A belated discovery

a gift for the mind

June 23, 2007|by Allan Powell, Hagerstown

It is always a joy to discover a really great book that has somehow escaped one's notice for some time. But, luckily, Carl Sagan's, "The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark," became known to me and has proved to be a delight to the mind from cover to cover.

Though published in 1996 (the year of his death), this fine book is still available to inspire those who wish to understand much about science.

Sagan realized that he faced an insurmountable task in appealing to the general public to appreciate and respect science and scientists as they labor to reveal how the natural world works independent of unseen supernatural agents. No matter that they are deemed to be necessary, useful or comforting to a large majority of human beings.

Sagan is alarmed at the vast numbers who are " clutching (their) crystals and nervously consulting (their) horoscopes (while) our critical faculties (are) in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide almost without noticing into superstition and darkness."


There is a much larger agenda for Sagan than merely slaying demons which are a dependable staple among deeply religious literalists who demand their existence. He is interested in exposing all of those phenomena which depend on human credulity, human weakness or human ignorance for their continued power over the mind of man.

Scientist Sagan is leery of space aliens, demons, visions that claim to originate from a supernatural source, divine healing and interpersonal messages devoid of speech.

While he does not mention glossolalia (speaking in tongues), one can assume it would be treated as a purely abnormal behavior. Special revelations that carry divine messages and the use of dream interpretation, to find reliable guidance, would merit the same judgment.

While there is a great variance within Christian sects and denominations about the relative legitimacy of these religious practices, they are acceptable or even emphasized by one or more groups.

One would suppose that the acceptance of demons, demon possession and exorcism would be rejected out of hand as a primitive belief. But the Catholic church not only accepts such primitive ideas, it still teaches university level courses about the proper means to control them. As late as February 2005, the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University was offering courses in all aspects of demonology. Later reports noted that 120 students had enrolled.

Sagan offers a remedy for the widespread reliance on "the Demon Haunted World" to explain things we do not fully understand. He recommends " a fully democratic application of skepticism" which is a normal expectation of scientists. "All science asks is to employ the same levels of skepticism we use in buying a used car," writes this man who has done so much to translate the mysteries of science.

It becomes evident that Sagan does not foresee the democratization of skeptical habits. The teaching of logical, critical and empirical tools which are required for depth of thought would generate hostility in most school districts. Yet it is clear that a healthy skepticism is a necessary feature of a complete education.

Making the important point that one does not doubt for the sake of doubt but for adequacy of belief would not be convincing to many people. Carl Sagan is one of the best minds that I have had the pleasure to meet, even if it was a vicarious meeting in a book store. While our names appeared side by side on the letter head of a national organization for years, I never had the pleasure of get to know him.

His passing was a loss to the world in need of intellectual honesty, personal courage and a deeply profound intellect.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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