Saturday, January 8, 2011

Authority.

Bill O'Reilly had an atheist on his show last week. As you might expect, this was not to have an open and frank discussion between differing viewpoints, but instead a chance for Bill O'Reilly to have a chance to call someone he disagrees with a pinhead.

Here was Mr. O'Reilly's trump card for the existence of God.

O'REILLY: I'll tell you why [religion's] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can't explain that.

SILVERMAN: Tide goes in, tide goes out?

O'REILLY: See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can't explain that.

And this is from a Harvard graduate. Where, if anywhere, can we even begin?


The math and physics for the explanation of the tides are about 300 years old now. It has to do with the gravitational pulls of both the moon and the sun on the earth. Newton did the math and he was really good at it, though he readily admitted he did not understand the causative agent of gravity.

Our best idea for the cause of gravity now is Einstein's idea that we live in a four dimensional universe, where time is the fourth dimension, and physical objects warp the spacetime around them. This idea is a mere 100 years old and the math of warped space is about 50 years older than that. It takes a lot more mathematical background to 'splain these things, both on the part of the speaker and the listener, but the tides, like the rainbow and the seasons and where babies come from, are among those wonders of the world about which science has a very good working knowledge.

Instead of using this incident as a chance to mock Bill O'Reilly's massive if not boundless ignorance, I would like to look at the topic of authority. O'Reilly wants to give the final authority to God, but his definition of the Almighty is honestly one of the worst possible. If God is the sum of all mysteries, then God would be numberless, possibly even infinite. The problem lies in the fact that people work hard to solve mysteries, and each new solution diminishes our view of God using this definition. It would also set the faithful against human progress, and sadly that has been the case for several millennia.

Religious authority is so much simpler than scientific authority. The ancient text is true because the ancient text vouches safe for its own infallibility. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Scientific authority is much cloudier. It is usually built on mathematical foundations, but it is constantly changing, sometimes by small increments, sometimes by revolutionary new ways of looking at problems. Any simplification of science, including what I write here, does a lot of hand waving over topics that are staggeringly complex, and to truly be a scientist is an initiation into a priesthood ever bit as arcane, if not more so, as any religious sect ever founded.

The sciences want change and speculation and refinement of ideas, but only such change that can carry its own weight. You could ask "What if the moon was made of green cheese?", but it's not really a question that moves things forward.

Religious authority changes as well, but sometimes in completely pointless directions. The idea of speaking in tongues, for example, comes from the story of Pentecost, where the disciples of Jesus, simple men who only spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, could somehow make themselves understood in the languages of foreigners nearby, like Egyptians and Romans and Greeks. Now, there are religious authorities who act as though any jibberish that comes out of their mouths is a sign of the Holy Spirit moving through them. This is movement, but not movement towards greater understanding.

A recent essay on the Huffington Post by a follower of Kabbalah spoke of bringing science and faith closer together, a worthwhile goal. Sadly, this benighted soul made logical arguments that assumed the measurements of longevity reported in the Old Testament as established scientific facts. Science fully accepts that some things in the past were not as they are now, but people living past 900 years old, which are the numbers bandied about for Adam and Methuselah and a few others, asks us to overturn dozens of things we know very well about the nature of biology and physics and chemistry. When it comes to longevity, we live in the true age of wonders, and the stories that say otherwise deserve the exact same credit we give to the stories of Achilles' invulnerability.


As I write this, an Arizona congresswoman lies in a hospital after a gunshot wound, victim of a madman who does not accept the authority of people to disagree with him on matters of politics. Others in the crowd, including a federal judge, are dead. The Tea Party thought their signs that read "We came unarmed... this time!" were the height of wit and cleverness, but those of us who disagreed with their goals saw something darker.

I wish we could make the stupid people shut up, but we can't. Democracy means the mean and mediocre and even murderous have the right to be heard just much as do you and I. And if only for a short time, the murderous will get the entire world for their audience.

It will not improve, because whether they are Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews, they think they have the true authority.

Or like the madman who made the news yesterday in Arizona, there is no authority greater than a loaded gun and a person willing to use it.

5 comments:

CDP said...

This is an outstanding post. I do believe in God, but I also believe in science (I like to think that He created it and left it for us to figure out how it works). As for Bill O'Reilly and his RFS, I can only sigh and shake my head. About a year or so ago, I saw him interview Barney Frank of all people. I'm not Congressman Frank's biggest admirer, but even his biggest detractor would admit that he's witty and quick on his feet. O'Reilly's interviewing tactic was to ask a question, then interrupt the answer almost immediately, finally screaming "you're a coward! you're a coward" at Congressman Frank. The only cowardice on display was O'Reilly's...he was afraid to let Barney Frank finish a sentence because he knew that Mr. Frank would always get the better of him in any debate.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, CDP. I have many readers who are much more religious than I am, and yet I know they are kindred souls. This particular psychotic may have no religious leanings whatsoever, but so often the people who act on their worst instincts do so because their God commands them.

On the TV show Deadwood, Bullock doubts his ability to be a sheriff because of all the anger he knows is inside him, but a general tells him "We all have bloody thoughts." So often, the ones with bloody thoughts who bring them into action find a justification in the idea that God is on their side. This path to certitude frightens me more than any other, and those who goad them on should be made to understood that their words have consequences.

ken said...

"Gott mit uns", for a particularly foul example.

Padre Mickey said...

Shorter Bill O'Reilly: "Fuckin' tides, how do they work?

You may have noticed that I avoid arguing about this stuff. One can't prove or disprove the existence of God, so why bother? I'm a believer, but I certainly don't think that those who don't believe are evil. Actually, I think many who DO believe are rather evil.

Matty Boy said...

Ken: Possibly the foulest.

Padre: I appreciate all oblique Insane Clown Posse references.