Thursday, July 27, 2017

Please Don't Point Out Logical Fallacies

Pointing out logical fallacies is pointless. Though it is useful to study logical fallacies so that you can analyze your own thinking and make adjustments, but to point out the logical fallacies in someone else's thinking is entirely counter productive.

If you are in a disagreement with someone, by definition they do no view you as an authority on the subject and thus they are unlikely to accept your analysis of whether or not their thought process is fallacious or not. The reason why they think the thoughts they do is because they think their thought process is right, and no one likes to be told they are wrong.

The whole reason why they are disagreeing with you in the first place is because they think your thought process is out of order. So if you attempt to point out an error in their thinking they are not disposed to begin an introspective analysis of their thinking. Almost by definition, your thinking is in error, so any attempt to point out an error in their thinking will be rejected immediately. Thus it is pointless and counter productive to point out the fallacies in someone else's thinking.

This does not mean that you never point out logical fallacies, just do not expect the person you are critiquing to respond positively. It is also justified for certain egregious misuses of logic and reasoning, but not as a tool to convince those afflicted, but to warn those who are unconvinced and can be swayed by your reason, that is, those who have not taken a position yet.

But it is a very good idea to study logical fallacies so that you can improve your own thinking. A good place to start is by analyzing what other people say and see if you can pick out the logical fallacies. First start with arguments you disagree with. Those are the easiest. Next you move to arguments you have no opinion about one way or the other. This allows you to dispassionately assess the arguments. When you are comfortable with those you can move on to arguments that you naturally agree with. Those are the hardest arguments to analyze, with the exception of your own arguments. It takes a lot of humility to analyze your own thinking for fallacies.

Some good fallacies to start with are perhaps the most famous ones such as ad hominem, slippery slope, or the post hoc fallacy. Once you can identify fallacies in arguments that you already disagree with, then you can try moving on to something more difficult. Just remember that pointing out a fallacy in someone else's argument is (almost) never productive. I can think of one, and only one, case when I pointed out someone's fallacious thinking and it actually made an impact on them, and they admitted that I "got them" and for a moment their defenses were down and I was talking to a human being. Unfortunately it did not last.

Remember the point of studying fallacies is to eventually analyze your own thoughts and learn to remove fallacious thinking. When you do that then you can begin to build convincing arguments that can sway people to your position.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why did Nephi pray?

In response to my post on Laman and Lemuel my mother asked, "Why did Nephi pray?" In my previous post I explained that, based on the culture of the time, Laman and Lemuel may not have considered it proper to pray to ask God to know something. It would have been more in keeping with their culture to seek out a seer, or someone with an item used for divination. Without a seer to answer their questions the only valid way of understanding prophecy would be to figure it out through reason. When reason was inadequate they had no way of gaining further insight into revelation from God.

When we approach the story we usually take note of Laman and Lemuel's failure to pray and identify with Nephi's apparent natural understanding about the role of prayer in revelation. But when we consider Nephi's reaction to his father's vision we have to keep in mind that not only are we reading it through our cultural lens, but also we are reading the version of the story that Nephi wrote many years later. By the time he wrote his story Nephi may have been much more comfortable with praying to receive knowledge through revelation, but it may not have been that way at the time.

We can deduce that there was one particular scripture that impacted how Nephi viewed revelation and prayer because he quoted it to Laman and Lemuel. In 1 Nephi 15:11 Nephi says,
"Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you."
This verse was evidently on the brass plates, but is not found in our Old Testament. We do not know when Nephi first encountered this verse, but it may have only been read by Lehi and his family just a few days before. In retelling this story many years later, Nephi carefully incorporates this verse into his exchange with his brothers (see how verse 10 sets up how verse 11 applies to the situation). But at the time Nephi may have only recently learned of that verse, and much like Joseph Smith with James 1:5, took it seriously. The same verse may not have had the same impact, or even been noticed by Laman and Lemuel.

But in 1 Nephi 11:20-21, Nephi mentions that his brothers were humbled and began to ask sincere questions. They must have found that verse convincing, but that would also mean that they were not familiar with it, so Nephi must have also just learned that verse when they acquired the brass plates.

So why did Nephi pray? He did it because he read the scriptures and found out that he could. It is "obvious" to us now, and it was obvious to Nephi later in life, but at the time it was a new thing.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What happened to the Church of Scotland?

What has happened to the Church of Scotland? I don't mean what is happening to it now, because it is obvious that whatever happened, happened years ago and just now we are seeing the effects.

A recent article from the BBC has the slightly misleading headline, "Religious affiliation in Scotland 'declines sharply'". The title explicitly points to a decrease in the number of Scots who self identify as members of a church. The apparent conclusion is that religion in general in the country is becoming less important. But if we dig into the data we get a slightly different picture.

Right off the bat the article notes that since 1999 the percentage of people reporting "no religion" has increased from 40% to 58%. This definitely makes it look like religion in general is struggling in Scotland. But not until the end of the article do we find out that as a percentage of the overall population all other religions or Christian denominations have remained constant. Within statistical uncertainty there has been no change for everyone other than the Church of Scotland (the Kirk). The entire increase in people reporting "no religion" is driven by former members of the Kirk.

It is interesting to note that while the other denominations are not picking up those leaving the Kirk, their membership is keeping pace with population growth. They may have a hard time bringing in new converts but they are not in the state of crisis seen in the Kirk. From the data the number of people who self identify as members of the Kirk has decreased by a half since 1999. If half the members of the church of Scotland chose to leave in 18 years while all other religions and denominations have continued to grow, albeit at the rate of population growth, then that indicates that there is, or was, something about the Church of Scotland that resulted in this sudden drop that was not present in other denominations and religions.

This kind of thing does not just happen overnight, or even in just a few years. In order for there to be this dramatic of a decrease over the last 20 years means that the seeds of this crisis were sown long ago. That is why at the beginning I said that it is not happening now but happened years ago.

So there was something about the culture or the teachings of the Church of Scotland that brought it to this crisis. I do not have enough insight or data to determine how it got to this point. But it is also interesting to note that there is data that shows that similar trends hold for the church of England. Since 1983 the number of people in England who self report as Anglican has dropped from 40% to 17%, while the number of non-religious has climbed from 31% to 48%. The proportion of people from other Christian denominations have remained roughly constant, with some fluctuation, but the number of non-Christians has climbed from 2% to 8%.

But this is not isolated data. I recently read an article from The West Australian entitled, "We’re losing our religion". This article followed the format set by the BBC article by noting that the number of people reporting "No Religion" has increased, but when we look at the data the same trend holds. The percentage of Anglicans has declined, while all other denominations have stayed the same (with the exception of Catholics, whose representation declined by 5% of the population).

So while there are definitely more people who self identify as having "No Religion" the vast majority have come from either the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. This massive shift in social attitudes definitely has put pressure on other denominations, but the data indicate that at least in Scotland, England and Australia, religion in general is not going away, just a particular form of it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Ad Hominem Arguments vs. Ad Hominem Fallacies

In almost any internet debate there invariably comes a moment when someone will accuse another of using an ad hominem attack or argument. Unfortunately on the internet, any disagreement or attempt to disprove someone's argument is perceived as an attack on the person. But that fundamentally misunderstands what an ad hominem argument is. The key to identifying an ad hominem argument is to consider whether or not the response is responding to the original argument, or if it is ignoring the argument and responding directly to the source of the argument.

While it is common for people to mistakenly interpret an argument against their position as an attack on themselves, what is almost universally misunderstood is that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious.

To put it simply, all ad hominem fallacies are ad hominem arguments, but not all ad hominem arguments are ad hominem fallacies.

What many people don't realize is that an ad hominem argument is a perfectly valid way of arguing. For example, say there was a video on the internet of someone dressed in University of Utah clothing giving a negative critique of BYU's football team. We could easily dismiss a negative argument about BYU football from the Ute fan based solely on the fact that they are a Ute fan, and not unbiased in their assessment of BYU football. Saying, "Well they are a Ute fan, so of course they will say that." is an ad hominem argument. It does not respond to what was said, but only attacks the person making the argument in order to undermine their argument. This can be a perfectly valid argument.

Now if the person in U of U clothing turned out to be the U of U football coach, then dismissing them as a Ute fan would turn the ad hominem argument into a fallacy. A football coach probably has a sound basis for his argument, and refusing to address his arguments would make it a fallacy.

Sound ad hominem arguments are used more frequently than people realize. Statements such as, "They are paid to say that." or, "They are an advocate for [blank] so of course they would say that." Looking at the source of an argument and dismissing it based solely on the source is an ad hominem argument. Whether or not it is a fallacy is another matter.

So despite what many people on the internet immediately assume, to be dismissive of someone because they lack the necessary expertise can be a valid argument, and is not automatically a fallacy. But if the argument is not considered at all you better have a good reason for dismissing the source and not considering the argument. If not you run the risk of committing an ad hominem fallacy in your argument.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Human Drama of Family History Work

Charles Watson was born in 1844 in the village of Old Brampton in the county of Derbyshire, England. He was the fourth of seven sons. Brampton was a small farming community two miles outside of Chesterfield, the second largest town in the county. His father was a farmer and Charles grew up on his father's farm.
A central teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ is performing vicarious religious ordinances or rituals for those who have died. We consider these ordinances, properly performed by those who have authority, to be essential for salvation and even those who may have been baptized in another church while they were alive needs to have a properly authorized baptism performed for them. While the choice to accept the ordinance still rests on each individual, we believe that a physical action must be done for each and every individual ever born.
Hannah Parsons was born in the village of Old Brampton in 1846, three weeks before her parents were married. Because her parents were not married at the time she was born, she did not officially have her father's last name, and had only the maiden name of her mother. But later in life everyone just assumed, including perhaps Hannah herself, that her name was Hannah Fretwell. But the "Parsons" part of her name was remembered and appeared in later records. She was the first of ten children.
In support of the endeavor to find each individual and perform religious rituals for them, members of the church do extensive family history work, or genealogy, to find the names of those who have died and have not had the opportunity to have the proper authorized ordinances performed while alive. In doing this work we tend to focus on the work of sifting through records, finding the names and dates, and making sure our sources are correct before we submit the names to the Temple so that the proper, authorized religious rituals are performed for them.
Hannah and Charles both lived in the small village of Brampton, and in 1870 they were married. At the time Charles was working as a coal miner. His father had passed away before Charles was married, and the family had sold the farm. All of Charles's brothers were working as coal miners to fuel the raging industrial revolution in England.
While most of genealogy work may be dry and boring, sifting through records and names, looking at images of records and trying to decipher the cryptic handwriting of some parish priest, every once in a while a story comes out of records. It is a story told not in verse or sweeping epics, but in names and dates. In the middle of the most boring historical records imaginable, emerges a tale of human drama, death, heartache, and uncertainty that would be fit for any dramatic tale.
Hannah and Charles had their first child in 1869, and they named her Sarah Parsons Watson. At that time and place it was unusual for people to have three names, but Hannah, who was born Hannah Parsons, kept that part of her name in the name of her first daughter. Over the next seven years they had three more daughters, Mary, Emma Parsons, and Charlotte.
As members of the Church we are encouraged to remember our ancestors. But there are some ancestors who tend to get more coverage than others, while there are those who quietly fade into the background. In these less commonly traversed branches of the family tree are found the quiet human dramas that make up the human experience.
In July 1878 tragedy struck the Watson family. Charles died. There is no record of how he died, only that he was buried in the church yard of St. Thomas in Brampton. Given his work as a coal miner it is possible his death was related to that. This left his wife a widow with four small daughters aged 8, 6, 4, and 2. As a widow living in a poor working class community it would have been very difficult.
There is a perception that history is made by well known, great individuals who through force of will or strength of character form the axis of history. But most of human history is made up of normal people, going about their lives, quietly living out the everyday dramas that make us human.
Within two years Hannah had remarried. Her new husband, William Gregory, was a widower with six children of his own. William was also a coal miner. The marriage produced no more children and it may have been a marriage of convenience. Hannah needed a way to support her daughters, and William needed someone to watch his small children while he worked in the coal mines. 
However the family did it, all 10 children lived in a modest house in poor working class conditions. That is, until 1887 when Hannah passed away. Again there is no record of how she died, or even where she was buried. We do not even know the exact date of her death since it is only recorded in a England death registry which only gives the year and quarter (range of three months). At the ages of 17, 15, 13, and 11 Hannah's four daughters were left orphans. At the time they were living with their stepfather and his six children. 
There is very little known about what happened to Hannah's four daughters in the intervening years, but I managed to find all four of them in the 1891 census.
Sarah Parsons married Isaac Burt in 1890. She would go on to have eight children, with the last two born in Illinois in the United States. Her husband Isaac was a coal miner, and near the end of the 1800's the coal in Derbyshire was running out. In 1905 they emigrated to the US so that Isaac and his sons could work as coal miners in Braceville, Illinois.
In 1891 Mary Watson, Charles and Hannah's second daughter, was working in a cotton mill while living with her grandparents Francis and Fanny Fretwell. In 1893 she married Daniel Hughes and they had four children. They stayed in Chesterfield, Derbyshire their entire lives. 
By 1891 Emma Parsons Watson, the third daughter, was 16 years old and was living as a domestic servant to a well-to-do family in Chesterfield. After this she disappears from the record and I can not trace her life after that. I do not know if she got married, had a family or died alone. Her life, right now, is an unknown drama. 
Shortly after her mother died, Charlotte Watson went to live with another family. At the age of 11 she began working as a domestic servant. Shortly after moving in with her employers the family moved to somewhere near Sheffield, which is in Yorkshire, the county next to Derbyshire. She was still living with them four years later in 1891 when she appears in the census. Like her sister Emma, she disappears from the records after this and I can't trace her. 
Encapsulated in the family of Charles and Hannah is great portions of modern human history. There is the disruption of traditional farming communities by the industrial revolution, and the fuel of the revolution was coal. The families lived in poor conditions in a town that grew around industry and coal. Chesterfield expanded because of the industrial revolution, and while it ultimately helped lift people out of poverty, the process was difficult and painful. There were families who lost their fathers, and children who were left orphans. We only have to read a Charles Dickens novel to learn of harsher side of the industrial revolution.

After becoming an orphan, their eldest daughter, survived and started her own family. That family now lives in the US and they may not remember where they came from.

The second daughter stayed in England and navigated the changes that came after the industrial revolution. They were a working class family where the children dropped out of school by the age of 12 and started working.

Anyone who does enough family history work knows that sometimes people disappear from the written record. The other two daughters, Emma and Charlotte, and emblematic of those who quietly disappear in the milieu of history. Hopefully they can be found someday, because everyone should be remembered.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Laman and Lemuel Did Not Think of Themselves as Apostate

In Sunday School lessons in the Church when we discuss Laman and Lemuel we tend to portray them as faithless, scheming, disobedient reprobates who still mummer and complain even after they are shown miracles and angels. Many seem to have a cartoon image of Laman as the stereotypical cartoon villain, complete with evil goatee, and Lemuel as his whiny, dimwitted sidekick.

This simple portrayal seems so obvious, because how else could someone see an angel, experience miracles, hear the word of the Lord, and still not believe? Obviously they had to be faithless schemers or why else would they reject the plain truths as taught by Nephi? They don't even bother to pray, and if they can't even do something as simple and fundamental as that, then obviously they don't have faith and care nothing for religion and eternal truths. Right? Are they really just the faithless, wayward sons of a good man and a prophet? 

Previously I have written about the complex social and religious environment that produced what we now know as the Old Testament. The time of Lehi was an interesting period in history. There was major political upheaval, a previous king of Judah had pushed through some major religious reforms, new histories were being compiled, and differing strands of religious thought were vying for supremacy.

If we read Jeremiah in the Bible we can get a sense that there was disagreement between groups of priests about political matters. There seems to be one group who were very much in support of the king and another that supported Jeremiah. While we may look back and say, "Obviously they should have supported Jeremiah." For those living at the time it may not have been so clear since those opposed to Jeremiah included the High Priest. But even this "picking sides" was not so straight forward since even those who opposed Jeremiah held him in high regard. When the king learned that Jeremiah was in prison he arranged for him to be rescued.

We learn from Nephi that his father Lehi supported Jeremiah, while Laman and Lemuel probably supported the monarchists and the High Priest. One of the harshest criticisms that Lehi leveled against his sons was that they were planning to do to him what the Elders had done to Jeremiah. This was not a criticism that Laman and Lemuel took lightly, but in fact took very seriously. By reading Nephi's account we can easily get the impression that Laman and Lemuel never listened to their father. But if we read carefully we can see that they listened to his prophecies and followed his commands. They did after all go get the brass plates, and they did attempt to buy them with all that they had. They did hold reverence for the word of God.

While some have tried to explain Laman and Lemuel's obedience to their father as some manifestation of the high regard that their culture gave to obedience to parents, that seems like a gross over simplification of the culture at the time, and still does not explain why they chose to follow Nephi at many points.

When we consider the interaction between Laman, Lemuel, and Nephi we unknowingly impose our modern biases on the story. To illustrate this let us consider perhaps the most over used but entirely misinterpreted interaction between Nephi and his brothers.

In 1 Nephi 8 we have recorded Lehi's famous vision of the tree of life. Immediately after this experience Nephi "desired to know the things that [his] father had seen" and thus sought and received the revelatory experience recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14. Upon returning to the camp where his family was staying Nephi found Laman and Lemuel debating the vision of their father. Prompted by Nephi's questions Laman and Lemuel responded, "Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive tree, and also concerning the Gentiles."

This response prompted Nephi to ask the question that forms the basis of so many seminary, institute, Sunday School lessons, Sacrament meeting talks and question prompts in church manuals.
"And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?"
"And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us."
To us, Nephi's question is so blindingly obvious, and Laman and Lemuel's response so typical of non-believers that it may not occur to us that Laman and Lemuel could very well have a rational reason for not praying to know the interpretation. In our culture we are accustomed to the concept of praying. For us the most fundamental way we interact with the divine is to pray. It is so ingrained in our culture that we do not realize that in a different culture it may not be so obvious.

In our culture it is natural for us to ask, "Have ye inquired of the Lord?" We would think it very odd to go looking for someone who could use divination to answer our questions. In our culture the practice of using peep stones, divination in cups, and seemingly magical items is not considered socially acceptable or valid for divine communication. But in the culture at the time of Lehi not only was divination acceptable, but firmly entrenched as the preeminent method of divine communication.

In 1 Samuel 23 there is the story of David on the run from King Saul. Wanting to know the King's plans, David consulted with the priest Abiathar. In order to get an answer, David asked Abiathar to bring the ephod (part of the high priest's clothing associated with the Urim and Thummim) so that they could receive revelation from the Lord. There are other instances where questions directed to the Lord could not be answered without the use of the Urim and Thummim.

At the time of Lehi praying to ask the Lord questions was not ingrained in the culture. If someone wanted to ask the Lord a question they would have to find someone with a sacred object to be used for divination. Thus for Laman and Lemuel, if they wanted to know the interpretation of Lehi's vision, an obvious course of action would not be to pray and ask, but to find someone with a Urim and Thummim, or similar item, that could divine the answer.

When Nephi begins to explain the vision Laman and Lemuel are not passively listening, but actively asking questions. In fact they ask better questions than you would find in most Sunday School lessons about Lehi's vision. These are not the actions of non-believers who failed to ask questions. They did apply themselves and attempt to understand the vision, but because of their culture it did not occur to them that they could pray and ask the Lord for answers. They were keeping firmly within their religious tradition and thought that these were answers that could only be answered by a seer with some sacred object for divination.

It is particularly telling that after this experience, but before they traveled into the desert Lehi was given the Liahona, which was a sacred object that could communicate the word of the Lord. It was like the ephod for David, or the Urim and Thummim for the priests. It validated Lehi's position as a seer in the eyes of Laman and Lemuel. As a seer that had an object that could he could look into and see sacred communications, Lehi and his visions were established as divine. Hence Laman and Lemuel could follow him into the desert.

Also years later when they were in danger of starving in the desert Laman and Lemuel murmured against Lehi, partly because he had failed to use the Liahona. They eventually followed Nephi because he could use the Liahona, the sacred object that provided divine communication.

Sometimes there are things that are "obvious" to us and we wonder how anyone could be so dimwitted not to see the obvious. But it is important to remember that people like to think they have a good reason for doing what they do. For Laman and Lemuel praying to know the interpretation of a vision was according to their culture "weird". Using a sacred object to divine the answer was just as normal and obvious to them as praying is to us.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Carl Sagan and the Tree of Knowledge

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan talks about mankind's fraught relationship with the unknown, and our curiosity with the unknown. At one point in the book he says:
"To our ancestors there was much in Nature to be afraid of—lightning, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, drought, long winters. Religions arose in part as attempts to propitiate and control, if not much to understand, the disorderly aspect of Nature."
"How much more satisfying had we been placed in a garden custom-made for us, its other occupants put there for us to use as we saw fit. There is a celebrated story in the Western tradition like this, except that not quite everything was there for us. There was one particular tree of which we were not to partake, a tree of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding and wisdom were forbidden to us in this story. We were to be kept ignorant. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever."
By using the story of the garden of Eden, Sagan sets up an interesting image of mankind moving from a state of ignorance where we are blissfully ignorant of the true complexity of the universe, to a point where we become cognizant of our place in the cosmos and find out just how insignificant we really are.

But as I read Sagan's description of our abandonment of the Eden of our ignorance, my attention was drawn to a seemingly minor but important detail.
Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Stained glass in the Salt Lake Temple.
I have read a few responses to Sagan's comments but one thing that no one has pointed out is that in the Garden of Eden there was no tree of knowledge, there was only a tree of knowledge of good and evil. While this may seem like a superficial difference, just think how "superficial" the difference is between the phrases "the President", and "the president of the Rotary Club". That extra qualifier can make all the difference.

Unfortunately most of us who read Sagan's words would not even stop and think that the Bible only mentions the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and never just the tree of knowledge. With that knowledge, Sagan's imagery is slightly undermined because the expulsion from the garden is no longer about giving up a state of ignorance about the universe. Adam and Eve were not expelled for being too curious. Even if you only view the story of the garden as symbolic and not historical, we, as a human race, were not cast out because, "we found out too much". We were cast out because we became moral creatures, like the Gods, and thus we were given a space to be free that we might learn by our own experience to distinguish the good from the evil.

When Sagan addresses the story of the Garden of Eden he very subtly equates the religious world view with the ignorance of Eden, and gaining the modern scientific world view as the hard, but good and necessary expulsion from Eden. For those who desire to return to the religious and spiritual world view, Sagan cautions, "Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental."

But is the new worldview offered by Carl Sagan really all that new? Sagan implies that if we stand at the edge of the cosmos and look and see the wonder, extent and grandeur of the universe we will know discover our own insignificance. But according to Sagan we can only do that by abandoning the paradise of ignorance brought on by a religious worldview. But is this the case? Does a religious worldview preclude feeling a sense of wonder about the cosmos and realizing our own insignificance?

There is a passage from Isaiah in the Bible that is perhaps applicable here.
"I have even from the beginning declared it to thee; before it came to pass I shewed it thee.... Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. They are created now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them."
This new thought from Carl Sagan is perhaps not really all that new. As we read about Moses,
"And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.... And he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed."
Carl Sagan is not the first to stand at the edge of the cosmos and view the insignificance of man.

This is the message that has been taught since the beginning of time, that man is nothing, and the work of God is greater than just this earth and those who dwell on it. As God said,
"For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them."
For Carl Sagan the religious world was created to give people comfort in their ignorance of the powerful forces of nature. The religious worldview was not meant to give understanding. When confronted by the uncontrollable nature of the cosmos the religious worldview was to provide a paradise where we could safely stay in ignorance. But when Moses was confronted with the whole of creation he had a distinctly different response.
"Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?"

This intense desire to know and to understand the whole of creation does not seem like an incurious retreat into the ignorance of a religious worldview.

But this is not all. There is another half to this story that we all too often do not tell. Mankind was not expelled from paradise to forever live out our lonely existence on some forgotten lump of rock. We were given a way back. The central message of Christianity is that the expulsion from Eden is not permanent. The gates to Paradise are not eternally barred. We are not condemned to be "exiles and wanderers" for all eternity. The message of Christianity is that there is a Savior who can save us from our fallen state, and bring us back into the presence of God, where we now have the benefit of knowing good from evil. What started in Eden, with the fall and acquiring knowledge of good and evil and becoming as the Gods, shall continue into the eternities. And that is more hopeful than any view Carl Sagan might offer.