Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Older Than Dirt. Dumber, Too.

Lost in the current Iraq turmoil is the Bush Administration’s perverse lack of honesty, intellectual or otherwise, in every facet of government. Take the National Park Service. “What possible pervasive disingenuousness could hinder the Park Service?” might be among the questions that spring to mind. Just don’t ask who old the Grand Canyon is, or how it was created.

Those not asking can currently buy Grand Canyon: A Different View, by Tom Vail, at any of the park’s book stores. The book explains how the canyon was created by the great flood. You remember, the one where Noah saved two of each living creature, including, apparently, all 900,000 species of insects. Poor Noah must have got them all, since nothing has evolved and God quit Creating after the first Saturday.

Aside from foisting a book of such dubious scholarship (read: none) on the public, park rangers current labor under a gag order much stronger than anything Scooter Libby’s grand jury heard of. The official response of all National Park Service employees to questions about the Grand Canyon’s age is, “No comment.”

An e-mail recently circulated, allegedly written by well-known social commentator Ben Stein. (Stein was the boring science teacher in The Wonder Years, and had a highly entertaining game show on Comedy Central for several years.) In the e-mail, Stein laments how those who believe in God in America are under daily assault from the forces of Evil.

Which America is he living in? Certainly not the one where right-wing religious zealots control government policy on matters ranging from the age of the Grand Canyon to Shrub’s Messianic insistence on his right to wage war against any Muslims, wherever he finds them.

The relative triviality of the Grand Canyon controversy is more than valid. Here’s the equation it represents: science has a pile of evidence as high as the Grand Canyon is deep, and fundamentalist Christians have the Bible.

The Bible failure to mention the creation of the Grand Canyon is damning in itself. You’d think God would be all over getting credit for that one. It’s a keeper, much better work than His work on leeches, or New Jersey.

Here’s something to ponder for those who assert the Bible’s infallibility: God didn’t write it. Each book was passed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth and translated God knows how many times. Even if we concede it was originally passed from God’s lips to Moses’ (Abraham’s, Noah’s, take your pick’s) ears, can anyone look you in the eye and say nothing got changed? Books that used to be in the Bible are no longer there. Were they no less the Word of God in their time?

Translation is a whole other issue, as so much of translation is in the mind of the translator. Translating anything word-by-word rarely, if ever, gives the true meaning of what was intended. Interpretations have to be made, and anything subject to interpretation is open to argument. Witness figure skating judges. Or Hall of Fame voters.

Even punctuation comes into play. Punctuation is a relatively recent invention; early Bibles had none. Observe the difference the placement of a simple comma can have, from Lynne Truss’ excellent book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

“Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
“Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage (Luke, xxiii, 43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to Heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for Catholics, who believe in it.

So enough about the absolute infallibility of the Bible. Christians themselves can’t even agree on what’s in it.

Don’t confuse a belief in the Higher Power of your choice with religion. Religion is a set of arbitrary rules, created by humans, primarily to keep other humans in line. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Christianity is fraught with rules laid down by a relatively few educated, powerful, and wealthy men, most of which involve telling people living in shit up to their necks that when they die everything gets better, and those living the lives of luxury (and keeping the losers in shit up to their neck) will get their come-uppance in the end? Considering the general state of ignorance and poverty in what the heyday of religion (now known as The Dark Ages), how hard a sell do you think that was?

“But it’s faith,” they argue. “You have to believe.” Faith, as practiced by contemporary religious types (Christian, Muslim, take your pick), consists of being confronted with the pile of evidence mentioned above and saying, “Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?” True Believers argue for the fallibility of science by pointing out how scientific ideas change (evolve) over time, asking how anyone can be sure they’re right this time. Asking is the whole point of science.
Knowledge is an elusive quarry; every incremental step just brings us closer. To accept things on faith alone would have us still believing the Universe rotates around the Earth.

Faith is the final refuge of those who don’t want to think anymore. Life is often a confounding series of seemingly random events where the good guys don’t always win. Good people get sick and die; bad guys prosper. It can be difficult to accept all of this without wanting to think there’s a greater plan that we can’t begin to grasp from our remote perspective. Believe what you want; it’s still a (relatively) free country. Just don’t make it public policy that yours is the only “right” way. Don’t even think about compelling me to think, act, or believe like you.

There’s no need to step away from the lightning bolt I have earned by my blasphemy. There’s no blasphemy here. Heresy, sure. I can live with heresy. A little heresy is a good thing. No man is infallible. Every authority could use some constructive questioning from time to time.

The Grand Canyon is as old as dirt. Those who would argue it’s not are as dumb.

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