If, like me, you believe that nature operates according to discoverable laws and chance, without the slightest regard for human affairs, this is your time. For countless millennia, superstition has held the upper hand. Every lightning strike was said to be sign from God, every famine the doing of witches. But now, at long last, there is a sign from the heavens for the rest of us. You’ll have to read to the end of the column to find it, but I trust the journey will be worthwhile.
Recently, in a rambling, Scripture-laden letter to the TopekaCapital-Journal, longtime Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the late and little lamented Rev. Fred Phelps, writes, “God Almighty is in charge. ... He has his way in every single matter.”
The Westboro Baptist Church, known for its “God Hates Fags” pickets, falls outside far the mainstream. Yet, the view Phelps-Roper expresses remains widely held. A great many Americans believe that God pulls all the strings, that, to paraphrase Matthew’s version of Jesus, not a sparrow falls without the Big Guy’s say-so. Many American also believe that demons, ghosts, and spooks stalk the land.
From time immemorial the belief that anger or evil lurks behind every shadow has had few rivals. Indeed, life was nasty, brutish, and short. What better explanation than God’s wrath could anyone produce for invasions, tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or a bolt out of the blue? How better to account for things that go bump in the night than the actions of restless spirits?
But slowly, steadily, and then with accelerating pace, science has produced far more detailed, plausible, and testable explanations. Better still, science gives us the power to predict and act upon events with an accuracy no prophecy can even approach. Want to know if you'll need an umbrella tomorrow? Consult a meteorologist. Want to send a probe around the planets to infinity and beyond? Call in NASA space scientists. Want to save your children from infectious diseases? Get them vaccinated now.
The scientific worldview has left all too many Americans behind. A recent poll finds that only 36 percent really trust scientists and science journalists. While most trust their local weather forecast, nearly two-thirds brush off warnings about the effects of climate change. And a quarter of Americans remain blithely ignorant of the discovery 500 years ago that the Earth goes ‘round the Sun.
What makes us so dumb? First and foremost, Sunday school. The malign influence of old-time religion indoctrinates children from a young age, plugs their natural curiosity with ancient myth, and warns them not to consider alternative possibilities on pain of eternal torture. Of course, not all children go to that kind of Sunday school, but the promotion of the supernatural in pseudo-documentary entertainment has a profound influence, and even in our public schools the “teach to the test” burden means that our science curriculum often fails to convey what counts: a way of thinking about the world that is skeptical, reason-driven, and evidence-based.
I’ve long known this (and perhaps you have too), but the truth of it came home to me with stunning force recently when I appeared on a panel at Doane College in Nebraska along with a self-proclaimed psychic medium, a ghost-hunter, and a demon-fearing pastor. I was there in the lonely role of skeptic and science-advocate. The students evinced a range of responses, but most seemed to be believers and some were astonishingly credulous. After seeing video of “ghost hunters” bumbling around a darkened house shouting, “Who’s there?!” many bought into the notion that ambiguous sounds or lights were spirits.
A lame cold-reading by the “psychic” brought one woman to tears. “You’ve lost someone important to you,” she said. Well, who hasn’t? And then, “The colors red, blue, and green were important to her.” Aw, gee, I’d have sworn it would be yellow, gray, and purple!
To be honest, I too felt possessed during the class—by an overwhelming urge to roll my eyes and sigh. To avoid falling into the stereotype of a skeptic, I resisted. Instead, I urged students to consider the advantages of a scientific worldview.
A scientifically literate person knows that nature’s actions have no regard for human concerns. No amount of fervent prayer will end a drought or deter a hurricane. None of us gets through life without bad things happening, but at least we have the comfort of knowing that disaster doesn’t imply that God is angry or that some monster under the bed is out to get us.
Mind you, it takes effort to overcome the animist instinct. Our evolutionary heritage primes our minds to be alert to other minds and their machinations. As a spillover, we tend to impute motive to things that just are. Then, once in a while, something happens to remind us just how vast is the role of contingency in our lives. Step to the left, and everything will be fine. Step to the right, and you intercept a cosmic ray that damages a strand of DNA in your brain and ten years later you’re dead of a brain tumor. Of course, that’s one we’ll never prove.
Then, there’s Anders Helstrup, a Norwegian skydiver who jumped out of a plane and very nearly into the path of a falling meteor. Amazingly, the moment was captured on a high-def helmet cam he wore.
Not everyone’s convinced the footage is real, but if there’s a real message in that meteor story, it’s this: life is chancy and may end at any moment for no reason at all, but if you dismiss irrational fears and make the best of it, life is good.
(H/T to my friend and fellow reasoner Jim Bechtel for the Norwegian story.)Tags: Skydiving, Westboro Baptist Church