I’d have to do a survey, but I’m fairly confident that these sorts of stories show up like clockwork every week in the national news. They fill a certain niche in a newscast: part humor, part social commentary, part visual interest, yet never truly mocking: they are presented in a straightforward manner, as if it were not completely unreasonable that the God of the Universe should choose to communicate a message too opaque to even qualify as “vague” through a utility pole and an invasive creeping vine, or a small man-made lake turned blood-red mud hole in drought-ravaged Texas.
The “Jesus vines” story was on the news last week, and spread like a short-lived wildfire across the nation (and the world, considering the citation in the UK’s Guardian newspaper). This week it was the dying reservoir in drought-stricken West Texas which reached a critical mass that led to a flowering of Chromatiaceae bacteria which, according to this Live Science article, thrive in oxygen-deprived water. It turned the water blood red.
In a television report on the red lake story, a reporter interviewed two teenage Texas girls, one of whom was quick to make the connection between a Bible verse and the putrid pond. (“And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.” Revelation 16:4 KJV).
I guess that means we should ignore the two verses previous to that one state that the first “vial” is to be poured out on land, where it produces boils and sores on every living thing, whereas the second “vial” is then poured out in the oceans, and kills every living thing there, and THEN the third vial is accidentally spilled in a 5,440 acre (when full) reservoir in West Texas, while the other 1.62 million square miles of freshwater lakes on the earth are spared, more or less (okay, I changed that third one around a bit).
This is how our human minds work: the local is the global, and the personal is the universal. We are solipsistic, tribal animals, bred by evolution for survival, not for the comprehension of an entire planet (much less a universe).
I also saw that there was a bit of news about the “cross” at ground zero in New York City. Once again the ease with which our minds go the the deep well of belief is striking. We think “What are the chances of a perfect cross coming to rest standing upright in rubble after the fiery collapse of two massive skyscrapers?” Pretty good, it turns out. Especially considering that a skyscraper is made up of thousands of crosses of steel where sections are riveted together, producing strong points that are likely to be the last parts to be torn apart in a collapse. That one of these (many smaller ones were found surrounding the most famous one) was upright and visible could have been predicted. In reality, the statistical probability of there NOT being an entire crop of steel crosses after such an event would be incredibly small. God apparently works not just in mysterious ways these days, but primarily through very predictable, silly ones as well.
Of course it’s not just Christians who find symbolism and meaning in the perfectly pedestrian surprises of nature and disaster. It is a human condition. As much a part of us as the blind spots in our eyes, our weak primate backs or our inability to not respond to a baby’s cry.
I’ve been as much a believer as anyone else. And maybe that’s part of the problem, and why it took me so long and so many turns to move beyond belief to — as Daniel Dennett says — “break the spell”: I was a believer surrounded by other believers. But I did break the spell. And though the tickle of belief will always be resident in my mammalian brain, it has a greatly-diminished influence on my cognitive life. I have moved to a point where any nagging suggestion of my believing brain, when left to its own, is quietly beaten silly by the more quiet deliberation of my reason.
I get some mild heat about my Atheism. Perhaps it strikes some as presumptuous or overdone. But let’s take just a step or two back and consider this from a different perspective: Given all of the scientific evidence we now have of the world, what is the more difficult response to understand: taking a tangle of an aggressive, invasive vine on a human-built structure as a sign of a universal deity’s personal intervention in our lives, or seeing that tangle as a natural occurrence that strikes our pattern-seeking brains in a predictable way? The former interpretation is a flight of fancy and is, therefore, much more stimulating to us, I think. It’s more fun. The latter is a sort of wet blanket on the pleasure we get from tricking our own brains into thinking wild things. It is also more closely aligned with reality.
I think this points tp the greater drag on the spread of Atheism and a materialistic view of life: it doesn’t look like much fun from the outside. Worse — it seems to require that all of us kids stop playing pretend. I get that. I also think it’s a load of crap. Don’t get me wrong. It may well be that in the face of actual reality — that we are simply these surprisingly conscious animals let loose in a nature that demands our demise in a very short time — there’s nothing wrong with engaging in all the fantasy we can get our hands on to keep our minds off of death and annihilation. I can’t really argue with that, anymore that I could deny a dying alcoholic a final scotch or a diabetic one last ice cream cone.
But those of us still trying to live our lives would like it if there were more human brains focused on making life on earth as good as we can for ourselves and for others. But, as one Mr. Hardison said in the Guardian article about the Kudzu crucifix: ‘You can’t spray Jesus with Roundup.’‘ Amen to that, brother.