Life in the Fat Lane
George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP

Signs and Wonders

Going_to_church_moi_2A couple of years ago, I met a very pretty blonde woman from Russia in Barnes & Noble. When I first saw her, she was sitting on the floor with a very familiar little book in her hands, trying to explain it in very fractured, almost non-existent English to a young Asian-American woman. The little book was one I owned myself, and I daresay everyone in my religion owned one too. It was a teaching aid for proselytizing in foreign countries, should you happen to travel abroad, with the same text on each page, written in a vast number of different languages: just a simple introduction to the Good News. As a marketing tool, it's truly brilliant.  (Sadly, that's what I often felt I was doing when I proselytized: selling my religion.) I walked on by, leaving her to it.

A little while later, she cornered me in the music section. After several attempts, I managed to explain to her that we were sisters in the same faith. Since my Russian is non-existent and her English was about the same, I'm not that sure how successful I was, but I gave her one of my cards. I had to admire her zeal, making the effort in a country where she didn't speak the language.

A couple of days ago, she actually called me, and I couldn't understand her any better now than I could when we first met. Her English hasn't improved much and neither has my Russian, so without the benefit of seeing her, it took a couple of phone calls for her to make clear to me who she was. In her still very-broken English, she asked me if I went to church. When I blurted "Oh. No," her response was to say goodbye and hang up.

When you've been weaned on the signs and portents of prophecy, it's very hard to stop seeing them as such. Even though I see fellow co-religionists from the local congregation nearly every day on the street in my neighborhood, this phone call kinda spooked me. Not for any rational reason, but just because it came so out of the blue, and because I'd been thinking about increasing food prices, the faltering economy and the number of natural disasters in the news lately—all apocalyptic signs of the End Times (note capitals).

I remember being out proselytizing one day and having some fed-up person say, "Of course all those things will seem more numerous! There's more people now for them to happen to and more people to hear about them!" I couldn't get around that logic then, and I can't get around it now. Earth is a geologically active planet with a complex ecosystem that includes some technologically savvy but short-sighted components and weather that's barely understood and impossible to control, at this point. With six billion of us scattered fairly densely throughout nearly ever habitable (and more sparsely through the uninhabitable) land masses, we've been able to make for more observations and gather way more data than ever before. When there were only a few million of us, widely scattered in tiny populations that didn't travel, Earth must have seemed a very stable, unchanging place with a few odd occurrences with no visible causes thrown in: comets, tsunami, tornadoes, crop failures, drought, disease. And yet, we were always looking for causes, asking why.

Carl Sagan, great popularizer of science and author and host of PBS's Cosmos, named his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (see sidebar) in part after

a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch hunts then in progress as a scam "to delude the people" Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the "witchmongers" as arguing—"else how should these things be, or come to pass?" For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable changers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. . . . (p. 26)

It's very difficult, if not impossible to draw the line between faith and superstition. Statistics account for so much of what we see as eerie coincidence because people know so little of how statistics work, but also because that's how our minds work: they gather data and correlate, which is as useful a skill in science as it is in foment superstition. It just depends on your world-view and whether you've learned to be a critical thinker or not. Obviously, Thomas Ady had learned to be a critical thinker in a time when that was an uphill battle.

It's still an uphill battle. Superstition is so much easier, and humans are basically lazy, especially about thinking. One thing I observed in my years in the land of evangelicals is that people follow because they like to be relieved of the responsibility of thinking for themselves about the hard Big Questions. I very much admire the Buddhists for that: everybody, to reach enlightenment, must do their own thinking. You can only do so much following as a Buddhist before you realize you must make your own way through the Dark Wood.

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

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