Required Reading

Every once in awhile I find myself missing university teaching.  I miss the students- wide-eyed and eager to learn, and the colleagues with whom I shared common interests and background.  I miss the discussions we had, and the ideas that they would bring to the table that would enhance and develop my own perceptions of our world.

But one of the things I miss most is the opportunity I had- every four months or so- to create a syllabus outlining the assignments and readings for the course.  In doing so, I got to share some of my favourite stories and concepts with my audience- and they actually HAD to read them (at least if they hoped to pass the course, they did).

I miss it partly because I genuinely LOVE sharing the wonderful contributions that have been made in understanding our humanity with my fellow humans, but also because sometimes I reallyreally wish that I could MAKE some people do things I want them to do.  For their own good, of course.  For their good and for the good of us all.

There are some vital things out there to which we all NEED to be exposed.

I’ve spoken before about how much I love the reboot of Cosmos.  Dr. Tyson has done an incredible job of revivifying the message that Dr. Sagan left with us when he passed away almost 20 years ago.  Inspired by the show (there IS good stuff on t.v, now and again), I decided that it was past time for me to revisit Dr. Sagan a little more fully.

With a cottage weekend on the horizon (T-minus 2 days!), I picked up some books to accompany me as I sit on the dock, cocktail in hand, and fully and formally welcome back our Canadian cottage season.

And, because sometimes I’m not-so-good with the waiting, I have to admit that I cracked the books a little prematurely.

One of them is The Demon-Haunted World- Science as a Candle in the Dark, Dr. Sagan’s penultimate work of wonder and genius.  His next-to-last published offering to the world of his eloquent view of the Cosmos and our humanity- and a warning that we haven’t managed to heed.

I read the book for the first time as a student, many years ago, but not as part of my course-dictated required readings.  As a student of the Scientific Study of Religion, I was interested in the interplay between what we have learned, through generations of scientific observation and experimentation in the natural world (both the provable and theoretical outcomes), and the stories of the supernatural that we have created and to which we continue to cling, in spite of lack of evidence and with an extremity of the beggaring of common sense.

The disconnect disturbed me then, as it does now (to an ever-growing degree).  I can no more understand today, even after more than a decade of researching how and why we construct religious beliefs and the institutions that support and further those beliefs, why people choose to remain willfully ignorant and in the thrall of superstition and fairy tales.

I understand that there is collected wisdom to be found in the stories- wisdom that stands the test of time, since it is human in origin.

Re-reading the book, I was struck- seemingly on each and every page- by how prescient Dr. Sagan truly was.  And not in any pseudo-scientific ‘psychic’ way.

On pages 25-26 he wrote (in 1995):

“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 of pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a celebration of a kind of ignorance… The plain lesson is that study- not just of science, but of anything- are avoidable, even desirable.”

Jebus.

That particular quote- and the one that accompanies his picture up there ^^^^- are shaking me to my very core.

The guy, through his observation of the world that he loved, knew.  He knew, back then, that we are on a slippery slope to our own destruction- one that is being expedited by our stubborn unwillingness to think for ourselves and set aside the beliefs and willful ignorance that keep us yoked to the agendas of those in power- whether the powers are religious or secular.

We believe the fairy tales because doing so is easier than thinking for ourselves.  We have an entire world of wisdom and knowledge and evidential experience to tap into- with new discoveries being made daily- and yet we persist in holding onto Bronze-Age ideas regarding the structure of the world/universe in which we live.

Re-reading his words left me intellectually and emotionally exhausted with the inspiration they still provide.  But it also left me mad as Hell (there’s that word again).

As his synopsis of his life-long love affair with science and the natural world unfolds, he speaks about the need to continually educate ourselves and question and test our conclusions- the way scientists do as they seek to explain and understand our universe.  The continuous testing of hypotheses to shape an approach to the truth is required methodology in the sciences.

In religion?  Not so much (pages 34-35).

“Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?  Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may not longer apply?  (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that might have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today)… Scripture is said to be divinely inspired- a phrase with many meanings.  But what is it’s simply made up by fallible humans?  Miracles are attested, but what they’re instead some mix of charlantanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness?  No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seem to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.  The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.”

That last line is so Sagan.  Always the scientist.  Always the awareness that his hypothesis might not prove accurate and therefore have to be consigned to the dust-heap of failed attempts at understanding.

The last chapter of the book resonates these days in ways that would be spooky- if he wasn’t who he was, and if I was inclined to believe in things that are ‘spooky’.  In ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’ he outlines why it is our responsibility, as participants in democracy, to keep ourselves informed about the world in general and the actions of our elected leaders in particular.

Since our federal government, just today, made public their intention to proceed with a staggeringly ill-conceived decision that flies in the face of majority (and scientific) opinion and is demonstrative of their typical arrogance and self-preserving agenda, that chapter hit home pretty freakin hard.

Again with the wisdom (page 434):

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

I powered through the book.  The impact of his observations and the articulation of our current issues in a work written almost 20 years ago left me feeling like I needed to finish it quickly.  Impending danger and dark foreboding, folks.  He started warning us about it decades ago.  And not only did we not listen, we are rushing headlong- willingly blind- into the idiocy that will bring about our destruction.

This weekend, on the dock, I will savour it again- more slowly this time- to appreciate the fullness of his thoughts and the beauty and power of his words.  It will be my required (re-)reading- in amongst the literary creativity of a couple of my favourite authors of fiction.

The finale of Cosmos, a couple of weeks ago, started with Dr. Tyson ‘in’ the Library of Alexandria.  My dream palace.  Seriously.  Of all the great human constructs that have been needlessly destroyed, THAT one hurts me most of all.

It was, as Neil noted, the storehouse of the wisdom of the Classical period.  The math, the science, the philosophy, the theology.  Our stories and our discoveries about the world we live in and the universe around us.

At that time such wisdom was available only to the elite, and so, when the mob came to destroy the Library and its wonders, there weren’t many to stand against the hoard.

Intelligence and critical thinking and rationality and engagement with the realities of our world are characteristics and attributes that are actively being discouraged in our popular media and by our leaders- those in the business world, in the arena of religious belief, and those we elect to political power.  We celebrate the pedestrian, the ‘common’, the ‘creators’ of amusing 140-character soundbites.  Credulity is not only acceptable, it’s laudable.

In 1996, Carl Sagan offered another example of his great and awesome voice crying out against the wilderness of ignorance and complete lack of healthy and needful skepticism.  He shouted, but not enough of us seemed to hear.

If we don’t start hitting the books and completing our assigned readings, we students of the world are going to fail this class.  Bigtime.  And that failure will lead us, inexorably, “back into superstition and darkness.”

And when that happens, who among us will stand against the mob?

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon, and if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings, too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Brain damage, indeed.

PS- For a few days, come Friday morning, I will be shutting down the connectivity to all things technological in favour of my lakeside dock and the company of good friends.  Have a fantastic weekend, WPPeeps.  And if you’re looking for something to read… Just a suggestion.  A strong and pleading suggestion, but just a suggestion nonetheless.