understood literacy was the path to freedom. Armed with that understanding, he taught himself to read, fled to New England, and changed his name to Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. Douglass went on to become one of the greatest orators in American history. As Sagan says, “There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.”
If it can be said that there is a dichotomy between science and mysticism, Carl Sagan himself was a sort of fascinating dichotomy. His greatest hero was Thomas Jefferson, which surprised me. Not that Jefferson doesn’t deserve the accolade (he is a hero of mine as well), but there is a bit of disconnect when in extolling Jefferson’s virtues as a scientist, botanist, astronomer, philosopher, writer, thinker and, of course, chief author of the Declaration of Independence – he fails to point out he was also a slaveholder. This is what Sagan might call two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought. It also makes him more human and approachable.
Reading The Demon-Haunted World, though not tome-like, took longer to finish than I expected. Not because it wasn’t gripping and exceedingly well written; it was both. But I found myself going off on tangents, putting the book down to find more information on topics he was raising, like Franz Mesmer, or Project Ozma, or Edward Teller and thermonuclear war (which is far more frightening than the prospect of being teleported to a space ship or running into a ghost at the top of the attic stair, let me tell you). But I was also fascinated by Carl Sagan, the person, and in his private life. I can see why people either loved or despised him. (Apparently, he could be something of a pill. His second wife understandably finds it hard to forgive him after he informed her that he and their mutual friend, Ann Druyan, discovered they were hopelessly in love and were going to get married.) Sagan seems to have had an insatiable need for attention – both personally and in his work. But the man could think, and write, and inspire. This book is wise, elegant, lucid, unyielding and as far from dull as science can get. We have lost much.