Now seems an excellent time to revisit the late esteemed cosmologist Carl Sagan and his wonderful 1996 book on sifting sense from nonsense, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
It was a prophetic tome when first published and I first read it, and today’s American zeitgeist, the contemporary tenor of our culture, just confirms the prescience of Sagan’s dire forewarning.
Recently, I inadvertently ran into this pertinent passage (below) from Demon-Haunted World on the Reddit social media platform online. In it, Sagan wrote:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness …
“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Sound eerily contemporary despite being written a quarter-century ago?
The passage perfectly encapsulates the dangers in the current American zeitgeist, and its most telling phrase is the last: “a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Think Donald Trump and the new, fact- and reason-averse Republican Party. Anti-intellectualism and misrepresented “common sense” (which, as the GOP uses it, is actually instinctual bias) are now in vogue again for a large number of Americans.
What Sagan meant by “demon-haunted” was the deep, dark, often irrational fears that lead far too many people to believe in presumed monsters and dangers (i.e. claimed alien visitations and abductions, the existence of “Q”), as well as prescriptive curatives and saviors (i.e. more guns, Republican U.S. congresswoman and conspiracy aficionado Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia), that are wishful thinking at best, poppycock at worst.
In its review of Sagan’s beautifully written book upon its release, the Los Angeles Times called it:
“A glorious book… A spirited defense of science… From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought.”
Indeed, clear thought is what America still woefully lacks as it tries to cope with the increasing tribalization of society and a mindless but determined assault on science, truth, and rationality by a third to half the populace.
The anti-intellectualism of current American right-wing conservatives is sourced from American Christianity. As Trumpian reactionaries continuously and unconstitutionally try to insert their Christian faith in omnipotent invisible beings deeper into the fabric of American life, they irrationally resist verifiably effective and safe vaccines that have the proven power to stop Covid-19 in its tracks (as do vaccines for smallpox, measles, whooping cough and rubella did in centuries past).
These Trumpian hordes, who are largely right-wing Christian conservatives, casually dismiss all evidence (and there are mountains of it) that their dear leader is an amoral political charlatan out for only himself, and quite likely a crook. Meanwhile, they believe religious leaders who paint a picture of divine realms and beings that care about us and are personally involved in our wellbeing, despite massive real-world evidence to the contrary.
This is how, as Sagan forewarned, the “critical faculties” of a huge number of Americans have declined, as people become “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true” and, thus, inevitably “slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
Sagan was mostly focused on paranormal nonsense in Demon-Haunted World, but there is a strong kinship between belief in those kinds of unsubstantiated imaginings and the uncritical mindset of supernatural religious belief.
This dovetails with the idea that Christian faith in America is the wet nurse of right-wing ideology, nurturing its conspiracy theories and false paranoia as it does unverifiable supernatural religious dogma fueled by fear of supposed damnation. Both worldviews are averse to real-world facts and provable realities that conflict with their dogmas.
The problem with uncritical, ultra-orthodox thinking is that it can mortally contaminate real-world decision-making and social behaviors, causing no end to societal risks. For example, believing that only God can take a life, and that Covid-19 vaccines usurp divine prerogative, an enormous number of Americans refuse to be vaccinated themselves or their families. These are decisions that cost lives, when vaccines are provably effective and safe in blunting the coronavirus and its variants and saving lives.
Other Covid anti-vaxxers, used to accepting their leaders’ imaginings as facts, now falsely believe that mandated vaccines even during a pandemic are a violation of Americans’ personal freedom. More lives were needlessly sacrificed to political flim-flam.
This widespread tendency to listen to the wrong people, based not on verifiable truth but credulous thrall to their leaders’ emotional charisma, is what has led to the “dumbing down” of huge swathes of conservative Americans.
It continues to gravely threaten our democracy.
With the current majority of devoutly religious U.S. Supreme Court members, the unsubtle and official coddling of religious conservatives nationwide has begun. This week, the court refused to block Texas’new patently unconstitutional, draconian, and cruel abortion law, which experts fear will lead to the full dismantling of Roe v Wade, the Court’s landmark 1973 ruling declaring abortion a constitutional right under certain limited restrictions.
The Court’s appalling decision is just the beginning of a potential dismantling of our consensual, liberal democracy and rule of law ethos envisioned by America’s founders, as well as a purposeful pivot toward a Christian theocracy led from the top.
Carl Sagan was right.
Demon-Haunted World will show you how far we haven’t come in shining a candle in the dark. I mean we’re still arguing about the veracity of evolution, and citizens have invaded the U.S. Capitol.