So predictable


One of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog was discussing why belief based in science is much better than belief based in religious faith. Even if we were to grant the wildly unsupported and ridiculous assertion that religious narratives and scientific observations are equally accurate methods to describe the way the world came to be, the fact remains that religious narratives are consistently inaccurate when it comes to predicting the future. For all the talk of ‘prophecy’ that is in the Bible, most of it is simply an expression of rudimentary understanding of human nature. If you couch your predictions in vague enough language, everything becomes a ‘fulfilled’ prophecy.

Of course those who do dare to tip-toe outside the safe boundaries of non-specific prognostication and actually put their reputations on the line by selecting a specific date and location for an event are always proved wrong. Predictions of this specific type would actually be useful – being able to, for example, know when a plague or a famine or a natural disaster was going to strike a certain region would be incredibly useful. Assuming for a moment that religious truth picks up where science leaves off, and science isn’t capable of predicting these events, using this other ‘way of knowing’ would be an incredible boon to mankind. We could use the Bible (or Qu’ran or Vedas or whatever you want to use) to predict when this would happen, and then use science to minimize the damage such things would cause.

However, that’s not the case. So instead we get stuff like this:

More than 22 earthquakes struck Italy by noon on Wednesday, as is normal for the quake-prone country but none was the devastating temblor purportedly predicted by a now-dead scientist to strike Rome. Despite efforts by seismologists to debunk the myth of a major Roman quake on May 11, 2011 and stress that quakes can never be predicted, some Romans left town just in case, spurred by rumour-fueled fears that ignore science.

Many storefronts were shuttered, for example, in a neighbourhood of Chinese-owned shops near Rome’s central train station. And an agriculture farm lobby group said a survey of farm-hotels outside the capital indicated some superstitious Romans had headed to the countryside for the day.

Some people I know are superstitious, or believe in horroscopes and the like. Contexually, it is a harmless enough fancy – for the most part they use logic and good sense to make their life decisions. In principle however, these kinds of beliefs can be incredibly destructive. When people begin abandoning their homes and work over a superstition that violates scientific principles it’s not simply something to laugh off. People leaving their jobs means a serious burden to the national economy; people leaving town ties up roads and puts an additional strain on emergency services; the efforts spent trying to disabuse people of a false belief could have been better spent in any number of fields. I’m not saying that people can’t take a day off, but when hundreds do so at the same time for an extremely poor reason, you kind of have to give your head a shake.

When those same people spend millions of dollars to propogate a superstitious belief, you kind of wish you could shake them instead:

Billboards are popping up around the globe, including in major Canadian cities, proclaiming May 21 as Judgment Day. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS mercy,” says one of the mounted signs from Family Radio, a California-based sectarian Christian group that is sending one of its four travelling caravans of believers into Vancouver and Calgary within the next 10 days. Family Radio’s website is blunt in its prediction of Judgment Day and the rolling earthquake that will mark the beginning of the end. “The Bible guarantees it!” the site proclaims, under a passage from the book of Ezekiel, which says “blow the trumpet … warn the people.”

You didn’t misread that – Family Radio (why is every fundagelical group ‘Family’ something – as though only Christians have families?) has determined through some serious Biblical research that the final judgment of all mankind is happening two days from now (or maybe less, depending on when you’re reading this). Oh, and when I say “serious Biblical research”, I mean some random shit that he’s made up:

I remember a few years ago, I was reading an article by a Rastafari preacher in a Bajan newspaper. He was telling people that you shouldn’t eat ice cream, because it sounds like “I scream”, and therefore it meant that your soul is screaming when you eat it.

Year earlier than that, a guy in one of my high school classes used the same ‘logic’ as Harold Camping to demonstrate that Barney the Dinosaur was actually the devil – apparently the letters in BIG PURPLE DINOSAUR, when converted to Roman numerals (substituting ‘V’ for ‘U’, as is the style in Latin), and removing all letters that don’t correspond to numerals, add to “666”. At least when Lee said it, he was joking. The followers of Mr. Camping are selling their homes, quitting their jobs, and basically giving themselves no Plan B. This is seriously disruptive not only to their lives, but to the lives of those that depend on them. The sad part is what will happen to all of these people when the sun rises on May 22nd and nothing’s changed.

If I am moved by a spirit of uncharacteristic generosity, I will grant that religion helps people deal with existential crises by giving them convenient and non-falsifiable answers to complicated questions (by teaching them not to deal with them at all, but whatever). However, when it comes to making claims about the material world, religion can and must be completely ignored as a source of reliable information. Faith is simply one of the remainders that falls out of the long-division of our evolution-crafted mental processes. Just like we can control our urge to defecate on the ground and have sex with teenagers (well… most of us anyway), we can control our urge to believe in ridiculous claims of superstition when it comes to answering the only questions that matter – how are we to live in the world?

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