Monday, September 14, 2009

To Venus in a UFO, part 2 (spirituality)

"Hey, I know this guy. He's pretty amazing. First of all, his mother was a virgin. Never had sex in her life, but she had a son! And when he got older, he did some incredible stuff. He could heal people by touching them, and he took a tiny amount of food and turned it into a big amount. Like magic! And he walked on water. No, really! I saw it! And after he died, he came back to life!"

If you had never heard of Christianity, you'd roll your eyes and ask your friend what he'd been smoking. Or, at least, you'd nod politely and back away slowly. Either way, you'd take it as evidence that he was a real nut case. But as we know, there are literally millions of people on this planet who believe this. Most Christians, I believe, think of this as a parable, not to be taken literally. But there are a good number who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. ("Two of every animal? Really? What about the gene pool? Okay, okay, never mind... and he lived to be how old? Really?" When every question raised can be answered with 'God took care of that', the discussion doesn't last long.)

Very few people (Christopher Hitchens leaps to mind) snicker at this; it's such a part of Western culture that whether you believe it or not, it's old hat. But I'm now thinking of those of my students who snickered at the notion that the wife of the new Japanese Prime Minister once wrote that she believes she traveled to Venus in a UFO, and said on TV that she was acquainted with Tom Cruise in a past life. I suspect that many Westerners would snicker at this as well, which is why the Western media ran so many stories about this. The stories themselves didn't snicker (though the New York Times used the word 'kooky', not in reference to Ms. Hatoyama per se, but it wasn't hard to get the drift), but the editors knew the readers surely would. 'Get a load of this woman!' they were saying, in so many words.

So, to me, the logical question is: Does anyone who doesn't snicker at what is written in the first paragraph of this post have any right to snicker at the wife of the Prime Minister? If I had to choose which one was crazier, I'd give it some hard thought. But I have no doubt that plenty of Christians would, and did, get a good laugh out of this story. 'Ha ha! A triangular-shaped UFO! Hey, that's good! Tell me another one!' If it was then pointed out that Christians believe something that appears equally unlikely from a scientific point of view, I doubt many of even the moderates would grant the point. They'd point to the belief's long history and its place in the culture. And if this were suggested to Bible literalists, I strongly suspect the inquisitor would face their righteous wrath ("How dare you compare the Word of God to a crazy Japanese lady!"), but would not get any kind of reasoned discussion. (I know I am engaging in substantial generalizations, but I do believe I'm not too far off. And so that the reader knows my point of view, I was not raised with any religious teaching, and believe the Bible to be a mix of fact, recollection, third-hand anecdote, and fiction.)

Now, I don't mean to say that there should be a reasoned discussion about the Bible and whether it is literally accurate, mostly because I don't think there'd be any point. With something like this, either you believe it or you don't. Ironically, though, I'd think that scientists would be readier to believe Ms. Hatoyama if forced to choose. The existence of UFOs and spirits can't be proved, and can't be disproved. But I think most scientists would state with certainty that a woman cannot have a child in the absence of sperm, that food cannot be spontaneously generated, and so forth. 'Well, they were miracles, which by definition are outside the realm of what is humanly possible.' Fine. But I don't think this has any greater credibility than the claims of the PM's wife.

I do know that there are any number of Christians who don't believe in the Bible literally, and chuckle at those who do. At least if they make fun of Ms. Hatoyama, they're not being inconsistent. But why make fun of anyone? Unless someone ties me to a rack and pulls until I profess complete agreement with his worldview, why should I care whether any particular person believes any unprovable thing he chooses? Why ridicule him? (Why people have the urge to ridicule and judge others will, I suspect, be the subject of a future post.) I'd rather just nod, and accept that this is the way he sees the world. As do I with Ms. Hatoyama. She seems like a happy and fulfilled person, so good for her.

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