Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience: An Exploration of Religion’s Destructive Powers

I have long been a great admirer of Carl Sagan and still lament the tragic fact that we lost him – and all of the profound work he undoubtedly would have undertaken – well before his time. I did not discover Sagan’s writings until well after his death, but after first reading Cosmos I voraciously inhaled any and all books of his that I could get my hands on. So I was extremely pleased to stumble across a new book by Sagan during a recent visit to Powell’s Books in Portland: The Varieties of Scientific Experience.

Though published in 2006, the book somehow slipped under my radar until that fortunate discovery in Powell’s. The book is derived from a series of talks that Sagan gave at the 1985 Gifford Lectures in Glasgow, Scotland. The overriding theme deals with the clash of religion and science, and is in a similar vein as Dawkins’s God Delusion and Hitchens’s god is not Great. Sagan’s approach to the topic is far more conciliatory than either Dawkins or Hitchens, and indeed his critique of religion seems on the whole far less pointed. Still, the book does contain a number of unique insights, and is certainly worth reading if only to revisit Sagan’s trademark eloquence in dealing with notoriously intricate topics.

One such insight was in relation to the nature of religious impact on human societies, and Sagan’s treatment of the issue deserves closer examination. Sagan identified two major strands of human society, as demonstrated in still-extant hunter-gatherer tribes. The first type of society is one in which there is no rigid social hierarchy, and everyone is treated equally. Such cultures have little or no concept of war, individual possessions, or supreme leaders.

In contrast, the other type of society is one “in which there are in this world and the next, very striking dominance hierarchies in which there is always someone above someone else, except of course for the Supreme Creator God, above whom there is no one else. These are people who torture their enemies, who do not hug their children – in fact, brutalize their children – who are dedicated to warfare, whose sacrament is not some exotic hallucinogen but instead is ethanol…”

So the society in which there are powerful hierarchies engages in brutal warfare and torture of fellow humans, while the society without such hierarchies is peaceful, benevolent, and generally quite happy. The former type of society is, quite obviously, reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian tradition – there could hardly be a more rigid societal pyramid than a supreme god at the top, passing his laws and judgments onto his lowly servants. Furthermore, the societies which possess such power structures tend to enforce rather arbitrary rules, which in turn encourages still more savage and barbaric behavior.

Sagan explored this thought by discussing some correlative studies which have been conducted, and he concluded that “the key distinction has to do with whether cultures hug their children and whether they permit premarital sexual activity among adolescents.” In cultures where the children are hugged and teens are allowed to have sex, the more egalitarian societal form emerges, where everyone is happy and war is non-existent. In those cultures where the children are not hugged and there are strict rules in place regarding sexual activity in general, the people “wind up killing, hating, and having powerful dominance hierarchies.”

The lesson here is fairly obvious: arbitrary and inane social restrictions and dominance hierarchies breed discontent, violence and generally the worst of all human traits. Such restrictions have traditionally been associated with religious beliefs, such as the Jewish ban on eating pork, the Christian condemnation of homosexuality, and the Muslim prohibition of alcohol and other mind-altering substances – and these examples barely scratch the surface.

Here we have concrete evidence of the extremely harmful effect that religion has on human society. The capriciousness and barbarism of the world’s antiquated religions retard social development and human progress to such an extent that we remain bogged down in primitive, animalistic societal structures. In a word, religious belief systems tend to promote social Darwinism and the law of the jungle – man against man, woman against woman – while an absence of such beliefs leads to universal happiness and a satiation of the most fundamental human needs.

Religion is, quite simply, a violation of basic human rights. Religious precepts impose capricious restrictions on human growth and development, which inevitably results in distorted psychological well-being, and in the case of Islam, bodily harm. Religion has nothing positive or beneficial to offer to humanity, and as long as it continues to exist untold millions will be subjected to an untold degree of unnecessary suffering. We should therefore treat religion as we do any other disease or parasite plaguing the human species, for it is a virus as pestilential as any we have faced.


2 responses to “Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience: An Exploration of Religion’s Destructive Powers

    • Andrew November 21, 2010 at 9:46 am

      How does a handful of sentences taken out of context from a 2,000-year-old text constitute “the psychology of atheism”?

      It is fairly obvious that you didn’t even read this post. You probably just saw the inflammatory title and, demonstrating the intellectual laziness inherent to religious adherents, jumped on the opportunity to proselytize.

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