Carl Sagan and the Demon Haunted World

12 part T.V. shows. Alien contact. CSICop and Marijuana. Mars and Venus. One man did it all. Ladies and Gents, meet Carl Sagan…

“In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”
Recently, when reading Robert Dalek’s superb biography of President John F. Kennedy, I was struck by one of the challenges that Kennedy faced during his campaign for the White House – his Catholicism.
Kennedy and his campaign managers spent countless hours trying to deal with what was seen by many as potentially Kennedy’s greatest weakness – a suspected inability to seperate the duties of his office from the teachings of his religion.
A quick perusal of the daily briefings from the Kennedy campaign shows a candidate continously on the back-foot: claiming that he would have no difficulty seperating his beliefs from his obligations as Commander in Chief. Eventually the young Senator would get so exasperated at the daily sniping over the issue that he was basically forced to state that he was a democrat first and a Catholic second.
An interesting footnote to history, to be sure, but what does this have to do with the price of cheese?


Kennedy’s difficulties regarding his religious beliefs are symptomatic of a bygone age when the secular nation of the American Republic was held as simply inviolable. The founding fathers of the United States had been adamant: they wanted people’s religious beliefs kept well away from the office of national manager, or President as it was to become known. For the moment we’ll gloss over the massive inconsistency whereby the nascent American nation saw fit to put the words ‘In God we trust…’ at the very heart of their identity…
However, such secularism seems almost quaint in the face of the outbreak of recent religious fundementalism which seems to have infected the Oval office and all power centres around it. But it didn’t start with Bush2. The traces of religious fervour can be found in the words of the Reagan presidency and each administration since.
“A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable”demon_cover.png
God and Nation
But why worry about this so much? Shouldn’t the American President – and indeed any political figure – be free to worship whatever God they see fit? Of course. To this notion I have absolutely no objection whatsoever. What causes concern is that the lines between the two duties – to God and nation – have become dangerously blurred.
Things are so out of control in fact that John Danforth, a former senator and US ambassador to the UN, has claimed that: “Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians” and that the US government has become the mouthpiece of religious zealots.
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Billions and Billions

Carl Sagan, the lamentably passed Scientist felt so strongly about the dangers of religion (any religion) bearing an influence on the workings of government, that he authored an entire book about the subject: The Demon Haunted World.
Ostensibly the book is an attempt to explain the Scientific method to the layman – demystifying science itself, to reveal a discipline which inspires wonder, free thought and the exchange of ideas: a powerful argument that through freedom of expression and inquisition, mankind can achieve extraordinary things.
The Demon Haunted World is also a detailed explanation of the rise of irrationality in the modern developed world, the world where Presidents consult Tarot readers, where crystals, auras, Scientology, Body Design and a thousand other bogus, pseudo-scientific doctrines – designed to do nothing other than seperate you from your money – co-exist in the same mental framework that allows electricity, the internet and biochemistry to affect our daily lives. It as, as Sagan notes, as though the 14th and the 21st centuries can exist side by side in our consciousness.
“Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?”
To combat this deluge of con-artists and charlatans, Sagan provided us with his now legendary Baloney Detection Kit – an easy to use set of questions and investigative thought processes which seek to cut through the waffle and idiocy of the spritualists, mediums and outright criminals that are ripping off the gullible and the easily led.
But aside from the bilious intolerance of con-artists, The Demon Haunted World is an uplifting, impassioned plea for humanity. It was once famously said that Sagan was incapable of writing a boring sentence, and for this book it certainly holds true. Whether or not he was under the influence of marijuana (Sagan famously smoked quite a bit) is debatable, but the text soars with the optimism and positive thinking one normally associates with an idealistic student, not as Sagan was, a man staring down the barrel of his own mortality.
The Demon Haunted World is a challenge – a challenge to us all to be more inquisitive, less accepting and to question the didactic declarations of our political leaders. It is also a challenge to each individual to better themselves and their communities. A challenge that, at least to hear Sagan describe it, would seem to be within the realm of possibility.
But is also a celebration: of life, love and learning. And the possibility of a world not governed by the fear of the dark.
Click here to buy the book
Wikipedia Carl Sagan Biography

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


  1. Big Problems with Sagan.
    I lost a lot of respect for Sagan when I heard him on a radio talk show. A caller confronted Sagan by briefly detailing a personal UFO sighting that was at close range and dramatic. The man closed by saying that he doesn’t know what he saw but he KNOWS it wasn’t an aircraft or natural phenomena. Sagan completly dismissed the man and essentially said that the man didn’t see what he saw.

    Two years later I go to the movies and see Sagan’s “Contact”. Lo and behold it IS okay to posit alien intellegence as long as the aliens act as Carl Sagan believes Aliens would act (he would have them act like Scientists/Engineers, essentially a mirror of HIMSELF). What arrogance. I wouldn’t take issue with Sagan if he denied there were UFO’s. But to deny them and then to posit alien intellegence only on HIS narrowly defined terms just took me out at the knees.

    Sorry for the rant the arrogance offends me. I understand “Contact” is fiction but it’s apparent that it’s Sagan’s musings on alien intellegence. I did like the movie on it’s own sake.
    Foo Fighter

  2. there is something in what you say: Sagan was often quite bilious and dismissive of contactees and abductee stories. a similar tendency whcih you can find in richard dawkins’ attitudes to organised religion – dismissiveness bordering on outright hostility.
    I think what really irritated Sagan was his ardent belief that Science (real Science) was infinitely more fascinating and sexy than anything that the UFO community could offer up.

  3. to Foo Fighter: I don’t know about the case of Sagan dismissing a UFO-sighter, so I can’t speak about that one.
    But I think one of the points he was trying to make in “Contact” was that interstellar contact is such a time-consuming and technically involved process, if it is ever achieved, it will be done by scientists and engineers. Politicians, warmongers, religious leaders will all take a back seat to those who can speak the language of mathematics.
    I think the aliens in “Contact” probably had a lot more facets to them, and were simply showing Ellie what she could understand. Remember, it’s extremely likely that any ETI’s we encounter will be, not hundreds, but more likely thousands or millions of years advanced beyond us. We’ll be lucky if they think as highly of us as we do of rats.
    In short: I think “Contact” was a wonderfully spiritual story (the book was a good deal better than the movie). If you think he tried to paint aliens only as scientists, remember that it’s a first contact story, and first contact will be carried out by scientists.

  4. To Kasreyn:
    I did like “Contact” and it is a good movie (though long). My previous post is about arrogance more than it is about “Contact”.
    Sagan’s position that all UFO sightings were explainable and his assertion that alien visitors could’t exist becuase it would take them too long to travel here by conventional methods is as absurd as a pre-flight era person saying man couldn’t fly to the moon because he didn’t have bird wings.
    I consider it very possible that Bishop Robert Kirk’s comments about faries 400 years ago applies to UFO’s today.
    He postulates that there are beings (fairies to him / aliens to us) that are between man and God (they have supernatural powers). They inhabit a world that mirrors our own, they enter our world frequantly and are involved in it’s business. We can enter their world at times and seers can see them and communicate with them etc.
    Not new concepts here (Keel, Valee, and others posit the fairy/UFO connection). I mention this as my context for taking issue with Sagan’s self limiting arrogance regarding UFO’s strictly being space going craft.
    UFO’s may not be a technolicially constructed craft at all. They certainly have demonstrated characteristics many times that defied our laws of physics.
    Perhaps at times they are projections into our world from somewhere else, like you shine a light on a wall. But in this case it is a bubble of somewhere else pushed into our world.
    When we see a three dimensional craft operating in our air they may be sitting in a room on another planet or on this planet in another universe looking at a virtual reality machine taking a flight in an exotic land.
    The craft may not have had to “fly” here but was “pushed” or projected into our reality through means we can’t understand because we haven’t completly grasped physics and the nature of reality.
    Many people ignore the psychic phenomenon surrounding UFO sightings and encounters with entities. Maybe it’s even less a technologic thing and more of a psychic thing.
    Sorry, I’ve blathered on enough…thanks for reading if you made it this far.
    Foo Fighter

  5. I’ve been studing UFOs for years and what wasn’t told is the real story about Sagan – few people know the truth. The reasons why he had to shut up, he didn’t want to be arrogant about UFOs. A lot of serious ufologists need to dismiss some things in public. You think the world is ready for a contact? You think everyone working to NASA is allowed to talk about UFOs? Isn’t that easy. I agree with some things said here, but please don’t think everyone that loves science don’t believe in UFOs. Thanks, peace!

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