This goes back a long way. Of course, most things go back a long way, but this is unique in that I think I know when it first started. It started for me about the seventh grade.
I greatly enjoyed learning science in school, starting in the fourth grade, where Mrs. Morris taught us about the planets and such. Later in the seventh we had this science teacher, who was really not a science teacher. In high school there was a principal science teacher, and we learned a lot of useful science from him. But ours was a small town school they could not afford to hire separate teachers for all subjects for all grades, and seventh grade teacher was hired for another specialty, not science. Anyhow, he was teaching us science, and at least I was enjoying it. Then came the explanation of helicopter flight.
A helicopter, the teacher explained, had this big rotating blade on top, which we all knew from seeing them in the movies and on TV. The rotating blade blew air upward, creating a draft, which flowed over the body of the helicopter from the bottom, lifting it up. This I knew was not true, first from having seen helicopters in the movies and on TV and also from knowing a little about how things worked.
I knew that helicopter blades were like wing surfaces that generated lift by moving through the air with an upward pitch, just the way an airplane wing works. The aerodynamic lift on the blades was translated into a lifting force through the rotor blades’ drive shaft, and that force was applied to the helicopter’s frame, lifting the entire contraption off the ground.
I didn’t make a big deal of this revelation in class, but I kept the lesson in mind and determined to check out whatever this teacher told us in the future. This got to be a bad habit, and by the time I left high school I was beginning to question most sources of conventional wisdom. At first this questioning came in the form of availing myself of multiple sources and checking them against each other. If bright and successful people gained their success through certain knowledge, then there might be good reason the think their knowledge had some basis of fact. And that was it. Facts were that knowledge that, when applied properly, produced useful results. More specifically, if a helicopter designer tried to apply my science teacher’s idea the helicopter would not fly.
Much later in life than I am proud to admit I learned to spot possibly spurious “knowledge” and to run down sources of contradictory evidence in order to refute or, rarely, to confirm. One of the areas of phony knowledge I ultimately dealt with was the paranormal—psychic abilities and such. But before that, shortly after I left high school and while I was at sea on a ship with lots of time to think things through, I analyzed and discarded all religion.
In discarding religion, particularly the one I grew up with, which is Christianity, my thought process went like this. “Having lived in the real world for nearly 20 years, does any of this make sense? Do the precepts of Christianity bear any semblance to real-life experience?” The answer I received to these questions was “no.” In the world we do not see dead people coming back to life. In the world we do not actually converse with an unseen person with enormous and magical powers. The stories that are provided to assure us of these things are the kinds of stories people would tell if they were just making up stories. These stories are not what you would hear from somebody telling of actual events. These stories are just too reassuring and too convenient. This is the stuff of fiction and not very good fiction at that.
So, I became convinced on my own of the unreality of Christianity and, by extension, of Judaism and Islam. Without giving it much deeper thought I by default also discarded the Norse myths, the Greek and Roman gods and Shintoism and Hinduism. As I grew older and studied more I determined there are factual reasons for discarding these religions. The Bible is supposed to be the authority for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but it is severely devoid of fact. The Earth is not 6000 years old, there was no flood of Noah, Moses was a mythical person, and there was no exodus of Hebrews from Egypt. More than that, the Bible is self-contradictory in a number of places, rendering it useless as an authority on its own authority.
Along with these religious convictions went any number of associated beliefs, including life after death, the power of prayer and the authority of the church. And my life has been better for it.
All of this rambling has been inspired by a posting on Facebook earlier this week. A school mate from my home town posted a charming note that described the Devil’s reaction to the Bible. “When you carry a bible… the devil gets a headache,” on through “When he sees you living it… he flees.” I thought those were worthy thoughts, except for one thing. The Devil is a mythical character. I considered it risky to base one’s actions on a fictitious character (like Long John Silver), and I mentioned this fact to my former school mate. Another respondent on the thread reminded me that the Devil was, indeed, real, and I doubted this fact at my peril. This information was a bit jarring, especially the use of the word “real.” I had to reply with something like, “The Devil is real? Is this a new definition of real?” I was then shortly put in my place with a response to the extent that my comment did not deserve a response.
So, perhaps I was out of line, calling into question an unknown person’s interpretation of the word “real.” After all, does not every one of us have the right to their own definition of reality? We hear this all the time from the new-agers. What matters to a person is what is real to them, not some trumped up definition from scientists and philosophers. Normally I could go along with this idea, except for one thing. I have developed a standard response whenever somebody asks me why I bother to set others straight on this, including people of no consequence to me. My response, “Because people can die.” I do not appreciate having people die because they misunderstood reality. People will always die from needless accidents and momentary lapses of attention. But to have somebody die because of a fundamental disconnect of their thought processes somehow cheapens their life and all they have, or might have, meant to the world and to people who knew them. And these are not just empty words. People do die. Some examples.
In 1997 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, including their leader Marshal Applewhite, took poison so they could journey to an alien spacecraft. They had abandoned reality and had packed their suitcases before lying down on their beds for the last time. When police recovered the bodies, the suitcases were still there beside the beds. If the Heaven’s Gate members actually went to the spacecraft behind the comet Hale-Bopp, they forgot to take their suitcases.
In November 1978 over 900 members of the People’s Temple committed suicide or were murdered. They had followed to the jungles of South America an out of kilter religious leader who had lost touch with reality, losing their own sense of reality in the process.
A religious leader named Vernon Howell convinced other members of the Branch Davidian sect of a coming apocalypse. It was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy when Howell (also known as David Koresh) and adults in the sect killed themselves and their children during a police siege of their compound near Waco, Texas, in April 1993.
In 2001 19 deeply-religious men killed themselves and thousands of others by hijacking and crashing passenger airliners. Their deaths were no less religious-based than those of the previously mentioned cultists. They were completely convinced that the next thing they would see after the onrushing ground or building facade would be a heaven in which they would all be richly rewarded. Whether they would have hesitated in their actions if they had known the truth I can only guess. Perhaps not. We have known perfectly reasonable people who willingly gave up the remainder of their lives for the lives of others or for a principle they valued higher than life. To die for self-deception may be the ultimate folly.
These people died needlessly and foolishly, and this upsets me. All people will eventually leave this life, and many will do so in inglorious ways. But to die on the altar of self-deception is compounding the sin.
So, it disturbs me when people let loose their grasp of the facts and latch onto bits of mental fluff as though they were life savers in an open sea. My thinking is that if people make judgmental errors about the small stuff, they will possible be accident prone in more serious matters. They may also screw up in decisions that affect me and even some sane people. There’s the opportunity for tragedy.