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”
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