I cried during the finale of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey last night. The use of Carl Sagan’s older, sicker, yet still passionately intoned ode to “The Pale Blue Dot” along with Neil de Grasse Tyson’s energetic and encouraging description of “The Five Rules” of skeptical thought made the perfect bookend to the series’ awesome case for science that “belongs to everyone.”
Then, when I chose a podcast to listen to this morning as I went about some errands, I guess a my inner Monty Python opted for something completely different. I chose one of Dan Carlin’s older Hardcore History episodes entitled Prophets of Doom.
Mr. Carlin told the story of the Munster Anabaptists, when for a year in the 1520’s the city was overtaken by characters we’d recognize as charismatic cult leaders preaching armed rebellion by God’s Chosen People against an evil world and the End of Days. And while it was a gripping tale, told with Carlin’s usual intensity, in the epilogue of the show, he admitting to feeling disappointed with the result because he could seem to draw no real lesson from the chaos.
He mentioned Waco and the Branch Davidians, which was an apt modern parallel. But he seemed torn over the idea of whether 16th century Europeans “could handle the Truth” of vernacular Bibles and the free-thought they inspired and likened it to a Galactic Bible brought to us by enlightened extra-terrestrials, but doled out to us as the Roman Catholic Church had done previous to the Protestant Reformation because we couldn’t handle its “Truth.” It occurred to me that I had watched the answer to his dilemma the night before.
I am NOT going to make the usual claim that the source of the madness of the Anabaptists of Munster, the Counter-Reformation, the Branch Davidians or “Militant Islam” are all symptoms of the inherit madness of religion. As Dan Carlin pointed out, secular regimes based on nationalism or other political, economic or whatever name-that-dogma can produce the same level of collective insanity.
The issue, as Dr. Tyson pointed out last night, is, as he described it, “Rule number one: Question everything, even me.” Above all, he warned, don’t trust anyone who says they have all the answers. The problem with the people of Munster or Waco or who welcomed Hitler is NOT that they were stupid or crazy, but that they were lazy. Intellectually lazy. Uncomfortable with the change and troubles of the world around them, they sought comfort in men who promised all the answers.
I cannot completely condemn the anyone for desiring the comfort of such unquestionable truths. The very notion of “Freedom of Thought” carries with it the burden of accepting the uncomfortable realities along with the exhilaration of discovery, of analyzing whether you think something is true because you want it to be or because it fits our ever-changing understanding of the facts. Facing this on-going challenge requires courage and vigilance. Carl Sagan’s famous “Baloney Detection Kit” might help as well.
So, in answer to Mr. Carlin’s hypothetical dilemma, enlightened space-faring race or not, if the Vulcans knock on my door bringing the “good news” of their Galactic Bible that promises to solve all of my and the world’s problems, the first thing I’d have to say to them is “prove it to me.” And, if they were Vulcans, that would be only logical.