Batman vs. Germ Theory (LSP #156)

Batman vs. Germ Theory (LSP #156) September 7, 2020

Hello and welcome back to Lord Snow Presides (LSP)! We’re all done with Frank Peretti’s grueling slog of a Christian pipe dream, This Present Darkness. To kick off our reboot, I thought I’d begin with something Mr. Captain was talking about the other day. It’s the reason he just can’t take Christian evangelists seriously. I liked his take on the subject, so I wanted to show it to you! Today, Lord Snow Presides over Batman vs. the Germ Theory of Disease.

he's the batman
(Cassidy James Blaede.)

The One True Disease Theory.

Ever since humans began getting sick, we’ve tried to figure out why. Obviously, our efforts weren’t just mental masturbation. For our own good, we needed to work out how to prevent and treat illness.

But we didn’t have a lot of tools in our toolbox that could figure that stuff out. So we went through a whole bunch of theories about what caused illness. Here’s a good online article from JSTOR detailing some of the competing theories circulating in just the 19th century alone:

  • Doctrine of Spontaneous Generation. The elements of sickness arise spontaneously, then get passed around between people and animals. (The scientists who liked this theory didn’t realize that germs in the air were contaminating their various experiments, making it look like life was spontaneously generating in their test tubes.)
  • Soil impurity. This view involved feces fermenting in organic matter, creating miasma that, in and of itself, could get people sick.
  • Miasma theory. Similarly, a lot of people thought that something intrinsic to bad air caused sickness.
  • Zymotic theory. Somehow, invisible catalysts floating in the air acted to convert innocuous matter into sickness-causing matter. It didn’t blame germs. Rather, it blamed enzymes. It wasn’t popular for too long, but you can probably see a lot of parallels with the theory that eventually won this fight.
  • Fermentation theory. One guy got popular by comparing the fermentation of apple juice to the way that smallpox developed.
  • Vestige theory. Another guy suggested that the remains of one disease in someone’s body could become the spark of a subsequent one. Interestingly, he thought that the way very poor people lived could create the conditions needed for a conquered disease’s remains to become poisonous.
  • Bioplasm theory. Still another guy thought disease came from bioplasm, which was a tiny particle of contagion that developed from people’s own tissues. Bioplasm was like corrupted tissue.

Eventually, these and other competing theories of disease fell away (for the most part). The one that actually won was Germ Theory, and it’s the one we use today.

The Disease Theory Cage Match.

These different theories’ creators were very deeply invested in their babies, as you can imagine. They could get really uncharitable toward competitors. Regarding his competition, Lionel “Bioplasm Boy” Beale had this to say in 1878:

Those unacquainted with the art and mystery of transforming arbitrary assertions into scientific conclusions are easily convinced that the whole scientific world is agreed upon this one question at any rate, while in point of fact the speculative and far-fetched arguments would not have withstood careful and intelligent examination.

MROW! HISS! RAWR! You get ’em, Bioplasm Boy!

Does he not sound like the most logical of all Logical Christians? I’m shocked he didn’t toss in a few immutables for good measure. Logical Christians use that word like a mating call at bar close.

But even if you don’t follow the history of medicine like some people (AHEM) follow 90 Day Fiance snark, you know how this cage match ended.

A dozen theories entered the Thunderdome, and only one theory left it:

Germ Theory.

Why Germ Theory Won.

When we’re dealing with something objective, like the causes and cures of disease, we need to build answers out of objective facts. When we observe and measure those facts, we create relationships between them. Then, we test and re-test and re-re-test those relationships to see if we can break those links. We make predictions, test them, and see how well our guesses about fact-relationships hold up against those tests.

If an explanation has no predictive power, can’t be tested, and doesn’t ever seem to yield any real relationships between facts, then people who care about objective reality discard that explanation to search for a better one. That’s what happened to those competing disease theories I showed you earlier. Even the people who’d initially been very skeptical of Germ Theory eventually came around to it as scientists found more and more evidence supporting it — but none supporting these other ideas.

Oh, there are still people out there who embrace alternate theories of disease. Entire pseudoscience quack-medicine industries like homeopathy gladly explore those alternate theories, then prey upon the marks who accept them. But pharmaceutical companies won’t waste billions of dollars developing medications based on those notions. Nor will any sensible health insurer want to pay out for visits to doctors who base their practices on them, either.

The medical industry as a whole, like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) fields generally, has a distinct reality-leaning bias. And it should. 

Now Then: Batman!

As comics nerds know well, the superhero called Batman initially appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics #27. By now, almost everyone on the planet knows his basic story: as the child of wealthy parents, Bruce Wayne saw those parents murdered in front of him. When he came of age, he vowed to fight crime. Now, using only his ginormous wealth, physical fitness, intelligence, and a host of “wonderful toys,” he dons a scary costume and saves humanity whenever he can.

But there are as many versions of Batman as there are eras, audiences, artists, and media types.

If someone says they like Batman, you almost have to work to figure out which Batman it is that they actually like before you can engage on that topic. Someone who adores the super-duper-mega-grimdark version popularized in the movie The Dark Knight might not enjoy even knowing that the campy 1960s TV version exists. As a longtime, from-way-back comic-book nerd myself, I’ve heard some impressive arguments along these lines.

Indeed, nerd sites enjoy ranking Batman versions, though they always seem to get it wrong. (If you’re wondering, best Batman is late 80s Frank Miller “Year One” Batman. @me. But I do like the modern version too — like in this iconic scene with Wonder Woman and Superman from a few years ago.)

because he's the batman
BEST BEST BEST. (Source.)

But none of these rankings or arguments will ever produce a winner. No one Batman will ever dominate all the rest forever.

None can.

Why No Batman Can Win.

Batman isn’t based on reality and objective facts. He’s based in our imagination. Thus, he can be literally anything any artist or reader wants him to be. Even his backstory (the exact manner of his parents’ deaths, who killed them exactly, how Bruce Wayne got his wealth or his physical prowess, etc.) isn’t set in stone. Indeed, messing with the mythic elements of his origins has produced a lot of excellent stories.

So from one starter Batman, we now have dozens if not hundreds of different Batmans. And then, we get into the quirky fanfiction takes on the character and crossover appearance in other artists’ work, where he seems to pop up everywhere but Elfquest (but: check out this entirely made-up imagining) (also, I’m not 100% sure he hasn’t). Once we consider homebrew versions and those crossover alternate takes, the number of Batman variations rapidly explodes into the many-thousands.

There’s no way to set one single definitive Batman as the only real Batman.

After all, Batman isn’t real. He’s imaginary.

Thus, the number of Batman versions will always multiply rather than winnow down.

And Now, All Those Jesuses.

In similar fashion, Christianity isn’t built on objective facts. It can’t be: there aren’t any objective facts that actually support any truth claim that Christians make about their god. Instead, it offered its earliest believers — the few who signed on and stuck around, I mean — an emotional truth they weren’t getting elsewhere.

Once the religion’s leaders obtained real temporal power, they could force everyone to sign on — regardless of whether they felt drawn to it. For many centuries, that was just fine by Christian leaders. They could mutate the religion into whatever they pleased — because it was coercion and not natural inclination that kept the flock’s butts in pews. They used coercive power to force everyone to adopt one single vision of their hero, Jesus.

The moment people broke away from that coercive power, they created versions of Jesus that they preferred much better. Who would stop them? Nobody, that’s who.

The number of Jesuses exploded outward. It never stopped growing — along with the number of denominations devoted to the worship of those various versions.

our denomination set things aright
Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts #14.” (Sept 2011)

And isn’t Jesus just so lucky that someone figured out which version of him was totally the perfect one?

Jesus vs. Germ Theory.

As scientific theories get tested and challenged, we winnow them down to find the ones that best predict the relationships between objective facts. Or we discard them all to find ones that actually do speak to the objective reality that we call home.

But that’ll never happen with Batman, just like it’ll never happen with Christianity.

You can’t make any real predictions about Christians’ claims. Nothing about Christianity’s claims can be measured in reality, either. Because none of it tethers to reality, no Christian can even convince another Christian of anything they disagree with.

So when two Christians start arguing about doctrines and beliefs, it seriously reminds me of two die-hard Batman fans arguing about some obscure aspect of their fandom. It’s just so funny. Imagine spending your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars on getting an education in Batmanology, then hanging out a shingle to lead a Batman fan club while fully expecting people to join up and finance your life!

(The funniest part? You can actually study comic books’ culture and history as part of an academic career — which strikes me as way more reality-based than anything a theologian or pastor does.)

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a religion that has more versions of its divinity than people have of Batman — for a reason.

NEXT UP: The “Christian love” flows in response to Jen Hatmaker’s divorce announcement. We’ll check out the responses of the self-chosen ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love — and see how their reaction perfectly illustrates their decline.


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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! Lord Snow was a very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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