Carl Sagan On Science and Religion – “Figuring Out A Prudent Balance Takes Wisdom”

From The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, the chapter called The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder (admission – I was looking over the chapter called House on Fire, late last night, in preparation for a talk I’m going to be giving in the future. I don’t sleep very well during the summer and doing something productive passes the time):

In every such society, there is a cherished world of myth and metaphor, which co-exists with the workday world. Efforts to reconcile the two are made, and any rough edges at the joints tend to be off-limits and ignored. We comparmentalize. Some scientists do this too, effortlessly stepping between the skeptical world of science and the credulous world of religious belief without skipping a beat. Of course, the greater the mismatch between these two worlds, the more difficult it is to be comfortable, with untroubled conscience, with both.

In a life short and uncertain, it seems heartless to do anything that might deprive people of the consolation of faith when science cannot remedy their anguish. Those who cannot bear the burden of science are free to ignore its precepts. But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened – again, because we are not wise enough to do so. Except by sealing the brain off into separate airtight compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittariuses are gregarious and affable?

Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively,scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. And it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came first, that contentions were dismissed before, not after, the evidence was examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes alone who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or, who like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.

The scientist who first proposed to consecrate doubt as a prime virtue of the inquiring mind made it clear that it was a tool and not an end in itself. Rene Descartes wrote:

I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves?

You can read the rest of the quote that comes after that, here.

Pages 297-8, The Demon Haunted World, Sagan.

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • John Morales

    Bah. When it comes to this, Sagan had just his opinion, as I have mine.

    Me, I’ll leave the wisdom to the wise, and just speak my mind as I see fit, without needing to justify it on some spurious moral ground.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Do me a favour – unsubscribe from my site.

      • John Morales

        I’m not subscribed, but I shall not comment further, henceforth.

    • Maria

      Then I’ll speak my mind as I see fit, without ‘spurious moral grounds’

      All atheists are sexist pigs.

      All men are potential rapists.

      People who post on FreeThought blogs are rabble-rousing assholes who couldn’t pull a successful activist campaign out of their ass if they had a torch and a GPS.

      PZ Myers spoke his opinions and they should be given as much weight as creationists with PHds, because they have equal qualifications in the sciences.

      There’s no point in caring about global warming, because the mining industry makes us more money than piddly carbon taxes and its all a theory anyway.

      Vaccinations cause autism and my kids suffer from needle trauma and the herd needs to be thinned because that’s what Darwinism is all about.

      Get the picture?

      • Kylie Sturgess

        I get it. And without moral grounds… we might as well be Meryl Dorey.

  • jamesspiller

    I’ll voice my agreement with Carl, and highlight what I see is the courage in being honest in regard to our own, sometimes misplaced, confidence in dismissing belief.

    My personal tendency is to avoid ‘beliefs’, and ascribe something as being either being generally held to be true, false or unknown.

    I guess moreover though, Carl is referring to others’ right to hold their own opinion or belief, particularly in matters where no harm is done. In those matters particularly, asserting foolishness in holding such a (superstitious) belief usually serves only to drive a divide between the skeptic and the believer, and that makes future dialogue more difficult.

    It’s a deep and complicated dilemma, and one that a layman like me can’t sufficiently articulate in a few sentences, but I find myself agreeing often with Dr. Sagan, and I’d like the record to reflect my agreement with him again, here.

    • khms

      The real hard problem is when the side holding the questionable belief does not see the harm, whereas the other side does. That’s something I’ve encountered several times with believers in homeopathy, for example.

  • peterh

    Sagan had all his buttons. Maria seems to be missing more than a few.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Actually, I see the point that Maria is making – which I think is “if you can go around saying what you like without moral grounds, then why not say that kind of garbage too?”

  • David Stoeckl

    It is an interesting choice to leave the last part of Sagan’s comments to be read at Myers’ site. Myers, by selective quoting, has succeeded in turning Sagan’s urgings 180 degrees and uses it as justification for his incessant obnoxiousness, and epitomizes exactly what Sagan thinks is the wrong thing to do.

    Myers is hard for me to read. He has all the brashness and sarcasm of the late Hitchens, but none of the cleverness or finesse. It’s like watching someone cut a wedding cake with a hammer.

    The intentional rudeness of the New Atheists is ultimately self-destructive, and someday an atheist political candidate is going to have to answer for what Myers and his ilk do and say.

    It may not be fair, but it is how it works. John McCain had to pedal rapidly away from the ravings of John Haggee. Even conservative Republican candidates need to distance themselves from the radical anti-abortion movement. And a price is paid with moderate voters for too close an identification with the extremist anti-gay movement, which Michelle Bachmann has discovered.

    Some day an atheist candidate is going to be questioned about Myers’ “crackergate” or the American Atheists rhetoric surrounding the “Ground Zero cross” that Jon Steward so ably covered. It won’t be pretty, and it will make a hard sell even harder.


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