#170 Really, Really Dumb Ideas

What does it take to beat down a really stupid idea? Apparently, the dumber the idea, the harder it is to kill. The "benevolent dictator" fantasy appears to be a suicidal concept that is founded in charisma and fairy tales and doesn't seem to be any less popular today than it was 2,000 years ago. Conservatives and libertarians are incapable of getting more than a few feet from that wet dream every time democracy shows the slightest sign of stumbling. Religion is another example of humanity's love for stupid ideas.. The more fantastic the concepts behind a religion, the harder it is to defeat.

When my kids were infants, one of the first arguments my wife and I had about child raising was about the inclusion of traditional holiday fantasies in our nuclear family celebrations. Obviously, I opposed this indoctrination into stretched credibility. Easter Bunnies, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, ghost stories, the Boogie  Man, and honest politicians all belong in the history books that chronicle variations of child-abuse activities. We compromised. She brought these fantastic tales into our home, I ridiculed them. I'm doing the same routines with my grandchildren, much to my daughter's mother-in-law's disgust. She's Catholic and the rest of us are agnostic, including the grandkids.

I suspect that much of human gullibility is rooted in these pre-religious rituals. I'm not even in the running to be considered an early discoverer of the link childhood fantastic characters and rituals to the foundations of religion and conservative thinking in adults. If you can convince a kid to believe that a fat man and a dozen reindeer can deliver thousands of tons of gifts to rich little kids of the industrialized nations, introducing that same kid to gods and angels is a small step into irrational "faith." Still, it's amazing how strongly people cling to these incredibly stupid ideas and how well they defend the most unbelievable of their strange fantasies.

Let's be honest, if we can manage that for a moment. The best argument that followers of the god fantasies can provide is "you can't prove he doesn't exist." Science is all about disproving theories, but some theories are simply too dumb to bother with. This is one of them. To disprove the existence of the several dozen variations of god descriptions roaming around this earth with approximately 4 billion unevenly distributed subscribers to those variations, all of science could be tasked to invalidate these whacko fantasies until life on the planet vanished and we'd still be without absolute proof.

We can't disprove the existence of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or the Boogie Man, either. Hollywood constantly reminds us of that inability by repeating the same tired cartoon plots every generation. However, almost no one asks scientists to dedicate time to that foolish pursuit. The violent, fantastic, irrational accomplishments credited to gods and goddesses are no less impossible than the Santa Claus or Easter Bunny stories, but some folks appear to swallow those more somber fantasies without a moment of reflection or the slightest application of logic. Childhood conditioning must play some part in that inability to apply common sense to religious stories.

There is no more primitive urge than the tendency to suspect that magic is involved in the things we don't understand. The earliest cultures sacrificed animals and each other to a huge variety of gods and goddesses. Practically from the start of our species, we've created idols and other artworks, sang songs, burned, drowned, and skewered disbelievers, and paid witchdoctors and priests to interpret bones, tea leaves, weather signs, and literature. You'd think that we'd have grown out of this silliness by now, but I've recently read that as many as 90% of the world's population believes in some kind of afterlife or supreme being. Of course, many of those folks are so dumb that they ask their priests to find a page, in whatever holy book they subscribe to, describing ailments similar to those they suffer so they can tear out the pages and boil them for medicinal tea. "Faith" of that sort is comical and irrational, but I don't see anything in that to be particularly admirable or evidential. The overabundance of stupid, ignorant, superstitious people is not proof of a supreme being. It's certainly not evidence that evolution was guided by some clever, divine engineer. It is proof that the human animal is exceptionally gullible.

Otherwise seemingly rational people appear to believe in incredibly irrational fantasies. That seems to require many non-believers to ask for tolerance and accommodation of these beliefs. Now that is clearly a non-scientific response. If I tell you that I think the Tooth Fairy is the Lord Almighty and that losing baby teeth before the age of three is a sign that a child is a non-believer and a heretic, would you allow me to sacrifice your early-tooth-maturing child? If I decide that L. Ron Hubbard was the second coming of the Son of God and that his Dianetics drivel is the "new word of God," requiring me to strap on explosives and blow up the nearest Catholic (non-believer) grade school, would you think I might be insane? No? If so, you might be too tolerant to survive.

If not, why, then, is similarly insane belief, action, and sermonizing in the name of Christ, Mohammad, or Abraham more respectable? Clearly, it's not. Not that many years ago, it was considered poor manners to discuss any aspect of religious belief in polite company. People weren't less insane during that brief period of American civility, we just weren't as proud of our insanity as we are today. The fantasy and fiction of 2,000 year old sheepherders and priests is no more believable or holy than today's Harry Potter books and movies. They are just stories, some good, some godawful. Some of those stories are interesting enough to be considered valuable moral guidance, some are so violent, evil, and inhuman that they should be all the evidence a sane person needs to know these books are absolutely not the word of a supreme being. They aren't even up the literature standards established at the founding of this once-democratic nation.

February  2007

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