Battling demons of the mind

(Free Inquiry, spring 1997)

By James A. Haught

Sincere seekers of reliable knowledge lost a friend when Carl Sagan died too young at 62.

Like all good scientists, the brilliant Cornell astronomer spent his life pursuing secrets of nature, looking for facts that can be documented, tested, and retested.

Like some maturing thinkers, he decided late in life to escalate his criticism of mystical mumbo-jumbo into an all-out, no-holds-barred attack. His last book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, urged intelligent people to repudiate:

Astrology horoscopes, faith-healing, UFO "abductions,'' religious miracles, New Age occultism, fundamentalist "creationism,'' Tarot card reading, prayer, prophecy, palmistry, Transcendental Meditation, satanism, weeping statues, "channeling'' of voices from the dead, holy apparitions, extrasensory perception, belief in life after death, "dowsing,'' demonic possession, "magical powers'' of crystals and pyramids, "psychic phenomena'' etc., etc.

Sagan's farewell message was simple:

-- Many people believe almost anything they're told, with no evidence, which makes them vulnerable to charlatans, crackpots and superstition.

-- Only the scientific outlook, mixing skepticism and wonder, can give people a sensible grasp of reality.

He scorned supernatural aspects of religion. The Demon-Haunted World abounds with comments like these:

"If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote.... Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.'' (p. 204)

"If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate.... Try science.'' (p. 30)

"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? There isn't a religion on the planet that doesn't long for a comparable ability -- precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics -- to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.'' (p. 30)

"Since World War II, Japan has spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the supernatural.... In Thailand, diseases are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized sacred Scripture. 'Witches' are today being burned in South Africa.... The worldwide TM [Transcendental Meditation] organization has an estimated valuation of $3 billion. For a fee, they promise through meditation to be able to walk you through walls, to make you invisible, to enable you to fly." (p. 16)

"The so-called Shroud of Turin... is now suggested by carbon-14 dating to be not the death shroud of Jesus, but a pious hoax from the 14th century -- a time when the manufacture of fraudulent religious relics was a thriving and profitable home handicraft industry.'' (p. 46)

Sagan quoted the Roman philosopher Lucretius:

"Nature... is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself, without the meddling of the gods.'' (p. 310)

And he quoted the Roman historian Polybius as saying the masses can be unruly, so "they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods and the belief in punishment after death.'' (p. 213)

Sagan recounted how the medieval church tortured and burned thousands of women on charges that they were witches who flew in the air, coupled with Satan, turned into animals, etc. He said "this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder'' was advocated by great church fathers.

"In Italy, the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the 18th century, and inquisitional torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816,'' he wrote. "The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches.'' (p. 413)

The astronomer-author was equally scornful of New Age gurus, UFO buffs, seance "channelers'' and others who tout mysterious beliefs without evidence.

He denounced the tendency among some groups, chiefly fundamentalists and marginal psychologists, to induce people falsely to "remember'' satanic rituals or other non-existent events they supposedly experienced as children.

Sagan, a laureate in the International Academy of Humanism, had been a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal since its founding in 1976 by Dr. Paul Kurtz. The astronomer said CSICOP serves a valuable public purpose by offering the news media "the other side of the story'' in response to supernatural declarations by "every levitating guru, visiting alien, channeler, and faith-healer.... CSICOP represents a counterbalance, although not yet nearly a loud enough voice, to the pseudo-science gullibility that seems second nature to so much of the media.'' (p. 299)

Again and again in his last book, Sagan said wonders revealed by science are more awesome than any claims by mystics. He said children are "natural scientists'' because they incessantly ask "Why is the moon round?'' or "Why do we have toes?'' or the like.
He urged that youngsters be inculcated with the scientific spirit of searching for trustworthy evidence, to guide them through "the demon-haunted world.'' That's a noble wish for the young.

I'm a friend of Sagan's sister, Cari Greene, who donated bone marrow repeatedly in a desperate attempt to fend off his marrow disease. Through her, I watched the family's pain.

Although his unstoppable illness was cruel, I'll bet the wise scientist didn't personalize his misfortune, but saw it factually as part of the random lottery of life, which takes some victims early, some late.

Meanwhile, we who admired him can be grateful that his last act was a courageous battle against the many demons of the mind.