I don’t know if Tim Minchin has ever read Carl Sagan, but a quote springs to mind that brilliantly summarizes this book, even if it wasn’t intended to: “Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.”
Carl Sagan may have been “darn close” to an atheist, not knowing with certainty there is no god, but stating regularly in interviews and articles that there wasn’t any compelling evidence for god’s existence. I would argue semantics at that point—for a non-interventionist god who merely set things rolling and sat back to watch, there is no evidence and so there is no way to know with absolute certainty.
I wondered, when I started this book, if I would have a better idea of how Sagan truly felt when I finished it, assuming I didn’t get lost in what I expected to be his normal brilliant writing, but he spent very little of the book on religion. This isn’t a book about religion, but about science and the scientific method, and how that method has shone a light on so many things (and continues to) to make the world a less fearful and far more beautiful and interesting place.
Through the various references and anecdotes he presents, Sagan gives the smackdown to UFOs, faith healing, witchcraft, demons and spirits, fortune telling, astrology, and alien abduction, among other things. He probably spends the most time on that last, but remember this book was written in the age of the X-Files, when the truth was out there and everybody knew somebody whose cousin’s former roommate had been abducted by aliens.
Really, the basic theme of the book comes down to a simple statement. While the quote I used from Tim Minchin above is more eloquent, Sagan’s basic premise is that knowledge is better than ignorance. Knowledge dispels fear, builds strength, and increases understanding of the world, the universe, and each other.
There are too many negative consequences to a scientifically illiterate population.
Overall rating: 4 stars. There are moments when his disappointment in our society shows through where he can’t understand why all of this stuff continues to be a problem, continues to hold us back. I can’t help but think he’d be even more disappointed today as the societal elements wanting to deny or roll back progress dig in their heels harder every day.by