I was first introduced to Carl Sagan, along with most of the public, through the series `Cosmos'. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having heard of him prior to that, given I was twelve years old at the time. It became very apparent in that series, and all subsequent writings, that Sagan was a man of science, to his very core. I have known physicists and scientists of other fields who have embraced denominational and religious tenets, and followed other faith structures (albeit usually with modifications to the theological framework, which in fact puts them in company with their non-scientific intellectual companions). Not so for Sagan. It became clear to me, almost from the beginning his series, that science, the religion of rationality, was his religion. He worshipped the Cosmos, his dogma was the principle of rationality, experimentation and verification, and his heresies included the various irrational parts of the world, which comprise a good deal of popular culture (in every society) and, ultimately, much of what is commonly called religion.
Sagan's book, `The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark', is therefore, by an large, Sagan's Book of Heresies. Unlike many books of heresies throughout history, however, this is no simple text of dogmatic pronouncements, a list of things to avoid or distrust. This book has reasoning, research, and history. Sagan points out that even religious structures, who rely heavily on irrational aspects (revelation and inspiration) have certain guidelines of rationality by which to test these aspects.
`A 1517 papal bull distinguishes between apparitions that appear "in dreams or divinely". Clearly, the secular and ecclesiatical authorities, even in times of extreme credulity, were alert to the possibilities of hoax and delusion.'
Sagan explores issues of UFO abduction stories, ghosts and 'saintly' appearances (how does one determine if it is truly the image of the Virgin Mary in the glass, or just a coincidental pattern in the sunlight and oily coating of the glass?). Sagan discounts the veracity of most (if not all) such happenings, not only due to the lack of rationality, emotional issues and delusions of the 'experiencers', but also due to the assistance of those in established positions of power who promote such things.
For Sagan, science is a 'golden road' that can raise people out of poverty and backwardness into a greater awareness of the world and universe in which they live. Material progress is dependent upon scientific knowledge; likewise, proper use and direction of this progress requires scientific and environmental awareness. Science for Sagan touches the deepest yearnings of human thought. Sagan also postulates a positive link between scientific advance and democratic values (the political theology Sagan believes).
There are a few problems with this reasoning--Sagan does not give religion its due in the course of helping to develop philosophical and cultural development in the course of history. While it is true that religion and science have been at odds in the West in past millennium a number of times, this may have more to do with political realities than true rationality. Astronomy, Sagan's own particular field, began in aid of astrology; technology, physics, and chemistry most likely also began to be developed in earnest in suport of religious programmes. Sagan does not mention the fact that both the Carolingian and Italian Renaissance periods showed great flowering in scientific knowledge without a democracy in sight.
These caveats having been said, Sagan's reasoning throughout is elegantly crafted, and well written, with a strong historical underpinning to his reasoning, and an eye toward future developments. Ultimately, Sagan cautions against science becoming the domain of an elite few. `In all uses of science, it is insufficient--indeed it is dangerous--to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals. Instead, some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.'
Perhaps we are entering a period for science similar to that of when printing presses revolutionised the interactions of people with religion by making scriptures readily accessible; are we about to enter a reformation of science, in which it is reclaimed by the people? No longer will there be a single 'catholic' faith of science (and science relies as heavily on faith principles as any religion), but a multiplicity of scientific denominations which we can only speculate about today.
Sagan's book provokes questions and provides answers, as any good scientific text, popular or technical, should do. 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark' is full of Sagan's rational-oriented philosophy, in concert with so much of the underpinnings of Western culture (even its religious frameworks of theology, though Sagan does not like to admit this), and yet, somehow culture loses its way occasionally, and it is up to the professionals, be they scientists or priests, to help education and illuminate the world anew, to provide the candle in the dark. May all such professionals find a common ground upon with to stand, so to better steady the foundation of all.