Brad's Reviews > The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
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Dec 05, 11

bookshelves: skepticism, atheism, political, science
Read from November 03 to December 05, 2011, read count: 1

If Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is a nuclear bomb in the atheist arsenal, Carl Sagan's The Demon-haunted World is an anti-personnel mine.

Where Dawkins goes for maximum destruction, piling the misery and mockery on those he's battling, Sagan doesn't even acknowledge his enemy. The Demon-haunted World poses, instead (and very effectively), as a book in defense of skepticism, a book persuading the unskeptical to embrace reason in the form of open-mindedness, the pursuit of evidence, and a thirst for asking questions of everything.

To this end, Sagan takes on some of his favourite topics -- witch burning, demonic possession, science illiteracy, repressed memories, psychology, parapsychology, superstitions, UFOs and alien encounters -- and pokes at them with his skeptical stick to show us how a good skeptic (or good scientist) gets to the heart of an issue. He offers lessons in detecting fallacy (or "baloney," to use Sagan's technical term) and how to avoid it in our own arguments. He make a case for the importance of being skeptical of ourselves, our leaders, and our most cherished beliefs.

And underneath it all is a carefully mounted attack on theism. Sagan avoids detonating his explosives himself. He piles the dirt and camouflage on his landmine, hiding it with the skill of an old campaigner. He offers supposedly clear paths through the field, hoping that more than one will unwittingly trip the explosives and blow their belief systems to pieces.

I wonder, though, if Sagan's plan is too subtle to really make a difference. I wonder if Dawkins' preference for arguments of mass destruction is more effective. I felt like a sapper in Sagan's minefield. Aware or the landmines, appreciating their design, loving the patterns in which they were laid, but certain that most of Sagan's targeted personnel would simply wander through the field, unscathed, beneficiaries of their own dumb luck.

Whether Sagan's weapons have taken any theist casualities or not, it is a wonderful book about skepticism. A wonderful reminder to be ever vigilant. A book I can't wait to pass on to my children.

But it also made me just a little sad. I wish he'd been around when the Patriot Act was drafted. His voice would have been an important voice of dissent, and perhaps the USA wouldn't be as deep in the shit as they are.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Rita (new) - added it

Rita Thank you for your excellent review. This book has been on wish-list for quite some time now.
And yes,Sagan is greatly missed!


message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny Nice analogy. As you say, the problem with this type of landmine is that people don't always know they've been blown up.


Brad Thanks, Rita and Manny. I was thinking of buying a stack of these landmines to pass out to some of my most credulous students, the ones I think could be blown up by it all.


message 4: by Rita (new) - added it

Rita You're welcome! :)
Sounds like a good plan to me - the more you (we) can stirr up the minds of the younger generations the better. It's time that superstition in all forms gets banished from their minds! :)


message 5: by Carlo (new)

Carlo Great Review Brad, though I regard Dawkins as a defender (passionate one) of skepticism too.


message 6: by Lindig (new)

Lindig Very well written review on one of my favorite authors and one of his best books. I've (sort of) substituted Neil de Grasse Tyson in Sagan's stead, but he's a better speaker than writer.


Brad He is, indeed, Carlo. No arguments here. And I share your feelings about Meil de Grasse Tyson, Lindig. Have you heard that he's redoing Sagan's Cosmos for the early 21st Century for FOX. I heard this from his mouth on the Nerdist podcast.


message 8: by Carlo (new)

Carlo Brad wrote: "Have you heard that he's redoing Sagan's Cosmos for the early 21st Century for FOX. I heard th..."

Well, that's good news!


Brad Did anyone see the recent Nova about the Fabric of the Universe? Mind blowing.


message 10: by Charles Dee (new)

Charles Dee Mitchell Excellent review. I have always meant to read this book. I remember reading and enjoying a book called Why People Believe Weird Things. I think it is lighter weight stuff than Sagan and certainly than Dawkins, but it does have a great title.

When people start telling me about anything like UFO's or ghostly encounters or things just too weird to be a coincidence, I always say, "That didn't really happen." It's a real conversation stopper.


message 11: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I used to stop conversations like that, but when I moved to baptist country and started feeling like I had just taken a shit on the plate, I stopped and just suffered through with a skeptical smirk. Even now that I am far away from the bible belt, my diplomacy remains intact. I should really get back to that confrontational style.


message 12: by Preeti (new) - added it

Preeti Awesome review, Brad! As others have said, this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while too. I think I'll make it a goal to read it in 2012!


message 13: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I'm pleased to have nudged it further up on so many to-read piles. Thanks, Preeti.


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