It’s all just a matter of calibration. Let me ‘splain.
One day I was driving along a suburban street with the sun low on the horizon and the windows covered in rain drops from a sudden sun-shower moments earlier, insufficiently caffeinated and distracted by something. That’s when I saw a large black dog transmogrify into a lawn mower. No, seriously, I really did see this. It reminded me of the time I saw a giant UFO over Boston Harbor (details here: The Night I Was Almost Abducted by Aliens in Boston).
What happened with the dog was this: The distraction was a set of children and other family members spilling over their front property line doing some thing or another and potentially stepping into my contemplated path, the path I would follow after making a left turn, which, in turn, I would do either quickly to get ahead of the car coming straight in the opposite direction, or more slowly letting the oncoming car go first. My scan of the busy pedestrian environment yielded sightings of two or so children on a curb or in the street, an adult about to cross the street, someone about to get out of a car across the street (all this was on the street onto which I was about to left-turn) a brown dog on the sidewalk and what I thought for a moment to be a large black dog sitting at the very left edge of my peripheral vision, in the shadow of a tree, up by the house, on the lawn. With all this activity going on, I stopped and waited to make the left. This allowed me to decipher the landscape more accurately: People living in a house where front yard work was in progress had dropped their chores to greet someone who had pulled into a parking spot across the street. Perhaps this person was delivering the donuts or something, because the yard work was abandoned with no sign of remorse. Oh, and that thing I thought was a dog was a lawn mower with a jacket thrown over the handle. Which, just for a split second in the corner of one’s distracted eye, can look kinda like a big black dog sitting there.
Had I lived in a culture in which we believed a) animals transform into, or hide themselves as, human-made objects and especially b) that there was a great significance linked to catching such a transformation in the act, I may well have accepted that the dog transforming into a lawn mower was for real. Indeed, even if we did not live in a culture with these criteria, if you see enough dogs transform into lawn grooming equipment and have no culturally mediated facility to question the legitimacy of such observations, eventually and inevitably you will build up a body of evidence suggesting and supporting such a belief system.
And, that’s just visual mistakes that the eye and brain easily correct. If we throw in a few individuals with delusional behavior and a few individuals prone to auditory hallucinations and a few prone to visual hallucinations (listed, I think, in decreasing order of frequency in any population) then you can get full blown mystical tranmogrifitive religion of some kind. This means that any culture without a religion, in the absence of an actively maintained rational belief system and science, will very likely become a culture with a religion, eventually. And the pets will probably get involved. There may be a reason that dogs and cats are so often deities. Perhaps there is even a reason why “god” is “dog” spelled backwards.
The dog-lawnmower event is like the time a friend of mine, an older Lese woman living in the Ituri Forest, made the claim that a satanic beast had crushed the leaves and bushes in a forest clearing where she was alone gathering some resource or another. Lese women are almost never alone in the forest because they believe that satanic beasts prey on lone women, so she was rather on edge. And a serious downdraft which often happens in association with the frequent severe thunderstorms that happen there was probably mistaken by her for the activities of such a beast. On checking around, I found out that the normative description for a satanic attack is exactly the same as the normative description for a sudden natural downdraft, and one told the former from the latter by context. Like, if it happens in the vicinity of a lone woman in the forest, then that’s the satanic attack. Otherwise it’s just a meteorological event.
It reminds me of the time a house full of college educated Americans I knew all swore that they saw the ghostly disembodied head of an 18th century man suspended among the branches of an old oak tree outside their kitchen window. The house they were in was initially built in the late 17th century and added to many times since. They were a stone’s throw from the approximate location of the original Sleepy Hollow, and it was common knowledge that ghosts of dead 18th century men, often having died a shocking or violent death (like getting hanged in an oak tree) were to be seen now and then in these parts.
It reminds me of the time that spectral footprints passing down a hallway in a building known to be the most haunted building in the world, ever, were considered by several Euro-Americans as a likely ghost (details here: A true ghost story: A City of Death and Misery). One group of people had moved out of the apartment where this happened, certain that ghosts were afoot (as it were).
The woman in the forest made a culturally reasonable interpretation of a downdraft. In her culture, these things happen. At least two or three of those people living in that ancient farm house, many years ago, are known to me today and are skeptics. At least one of them is a regular donor to a major skeptical organization of which you’ve heard, and has obviously undergone a transformation from gullible hippie of the 1960s to modern rational free-thoughter of the 21st century (I oversimplify, but that’s the idea). Those living in the farm house made a culturally reasonable interpretation of a light from an upstairs bathroom reflecting off a gnarled crux on an old branch. Some of the people in the most-haunted-building were pre-disposed to believe the footsteps were those of a ghost, others not, and it took a few days to prove which group was correct. And I made a culturally reasonable interpretation of the mogrification of a dog into a lawn mower. (That interpretation was, just to be clear, that there was no mogrification, just a trick of vision. See the UFO story linked to above.)
If you take a look at some of the strange stuff that is reported to have happened in the Bible or other ancient texts, miracles and such, most of it is pretty mild by modern standards and would be rather run of the mill in, say, a Vegas show room or the living room of a home with a newly minted tween magician showing off to friends and family. This is why the world’s most famous skeptic today is a magician (Randi). It doesn’t even take sophisticated science or forensics to explain most of this stuff … just an understanding of the basics of trickery. Even if we see a seemingly unexplainable trick by a great modern magician, we assume it is a trick even if we can’t explain how it is done. We don’t separate the performance of Lance Burton between those that are just tricks and those that are “actual magic.”
It does not matter if Moses ever actually pulled off the staff-to-snake gag, or the burning bush illusion, or if he even existed. Things like that were probably done in those days or at least known of, and of course, they become parts of a story, and thus part of the book, because they are mystical scenarios that fit nicely into story telling about mystical things. The idea that a group of people would, under the right circumstances, take fiction, even over the top science fiction, as fact is not even close to hard to believe in the modern world where we can, in fact, explain pretty much everything a human can perceive, including down drafts and doggish lawn mowers.
The demands of an Apocalypse, to be real, are probably mild. We know that a world wide flood did not happen in human times, but it did not have to have happened for the Noachean Legend to be based on ‘fact’ (which it may or may not be, no reason to assume it was not made up from whole cloth rather than a hundred-year flood). Plagues of locust or other grain-eating creatures happen in biblical proportion routinely somewhere in the world every year. Entire cities burn down. The burning or destruction by earthquake, volcano, or storm of London, San Juan, Boston, Lisbon, New Orleans, Fukushima, Pompeii, Kyoto, San Francisco, Anchorage, Herculaneum, all could have turned into the stuff of legend but for modern perspective that tends to explain things differently. But any “culture group” that lives as a population of a few thousand, which is in fact how most cultures that ever existed were organized for eons, can be entirely wiped out and described as having suffered an apocalypse by the surviving neighbors.
On the day of the predicted rapture, yesterday, it is reported by Rebecca Watson and others that while the heretic Mr Deity spoke at an atheistic anti-rapture event, an earthquake struck. That’s more than enough to get a belief system going. The Grimsvotn volcano of Iceland produced a major eruption on the same day, probably affecting the flights of some of those at the conference, or at least, as a form of billowing exclamation point. I’m certain that over the next few months, the time over which those who were not raptured are to suffer things apocalypsic, there will be much documented suffering and pain, plague and pestilence, shaking of the earth and fire.
The rapture as described wherever it is described (as in made up by some guy a hundred years ago) and the apocalypse as described in the bible do not need to happen, as so described, to be real, from the perspective of those who believe in it. That is what faith is all about, and those who are skeptics and rationalists and scientists need to accept that as a fact, and rather than denying the rapture and the subsequent apocalypse, observe it. Have faith, skeptics! Reverend Harold Camping will come up with an explanation!
In fact, pay close, very close attention to this, especially in America. This country was founded by apocalypsers, in part. The Puritans of the Mass Bay Colony were quite convinced that soon after building their City on the Hill the second coming and judgment day would occur. That is why they founded and settled new communities. They did not have a rapture concept. Rather, they had the concept of a city that they would build as a demonstration of their faith and love for god and so on and so forth, and by having done this would pass to heaven at the end of earthly days, etc. etc. There were of course different versions of this, but the Puritans set dates just like Harold Camping did, and when the dates arrived and nothing happened, they set new dates. Different groups of Puritans also set different geographical locations for their City on the Hill. And some, when resetting the dates, also adjusted the location. One group of Mass Bay Puritans is said to have moved to what is now Mexico, new date in hand, after one of the failed end-days. Today, the Puritans, or Pilgrims, are mostly mythical in American Culture. Most of what we say we know about them is wrong, and their numerical influence was much smaller than supposed by many. But there was probably an influence on modern culture, including the fact that they were more Medieval than the average European, less tolerant and more unscientific than the average Renaissance adults of the day, and had this end of the world thing going for them, or more accurately not going.
Many of those who were not raptured by elevating into heaven leaving behind their smoking shoes were, I promise you, raptured in some other way. They’ll explain this to us later. At the moment, we are hearing very little, as though their normally loud and obnoxious voices were taken up into heaven leaving their silent selves behind. But mark my words, we’ll hear a post hoc explanation from some of them, soon enough. And in the meantime, we can enjoy the Apocalypse as it unfolds in the pages of our newspapers daily for the next few months.
- Iceland closes main airport amid volcano eruption
- Earthquakes in New Zealand, San Francisco
- NY case shows daily dangers faced by hotel maids
- Lyme disease cases spike
- Feral cats identified as possible Willow Creek rabies source
For now, fellow skeptic, you are totally justified to consider yourself part of a more advanced civilization observing the quaint and culturally interesting activities of an older, less developed one that lives amongst us. Be amused. But also keep in mind that it is quite possible for a culture to posses powers it is not ready to posses, weapons or technologies it is not able to use safely. The situation is dangerous. And, the situation is not resolved.