Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark

Published in 1996 – the year of his all-too-early death due to cancer – The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, will inevitably be seen as Carl Sagan’s departing words urging the world to challenge superstition and irrational modes of thinking. A celebrated populariser of science, Sagan outlines his motivation right at the beginning of the book.

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.” (p25)

Sagan rightly laments the harm that has been caused through unquestioning attitudes towards ‘Holy Books’. The Bible’s injunction “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” led to the loss of countless lives in Europe where witch-burning continued to be a popular pastime right up until the rise of the scientific revolution.

And what about today? Do we still see short-sighted religious superstition at work? Of course we do and sadly it is not limited to extremist groups like ISIS. Just over a decade back, I recall being shocked when even the revered Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has spent a lifetime challenging extremism and has a huge following in the Middle East and beyond, responded thus to the awful 2004 Indian ocean earthquake that resulted in over 280,000 fatalities, including in the overwhelmingly Muslim state of Aceh, Indonesia:

“People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others….These areas were notorious because of this type of modern tourism, which has become known as “sex tourism”….Don’t they deserve punishment from Allah?!”

Instead, science and scientists like Carl Sagan, would rather that we examine the reason why earthquakes occur more frequently in particular regions of the world and study plate tectonics and their relationship to earthquakes with a view to putting some thought into what can be done to limit the damage they can cause. It is a rational and sensible way to deal with a tragic natural phenomenon.

There does not need to be a conflict between science and religion, according to Sagan, but it requires vigilance and action to ensure that the bigots do not triumph.

“On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other. Open and vigorous debate, even the consecration of doubt, is a Christian tradition going back to John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Some of mainstream Christianity and Judaism embraces and even anticipated at least a portion of the humility, self-criticism, reasoned debate, and questioning of received wisdom that the best of science offers. But other sects, sometimes called conservative or fundamentalist – and today they seem to be in the ascendant, with the mainstream religions almost inaudible and invisible – have chosen to make a stand on matters subject to disproof, and thus have something to fear from science.” (p277)

One particularly compelling chapter of the book is devoted to what Sagan calls his Baloney Detection Kit, to help equip us with the tools to facilitate critical thinking and help prevent us falling prey to those would try and restrict our freedom to subject all ideas to criticism by declaring some topics off-limits as sacred or taboo.

The Demon-Haunted World is a passionate appeal to question and challenge all forms of irrational thought. Over twenty years after its original publication, its message remains as relevant as it was in 1996 and perhaps even more so.

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