Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci

N. 15, 15 September 2001: "Of terror and insanity" (This is a special edition of this column)


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Further reading:

James Randi’s The Mask of Nostradamus, the only book on the “prophet” you really need to read.

"In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb, The third big war will begin when the big city is burning" - Nostradamus 1654

I can only hope that this horrible hoax, because that is what this alleged quatrain from the "prophet" Nostradamus is, was perpetrated accidentally and not by somebody taking advantage of or poking fun at the human tragedy that hit the United States on September 11, 2001. Several other similar verses were released over the Internet, and self-styled Nostradamus "expert" John Hogue immediately took to the media for a special appearance on the Art Bell show commenting on what Nostradamus "really" predicted. To decrease my faith in humankind even further, my wife came home the other day from her job at the public library telling me that all the books on Nostradamus are gone and the public still calls for more.

It shouldn't take a course in critical thinking to realize that the suspicious thing about prophecies (even those that are not actually written after the fact) is that we realize what they were predicting only after the events. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but one could reasonably ask what is the point of a prophecy that can only be understood when it's too late. The interpretation of a single prophecy always depends upon what time the interpretation is taking place, as the vague poetic lines are stretched and cut to fit whatever has just happened or what seems likely to happen. So, rather than coming to the true understanding of a prophecy, what we're really doing is making it up out of thin air, just as the prophet did originally.

What good are psychics if they can't warn of specific, imminent danger? For example, multimillionaire mind- and future-reader Sylvia Browne was on CNN's Larry King Live just a few days before the terrorist attack. She wasted her talent warning skeptic James Randi that he had something wrong in his left ventricle (Randi is in good health, but it is also a good bet that an elderly white American male will eventually have something wrong with his heart) instead of warning everybody on live national TV of what was about to happen. It was her chance to prove herself, and she blew it.

Of course, the true believer always has a ready answer: the point of the prophecy is to make you realize the power of mystical and religious inspiration, annihilate your pride in reason and open your heart to God, not merely to save human lives.

And speaking of God, rabid Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell was also out for publicity immediately after the tragedy. Was he praying for the victims and offering spiritual guidance to the rest of the nation? No, he was busy explaining why this all happened. According to this monster the reason all those people died was twofold: First, evil exists (an observation about which one can hardly disagree, although definitions of evil differ) and, second, God has lifted his umbrella of protection and allowed the tragedy to occur. Apparently, God lifted his protection because of too much secularism, not allowing kids to pray or read the Bible in school (which is not true), and allowing porn on the Web.

These statements are so outrageously stupid and offensive to the memory of the people who died that you would expect them to be immediately chastised by any reasonable Christian who was listening to Falwell's show. Alas, millions of people are hooked on the words of a man whose worldview is similar to that of the fringe religionists who rejoiced at the attack. It is frighteningly easy to imagine someone prone to Falwell's thinking style becoming someone like bin Laden under different historical circumstances. Falwell, after all, does want to turn the United States into the Christian equivalent of Taliban Afghanistan.

This morning I was riding the bus to work and they were broadcasting a local radio talk show where people were understandably upset at the events of the previous days and were trying to come to grips with the surreal situation. I imagine most of the callers had spent the previous Tuesday in a state of mind similar to my own, shocked by the news, unable to fully comprehend the scope of the tragedy or the sickness of the minds that planned it and carried it out in cold blood. But of course most of the callers to the show went immediately beyond the specific event to further-consciously or not-their religious agenda. A typical comment was "we need to turn this nation to God."

Well, wake up people, this nation is turned to God. Constantly. God is all over this nation, from the now ubiquitous signs on our highways to the highest number and density of churches that ever occurred not only in the US but probably in any other time or place in the world. Over 95% of the citizens of the US profess belief in a personal God, and about half of them hold onto at least some of the most fundamentalist views espoused by the innumerable sects that have developed at an incredible pace over the last century. Why would God "lift his umbrella" from one of the most adoring places on the whole planet?

More importantly, what kind of a horrible God allows thousands of innocent people to be wiped out in an instant just because somebody posts pornographic pictures on the Internet? Ah, but I forgot that this is the same sort of God that told the Jews to exterminate entire races because they didn't please Him enough, and added that they should slaughter their enemies' children and-for good measure-rape their wives (see Genesis 34:13-29, Exodus 17:13, 32:27-29, Numbers 16:27-33, 21:35, 31:17-28, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, 7:2, 20:13-14, and the list can go on and on). Is this the sort of God that our nation should turn toward? I suggest instead that we try to nuke Him if we can find where in the Hell He hides!

As the reader can see, this is an angry column. I rarely allow myself this sort of unbridled frankness, but too much is too much even for somebody attempting to style his life after the moderate advise of Epicurus. These people must be stopped, and I'm not talking only about the Islamic fundamentalists, but about any sort of fundamentalist-religious or not-who thinks he's got the answer to all the world's problems, if only the world would submit to his iron-fisted rule. It is time for all people of good will and good sense to say: Enough!


Next Month: "Heart disease and the myth of individual responsibility"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001

Further reading:

Another great book that puts things in a bit of perspective: Helen Ellerbe’s The Dark Side of Christian History.

Web links:

Donald Morgan’s site on Biblical atrocities, vulgarities and absurdities. A must for an alternative understanding of the “good book.”

The James Randi Educational Foundation, if you’d like to contribute to stop the insanity.

The Young Skeptics Program, let’s help our children think critically.


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