We Still Live In What Carl Sagan Called “The Demon Haunted World”

Occasionally, I write horror movies for a living. I don’t see the Bible as a book of religious inspiration, I see it as a launching pad for horror movies. In my career, I’ve worked with both Billy Friedkin (director of “The Exorcist”) and Richard Donner (director of “The Omen”); those are two of the biggest horror movies ever. Where would either movie be without the Bible? Donner was especially clear on that point. He told me once, to explain why “The Omen” was so surprisingly successful, that it had everything to do with the Bible. People would watch the movie, Dick said, chuckling, then go home and pull out the family Bible – which most of them hadn’t ever done before. And there, inside that book inside their house was all that terrifying scripture! It was “real” – and that made the movie’s horror “real”. Even better – it struck a strange chord deep inside them that they couldn’t even quite explain.

Dick, just for the record, was a lovely guy. Generous and big-hearted. It was a real pleasure to work with and for him. But, I digress…

Religion has a bizarre hold on people. It makes them connect dots that don’t necessarily connect. In the case of “The Omen”, it was like the phone call coming from inside the house. That’s what all those family Bibles became. That “The Omen” and “The Exorcist” worked – that both still stand up (not so much as horror anymore – we’ve moved far beyond that level of shock – but as scary stories) is a testament to their source material’s continuing hold on Western culture – American culture especially.

In “The Demon Haunted World”, Sagan and his wife/co-author Ann Druyan explain the difference between science and pseudoscience. It’s pretty much the same difference as facts versus feelings. The scientific method isn’t the answer itself, it’s the answer’s how-to guide. It’s a training manual for healthy skepticism, critical thinking skills and rigorous debate. All Truth is always open for debate. If new, verifiable and repeatable data lands today that contradicts everything we thought yesterday then what we thought yesterday was demonstrably wrong. And from this point forward, we’ll go with the new data instead. In the abstract, that might seem wishy-washy. It’s actually pragmatic. We can only know what we “know”.

In one of my other lives, I do a podcast called “The Faitheism Project Podcast” with my friend Randy Lovejoy, formerly a Presbyterian pastor, now a “virtual pastor” reinventing his Christian faith. Randy and I draw a distinction between religion and spirituality. We’ve also framed some of our differences as “certainty v uncertainty”. People who believe the scientific method is the more likely path to Truth are willing to accept that there is an “end” to our knowledge. There are things we simply don’t know – yet. When we reach that place – where we “don’t know”, we’re willing to accept “We Don’t Know” as the answer. We can accept the uncertainty of not knowing the ultimate answer.

People of faith, on the other hand, need to know. They’re not comfortable or satisfied with “I don’t know”. They crave certainty. Though they can’t put down a physical receipt, they’re willing to take a leap of faith that what they feel in their hearts is Truth. Having a deity as “the man behind the curtain” answers every question there is, no further explanation required.

But there’s a darker side to faith as we know. Magical thinking is a literal Pandora’s Box of “anything can happen”. The people who composed religious texts felt no obligation to reality – to backing up anything they thought with a receipt. They just didn’t think that way. They were entitled – they didn’t know anything. They didn’t have access to science the way we do.

Science and religion shouldn’t be competing. They didn’t used to. As my friend Randy has pointed out on our podcast, for a long time, the Catholic Church drove scientific discovery. It encouraged it to a degree. It wasn’t until Darwin and his “Origin of Species” that religion – mostly in America – suddenly felt it had to compete with science. Before Darwin, religion focused on “the message”, not the literal tick-tock as laid out in Genesis. Only a few religious crazies obsessed over finding a literal Noah’s ark, for instance. It wasn’t debated among serious people.

The big problem with monotheism is that, when it’s “working right”, it puts “the voice of God” inside a believer’s head. After all, one is supposed to have “a personal relationship with God”. That was Jesus’s most radical idea – that one did not need a corrupt temple or the temple’s corrupt priests to intercede between deity and believer. A believer can talk directly to God! Where churches came from therefore is a total mystery since they’re entirely antithetical to Jesus’s core teaching.

So – a faithful believer in God hears God’s voice in their head. God, the believer notes, doesn’t speak to everyone. Quite the contrary. God is pretty selective. That means those God speaks to are special. They get to walk around being more aware, more informed, more “blessed” than the rest of us. We walk around thinking we know something when, in fact, the only person who knows anything of value is the one with the personal relationship with the creator of the whole universe. And that deity speaks to – and through, don’t ya know – that particular believer. They speak for God – for the ultimate power in the universe. What they’re really doing is fusing their own personhood with what they perceive God to be.

Dig down deep enough and you’ll find: these people don’t actually believe IN God, they believe they ARE God.

And the demons haunting them? They’re damned dangerous.

If the “believer” is someone like Vlad Putin (and Putin has a religious streak), their demon-haunted world becomes our world. And no horror movie can possibly compete with that.

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