36 Timeless Quotes from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World

36 Timeless Quotes from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World

As you likely know, I recently finished reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark after it was suggested to me by many. For most of the book, I found myself making underline after underline, as Sagan (and in some cases, his beloved wife Ann Druyan) once again captured the awe one feels at the beauty of science and Nature. Additionally, everyone saying that his “foreboding” quotes are so applicable to modern times are correct as well; Sagan explains how only when a society is dedicated to science and skepticism can it stave off the grasp of authoritarian leadership. His stance is so eerily relevant that it feels appropriate for me to be re-reading these quotes on Halloween.

You might notice that The Demon-Haunted World‘s most popular quote is missing from this list—that’s because I included it, as well as some other prophetic lines, in my book review last week. Give it a read if you want to know what I thought of the book as a whole and peruse even more quotes! In the meantime, here are 36 quotes from The Demon-Haunted World pertaining to science, religion, pseudoscience, and society (sometimes all at once) that I thought were worth sharing!

Science Quotes

1. “And yet, there’s so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge—as well as being a lot closer to the truth.” p. 4

2. “Whose interest does ignorance serve? . . . If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits? . . . For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” p. 12

3. “Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science—by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans—teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement of our understanding, learning from our mistakes, and a asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.” p.28

4. “In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.” p. 29

5. “There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.” p. 31

6. “The hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away. Don’t waste neurons on what doesn’t work. Devote those neurons to new ideas that better explain the data.” p. 32

7. “No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems 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.” p. 35

8. “The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.” p. 210

9. “We cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened.” p. 297

10. “As I’ve tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.” p. 304

11. “Evolution is still being fought, ironically by those whose own DNA proclaims it.” p. 326

12. “Nearly every scientist has experienced, in a moment of discovery or sudden understanding, a reverential astonishment. Science—pure science, science not for any practical application but for its own sake—is a deeply emotional matter.” p. 330

Religion and Pseudoscience Quotes

13. “These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature—often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility.” p. 13

14. “No one interested in what religions are and how they begin can ignore them.” p. 19

15. “For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or to explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get ahold of ourselves, to steer a safe course.” p. 26

16. “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 intuition comes close.” p. 30

17. “What sermons even-handedly examine the God hypothesis? What rewards are religious skeptics given by the established religions—or, for that matter, social and economic skeptics by the society in which they swim?” p. 34

18. “Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal.” p. 58

19. “Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there is no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.” p. 171

20. “Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.” p. 173

21. “By making pronouncements that are, even if only in principle, testable, religions, however unwillingly, enter the arena of science. Religions can no longer make unchallenged assertions about reality.” p. 277

22. “The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes—from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love, courage, and self-sacrifice.” 290-291

Society and Democracy Quotes

23. “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements . . . profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” p. 26

24. “I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges near, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. / The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” p. 26-27

25. “When we shy away from [science] because it seems too difficult (or because we’ve been taught so poorly), we surrender the ability to take charge of our future. We are disenfranchised.” p. 29

26. “Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us—and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along. . . . What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?” p. 38-39

27. “The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. . . . Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.” p. 76-77

28. “The impediment to scientific thinking is not, I think, the difficulty of the subject. . . . No, the impediment is political and hierarchical.” p. 311

29. “It is no surprise that political revolutions, skepticism about religion, and the rise of science might go together.” p. 312

30. “Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous.” p. 362

31. “Give us the right kind of leader and, like the most suggestible subjects of the hypnotherapists, will gladly do just about anything he wants—even things we know to be wrong.” p. 424

32. “Rights and freedoms: Use ’em or lose ’em.” p. 433

33. “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.” p. 434

Self-Reflection Quotes

34. “We are enjoined, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, to consider ourselves and our cultural institutions scientifically—not to accept uncritically whatever we’re told; to surmount as best we can our hopes, conceits, and unexamined beliefs; to view ourselves as we really are. . . . Because its explanatory power is so great, once you get the hang of scientific reasoning, you’re eager to apply it everywhere.” p. 296

35. “Let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” p. 298

36. “And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.” p. 300

Which of these quotes is your favorite? Are there any that I didn’t include that you think I should have? Let me know in the comments!

9 thoughts on “36 Timeless Quotes from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World

  • November 1, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Sagan anticipates Trump!

    The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. . . . Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.” p. 76-77 of the Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

    Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous.” p. 362 of the Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

    • November 1, 2020 at 5:01 pm

      That is the best word I’ve learned so far. What would become of us if we ever thought those two lines had merged? That would mark the end of humanity. Once Rebekah’s notes passed where I have read to so far, I stopped reading. Both Rebekah and I had marked the same passage as I’m sure many others did. I thought I knew it all, and then Carl Sagan gave me a gut-check. :-]))

      It is not only tyrants and despots who prefer the masses no have an education.
      “It is advantageous for the ministers of religion that the people should not comprehend what they are taught. It is impossible for us to examine what we do not comprehend.”
      Jean Meslier

      St. Augustine long ago outlawed ‘curiosity’ as one of the worst sins. We understand why politicians, religion, and capitalism prefer ignorance. They want to treat us like mushrooms: keep ’em in the dark and feed them bs.

  • November 1, 2020 at 9:10 am

    My favorite of these quotes is all of them 🙂 I’ve never read Carl Sagan and kind of wasn’t sure where to start, but this sounds absolutely necessary. Maybe especially right now.

    • March 19, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      I recommend starting with Cosmos! This book is super popular, too. All of his books have amazing quotes and he is honestly an inspiration.

  • November 1, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    Rebekah, I read some of your choice quotes, until they reached the point of my progress. So, to avoid the spoilers, I stopped reading them. I’ll get caught up,if there is not to much turmoil after the election. I tend to get too involved with that stuff.

    Thanks again for pointing me to the book. I’m also working on The Power Worshippers.

    • November 1, 2020 at 11:45 pm

      I’m super stressed about it too. Hopefully it will turn out well.

      Let me know your thoughts on The Power Worshippers when you’re through!

      • November 2, 2020 at 12:41 am

        I will. And I will also try to remember how to spell your name, Rebekah, as opposed to my niece, Rebeccah. I’m sorry about that.

        Also, I now have her earlier book, The Good News Club.

        • November 2, 2020 at 8:38 am

          No problem 😂 I have the Good News Club too. I will get to it one day, but The Power Worshippers was so upsetting that I don’t really want to return to the genre soon.

          • November 2, 2020 at 9:33 am

            It happens to be a subject I have been interested in for a while. What she has exposed is much worse than I thought. It is very upsetting. We have the church and state in a coordinated effort to install a theocracy. The Dark Ages all over again.

What do you think?