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How not to fight religious superstition

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 28, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”

In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations — is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies — such as they are — of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets – $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”

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