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.