SERMON: “When Two and Two Make Five” by the not-so-reverend bob

Consider this imagined news item:

“You can’t prove to me that 2 plus 2 equals four!” shouted Emily Smorgasbord at a recent rally on the capitol steps.  Emily is a member of “The Four Deniers” (or, as they prefer to be called “The Five Believers”).

The group’s leader, Pastor Ben Thair adds: “I hear it all the time: some talking head on the television, to prove a point, will say so and so added two and two and got five.  Well, we do it all the time, and we’re tired of being called stupid, backwards and ignorant for it.  It’s our right to add numbers the way we want to, and no-one can take that right away from us!”

The “Four Deniers”, (or “Five Believers”) are determined to no longer be the subject of social ridicule and are organizing themselves into an army to “Take ciphering back from the ivory-towered elites that have taken it over from the common folk”.

Supporters are agitating for their version of math to have equal time in the classroom, which has created quite a controversy.  “And that’s just fine with us!”, Pastor Thair said, “Teach the controversy, and let the kids figure it out for themselves!”

As I was driving in my truck this morning, I heard a radio minister explaining to a caller the intricacies of how the resurrection of the body would work when the Rapture came.  (Apparently the caller was confused on what would happen to her body if she died before the event).  She was assured that once she died her soul would go directly to God, and whatever the resting place of her body (be it in the soil or in the sea) it would be called up by God on the day of the Rapture to reunite with her heavenly soul “in the air”.  The woman was relieved, it seemed, to have this question answered.  The man doing the answering spoke with supreme confidence.  And I was reminded, once again, of Sam Harris reference to Theology as being a “branch of human ignorance”.

There is, it seems, enough distance now between my religious years and the present that I am, at last, able to hear religious explanations such as these with fresh, rational ears.  And boy, what I hear sounds incredibly silly.

At the moment I’m immersed in a book about the founding of The Royal Society in London in the 17th century that covers the personalities, experiments and intellectual revolution that led to the establishment of what we now call “the scientific method”.  This was the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon and Newton, before which “scientific philosophy” consisted mostly of learned men sitting around and theorizing about how things worked, without ever really testing anything they said.   Which means that from the time of Aristotle to the establishment of experimental science in the 1600’s, it was accepted as fact that fresh blood was constantly manufactured in the Liver and completely used up by the body, and that the universe rotated in perfect circles around the earth, with the planets suspended in some fluid medium that helped keep them in place.

None of that was even close to being true, we now know, but no one, apparently, thought it important to actually test these ideas (for centuries, at least).   And then once clever, thoughtful individuals did begin to experiment, they immediately ran afoul of the Church, and many were burned at the stake (or in the case of Galileo, simply excommunicated).

I keep coming back to Christopher Hitchen’s statement that “Religion will always have the advantage of having been there first”.  Which, when you think about it, is the only rational explanation for how so irrational a system of beliefs could persist this many decades after Copernicus determined that it was the Sun, in fact, that was the center of our universe, Newton determined that it was gravity that made the planets move in elliptical orbits, and Harvey figured out that our (fixed volume of) blood was pumped out of the heart by arteries and returned to it through the veins.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but before the time of science, people just made shit up and called it truth…or religion.

That fact that we — after the benefit of some two-hundred years of scientific discovery —  still have seemingly educated people spouting nonsense about people rising from the dead or torturing billions of years of biology and geology into some six-thousand years of special divine creation is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

There have always been those willing to say what pleases a paying crowd, and the fact remains that religion, like sex, sells.  (A recent comedy “The Invention of Lying” gives a wickedly insightful take on how religion may have come to be).  Add to this the reality that most scientists are much too keenly interested in their own research (and limit their grandstanding to their respective journals), and the scientist is always going to be at a disadvantage to the evangelist in terms of whipping a crowd into ecstasy.

Sigh.

So our (above imagined) preacher that shouts that two and two equal five because God told him so, can further pronounce that such special knowledge trumps the claims of lowly mankind’s “science”.  One could argue, I suppose, that the words “two” and “five” are just made-up words, and have no empirical meaning at all.  This, of course, is true.  However, the mathematical reality which these words refer to is not subject to linguistic dismissal of this kind.  No matter how you attack the words or the mathematicians who coined them, two and two will always add up to four.  And even God can’t change that.

t.n.s.r. bob

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