A Letter to my Almost Prophet

By: Guest
February 15, 2012

This afternoon’s post is by guest author Childe Jake. His other posts can be seen here and here. His personal blog is at http://thejakefoyer.blogspot.com/.

Dear Dr. Carl Sagan,

In The Demon-Haunted World, you write of a struggle that took place in your heart over whether or not there is an afterlife. You preface this struggle by introducing readers to your loving parents. You speak with tenderness about how they nurtured your body and mind, and how they supported your choice to pursue a career in astronomy. After they passed away you felt a deep sense of loss, but also empathy for those who counter sorrow with faith.

In Chapter 12 you speak of how, after your parents were gone, you sometimes dreamed of them still being alive. Upon awaking, you had to mourn them again. You came to realize that some part of you was ready, perhaps anxious, to believe in life after death. But you chose not to embrace this belief, not even for the sake of comfort. Instead, you wrote The Demon-Haunted World—a treatise forcefully upholding skepticism.

One of the central messages of The Demon-Haunted World is that humanity’s progress has been hampered greatly by our insistence on clinging to unproven, often patently false notions. You provide alarming examples ranging from claims of demonic possession to alien abduction. In convincing fashion—convincing by virtue of being carefully documented—you detail how our species routinely exhibits dangerous levels of credulity. Often times, as during the Inquisition, people do so for ideological self-preservation or financial gain. And you illustrate how scientists too have sometimes been guilty of such wrongs. I admire you for displaying fairness. So much so that I wonder what the world would be like if everyone was like you. What might we achieve?

Your research shows how our minds are quite malleable. We are capable of everything from hallucination to contriving memories of events that did not happen. Whether attempting to communicate with the dead or falling under the influence of specious marketing from political groups, the message is clear: humans are vulnerable. We must always be on guard for deception, especially in contexts where we intensely hope something is true.

Though I now regard your book as a masterwork, I wonder how I would have reacted to The Demon-Haunted World had I read it when I still practiced organized religion. I doubt my reading would have been enthusiastic back then. Admittedly, it’s fortunate that the first of your works I digested was not this one. My early encounters with your teachings were on the order of simple brochures and feel-good videos. Yet, those lighter offerings made me more open to this hard-hitting discourse.

When I finally picked up The Demon-Haunted World, I was already on board with your main ideas. You might say my heart was prepared. Here is a prime example: I used to read the Bible with obeisance. After further study, I came to believe it should be doubted rigorously. So it was invigorating to see you denounce the murderous military campaigns of Joshua in the Old Testament. Of the Bible, you say it “is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes – from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love…”

Dr. Sagan, reading this book provided me a sense of validation, as if to say, I’m not alone. Other people think like me. What a wonderfully gratifying realization! However, I also experienced a troubling side effect.

While caught up in excitement for your book, I felt myself growing impatient with those who dismiss its contents. Moreover, I read The Demon-Haunted World in the run up to an election. So I noticed myself feeling anger toward those who seek to cut funding to scientific research. In my darkest moments, I wanted to heap scorn on those who denounce you for no other reason than your findings do not ratify their beliefs. Could it be that there are the makings of an inquisitor in me? How do I, how did you, overcome this pernicious urge?

Your solution in The Demon-Haunted World is so simple as to be anticlimactic: education. I admire how you do not profess to be free of the atavistic tendencies we all experience, especially when we are afraid. As a child you had nightmares about monsters. While awake you got in at least one fight that led to stitches. Yet, after surviving both puberty and the rote tedium of public schooling, you took a leap forward in college. To avoid gross error, you began to gather not just knowledge but proven methods for culling the best of it.

Dr. Sagan, I want to be like you. What is more, despite the seeming absoluteness of death I wish I could meet you. At minimum, I don’t want you to be forgotten. I confess even feeling an impulse to make something of a religion from the knowledge and wisdom you left behind. This to me begs a question or two. Were I to encounter you while in a highly suggestible state like sleep or hypnosis, might I deem you a prophet or angel? How do I guard against believing, letting alone acting on, such a fantasy?

I have this assurance drawn from ongoing study of your writing. The real Carl Sagan would counsel against declaring a person’s writings to be inerrant gospel. He might even chastise me for fixating on his books at the expense of other scholars’ work. Furthermore, he would grant that science, like religion, is not a risk-free endeavor guaranteed to make bad men good and good men better. It’s just that science seems to be the best tool we’ve yet found for backing up claims and overcoming faulty assumptions. Finally, the real Carl Sagan would counsel others not to take my word for it.

Dr. Sagan, I doubt that we will ever meet. Regardless, you have proven to me that humans have the power to self-correct and progress, throughout time and across generations. I believe your approach may be the key to one day realizing a world that is free of the demonic forces now haunting our potential. Carl, with all my heart, I thank you for instilling this hope in me.


Childe Jake

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19 Responses to A Letter to my Almost Prophet

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 15, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Err, not very mormonish all in all, though not a bad paen to Sagan.

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  2. Jeff Spector on February 15, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    Science is its own religion

    Controversial! What do you think? Thumb up 6

  3. Childe Jake on February 15, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Hi Stephen. Nice use of “paen.” That is a cool word. I guess, for my response to the issue of topicality, I would ask this question: must a post state Mormonism explicitly to be relevant to it? Especially on a site like Wheat and Tares?

    This is a criticism that popped up in my previous post. And it’s a fair enough issue to raise. Suffice it to say for this post, I was raised and am still technically a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This piece comes as the reflections of an inactive member (me) who still finds himself experiencing those religious impulses he cultivated while practicing Mormonism.

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  4. Childe Jake on February 15, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    Hi Jeff,
    In his book “Broca’s Brain” Sagan speaks of science as a priesthood, and also addresses the attendant risk:

    “In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater.”

    I guess I prefer the priesthood analogy over calling science religion outright. But the possibility of scientific findings getting formulated into religions is something I’m considering with this post. Science is not risk free, and as a means of searching for truth, comes with risks like abusing power and clinging to archaic notions. Hence the value men like Sagan place on skepticism.

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  5. Bob on February 15, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    Childe Jake,
    Thank you for the Post. I too like reading Sagan__kind of a ‘niche’ thinker. I feel he should falls on to the “out of the best of books” list.

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  6. Jeff Spector on February 15, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    The reason I say that Science is a religion are thus:

    1. Scientists have faith in their scientific methods regardless if they can be proved to be faulty.
    2. Scientists embrace “truths” whether there is strong evidence to back it up or not. they might call it theory….
    3. Scientists can observe the same result and come to different conclusions therefore, there is interpretation involved.

    Sounds like religion to me…..

    Controversial! What do you think? Thumb up 3

  7. Jake on February 15, 2012 at 4:24 PM

    A nice panegyric to Mr Sagan. What I like about your eulogy is that it articulates the tension between adoration and the cautiousness of idealisation towards our heroes.

    What I love about Sagan’s work is that he captures the wonder and bewilderment that the natural world has. Which often, as you raise, has this religious, mystical transcendent quality to it. I can understand why many have said that the natural world is God’s second book of scripture, and that by studying nature we can have an experience with the divine.

    The greatest quality to Sagan’s work is his avoidance of dogmatism. Whilst, Dawkins et al. refute positions dogmatically, Sagan has a moderation in his scepticism, a true agnostic, which I find admirable.

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  8. Rachel on February 15, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    My husband isn’t LDS (or anything else), and after my kids spend 3 hours at church, they will sit down together and watch an episode of Sagan’s Cosmos. (I’m not opposed to watching–I’m just usually doing something else, like working on dinner, reading, etc.)
    I think my kids get the best of both worlds. They see that believers and non-believers can live peaceably, and, I believe that there is room for Science and Faith.

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  9. Jake on February 15, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    Jeff, by that definition of Science being a religion, then everything breaks down to being a religion.

    I mean economists have faith in their methods, Political theorist have faith in their methods, historians have faith in their methodology. In the end everyone has faith in something.

    Ditto for facts and theory. Politicians embrace ‘truth’s’ that have may no factual basis, likewise for economists.

    What branch of knowledge or fact is there that does not depend upon interpretation? Can you give me one thing in which everyone agrees and does not interpret things differently?

    The conclusion I make from this is that everything is a religion. From Maths, to Art, to Politics to Economics and everything in between.

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  10. Jeff Spector on February 15, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    Jake, exactly. Nothing is for sure! Except Death and taxes

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  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 15, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    Microeconomics, time and motion studies, and applied statistics, my favorite areas of economics, are more engineering than science.

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  12. Childe Jake on February 15, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    I certainly think that science, religion and engineering have resemblances. But this steers us into a discussion of definitions rather than the merits and risks of adoring them. Suffice it to say that while I would not say one is the same as the other, neither do I think science, religion and engineering are completely separate from each other.

    I am interested in further exploring the hero angle that a couple of you hit on. I’m also interested in people’s thoughts on adoration for a given book.

    I was more explicit in the rough draft, but as I wrote this piece I courted parallels between my attitudes to Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon, which I used to adore, and Carl Sagan and The Demon-Haunted World, which I have enthusiasm for now. In all four cases, I’ve experienced at some time urges to call them definitive, to say this is what everyone should learn from and get on board with. Have others felt this urge for a person or book? What value, or lack there of, do you place on applying skepticism to things you are excited about?

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  13. allquieton on February 15, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    There are people I disagree with yet still admire their crystal clear thinking. Sagan isn’t one of these (though I do like reading him). My copy of DHW is marked up pretty well. Sagan makes too many mistakes for me to take him seriously. He makes simple logical errors in his reasoning. He also seems to have very little insight into the mind of a believer-making some of his explanations about believers laughable. Also, Sagan’s contempt for religion shows through consistently in his writing-it’s offputting.

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  14. jmb275 on February 16, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    Re allquieton
    I agree in some respects. I felt like he didn’t really understand the mind of a believer too, and I remember feeling like he threw too much of the baby out with the bathwater (wait, is that possible?). But those are minor complaints on my end, I really loved the book.

    Re Childe Jake
    I think I do end up adoring books quite a bit, especially right after I finish reading them. As I continue reading more books, I usually recognize my adoration waning a bit for any particular book. Does anyone else experience this?

    I don’t think I can relate well to the hero ideas. When I think about people I consider to be heroes, I come up short. Not sure why. I have favorite ideas people have come up with, but for some reason I elevate the idea, and not the person who came up with it.

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  15. Childe Jake on February 16, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    Re. jmb275 & allquieton:

    Your criticisms of Sagan with regard to understanding believers points to a disconnect I accept is there. And Sagan certainly wasn’t above it. To his credit, he does frequently shine the light of criticism inward, both in this book and others.

    However, this disconnect runs both ways. There are plenty of contemporary examples of contempt and dismissive attitudes thrown back and forth by believers and skeptics. Having now spent at least a decade+ on both sides of this argument, I’ve observed a lot of it. In fact, to my chagrin, I admit I’ve flung the mud in both directions at one point or another.

    But this gets me back to a point I strove to make in the post. Even well-intentioned enthusiasm for a person/book/organization/idea, often has the side effect of generating disconnect and animosity for those with opposing views. Thoughts? How do we rein this impulse in on a personal and group level?

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  16. Cowboy on February 16, 2012 at 11:11 AM

    Child Jake (#12):

    Well said. Jeff’s argument really has more to do with labels, and frankly a desire to set empiricism on an even keel with spirituality. Yes, scientists have their beliefs just like religionists, but to be a little scientific, he draws the wrong correlation by citing the wrong evidence. Science is simply a system for trying to explain things. Religion is likewise a system that tries to explain things. That is where the similarities generally end however, as the methods proposed by these systems differ quite drastically. Still, Jeff said nothing about the system, but rather drew his comparison by noting what he sees as similarities between the practitioners of both science and religion. I would argue that any relationship observed between these groups is based on a multicolinearity called “human nature”. Humans have a tendency to generate idea’s, values, beliefs, etc. While science and religion may be systems for facilitating this tendency, they do so quite differently. Overall the similarities are limited.

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  17. Jeff Spector on February 16, 2012 at 12:05 PM


    The point I am making is that proof can be as subjective as faith.

    How do you actually prove, for example that 1-2= -1?

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  18. Cowboy on February 16, 2012 at 12:12 PM


    From my recollections as a highschooler, I would prove it using the real-number-line. Of course, we could debate the labels, ie, what does “one” mean. But let’s get back to reality.

    I am familiar with all of the complexities of knowledge and epistemology. At the end of the day however, we don’t let those experiences hang us up. “Proof” or “empiricism” does depend on some level of trust. In other words, I trust my senses and experiences. The apparent consensus on many things always tends to offer confidence, which yes, is subjective. Still, that does not mean that it is “as subjective as faith”. Faith lacks even consensus. Faith is independent. Faith is more subjective. Short, plain, and simple.

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  19. Jake on February 16, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    Childe Jake, I know what you mean about reading a book or adoring a person. It seems that often when I have first read a book that I am in a state of adoration and think the book is perfect and that everyone should read. The solution for me is to read more, as I read a LOT of books, my rosy tinted view of a book/person never lasts very long as the next book soon replaces it, and gives me time to think about the flaws in the previous book.

    Another way, that I use to stem praising the work too much is that I remember that every book is trying to persuade me or convince me in some way. Ultimately, every author is trying to do something with their words, to either make me think about the world in a certain way, feel a certain emotion, or to view something in a particular way. Maintaining this awareness that there is a duality in that words are trying to do something (make me think, do, feel), as well as saying something makes me think twice before I fall in love with a book.

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