The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Is it OK to believe rubbish?

Obviously, since you're reading this, the world didn't end a couple of days ago. No one with any claim to common sense or even the ability to read English or any of the world's other commonly-used languages thought it would. And yet, people did believe it. Schools closed, on the grounds that "something might happen." Somewhere out there, I'm sure somebody cashed in all thirty-seven dollars of their IRA money and headed for the woods.

This sort of thing isn't new. Apocalyptic visions are a dime a dozen in human culture, viz. that pathetic specimen of unorthodoxy, Harold Camping. You remember him? The guy who at least twice convinced quite startlingly large numbers of people that the end was coming, on one of several specific dates? Lots of them, at least reportedly, did themselves economic damage by buying into the notion.

There were also the Heaven's Gate people, who formed the ultimate "away team" by committing suicide. (Whether they were all wearing red shirts is not known.) And some people who really should have known better thought that Y2K would spell the end of western civilization.

You can find lots of lists and compilations of this sort of thing, none of which -- read that carefully -- none of which turned out to be correct. Unless you descend into truly fringe-mentality arguments, the observable universe remains in place, as does (like it or not) human culture. That's not a good track record for the doom-sayers.

What you don't find, though, is much talk about consequences for asserting this sort of thing. There is little or no legal basis, that I know of, for having to hold your acolytes harmless for inaccurate predictions on your part. And maybe we ought to look into that. It would go a long way toward putting teeth into the separation of church and state. And since, as Jefferson put it, religion is a matter between a man and his God, it wouldn't open the gates to a flood of post-mortem lawsuits against ministers and mullahs, since there would be no admissible evidence regarding heaven, hell, some integer less than fifty virgins, and so on. Only clearly demonstrable inaccuracies would be acceptable as evidence of breach of contract.

Ah, you say, but what contract? I would argue that if a man can be held to the terms of a lengthy and incomprehensible software license agreement, simply by reason of having checked a box on a computer screen, then a preacher can be held to an implied guarantee that his or her utterances are correct, accurate, and entire. That is, if said preacher wants tax-free status.

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