False witnesses

False witnesses September 8, 2008

In my past life as an evangelical for social action, I had a much-photocopied dossier in my desk drawer from the Procter & Gamble corporation. This surreal document was the company’s sadly necessary response to the urban legend that the manufacturer of Tide, Crest and Dawn was some kind of satanic cult.

Briefly, the idea was that the CEO of P&G had at some vague point in the recent past appeared on some talk show — Phil Donahue, or Sally Jesse, or Oprah, the story mutated and adapted over time — and declared that he was a Satanist and that a portion of the company’s profits were donated regularly to the Church of Satan. (If you’re not familiar with it, Snopes has a good rundown of the history of this sordid, stupid lie.)

MoonmanThis is a mind-bogglingly silly story. It’s not just implausible, but inconceivable, impossible. It is unbelievable on its face for dozens of reasons that become clear from even a moment’s consideration, and it’s based on factual claims that are easy to check on and quickly disproved. But we don’t need to get bogged down here in the ridiculousness of this malicious rumor, so bracket that for now, that’s not the interesting part.

Procter & Gamble had prepared the dossier to combat this zombie rumor. The company had put together its own documents disproving the story and disavowing any connection to the Evil One or to his church. They had collected letters from Donahue, Sally Jesse, Oprah and several other talk show hosts attesting that no one from the company had ever appeared on their programs, much less attempted to use such an appearance to spread the unholy gospel of Satanism. P&G had also collected an impressive array of letters from religious leaders — the archbishop of Cincinnati, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, among others — all of whom urged their followers not to believe this stupid, stupid lie.

In retrospect, this desperate, shotgun appeal to religious authority demonstrated why the dossier itself was probably futile. It was an acknowledgment that the people they were attempting to convince were beyond the reach of mere fact or reason — people who did not find reality compelling. The only hope of persuading them, then, was to call upon religious leaders from across the spectrum in the hopes that the pronouncement of one of these random bishops and evangelical pseudo-bishops might be regarded as trustworthy.

If you’re forced to resort to such an attempt then you’ve got to realize that it’s not likely to work either. Any audience so far gone as to require this sort of argument is also likely to have already adopted the mechanisms of self-reinforcing stupidity. Thus if they read that Billy Graham denies the rumor, their response won’t be “Oh, OK, Billy Graham. I trust him,” but rather “OMG! Billy Graham is in on it too!” (cf. “biased media”)

So the dossier was hopeless, but I had yet to come to see that. Thus whenever I came across some group of evangelicals choosing to believe this rumor and spreading it to others, I would photocopy the dossier and send it to them in the hope that good information would correct their misinformation.

That was an old-school, pre-Internet method of doing something that I’m sure everyone reading this used to do via e-mail. You would receive one of those chain e-mails from a parent, friend or coworker, containing some breathless warning against a nonexistent threat. It’d take you a handful of clicks to find the Snopes page debunking the rumor and you would cut and paste the URL back into the e-mail and then hit reply-all.

I say this is something you probably used to do because, I’m guessing, you eventually realized that this approach doesn’t work. It didn’t work for me either when I sent out those photocopies of that slam-dunk, undeniable dossier from Procter & Gamble.

The dossier/Snopes approach doesn’t work because it attempts to apply facts and reason to people who are not interested in either facts or reason. That’s not a nice thing to say, or even to think, about anyone else, which is why I was reluctant and slow to reach that conclusion. But that conclusion was inevitable.

In trying to combat the P&G slander with nothing more than irrefutable facts proving it false, I was operating under a set of false assumptions. Among these:

1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.

2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.

3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.

4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the Procter & Gamble rumor:

1. They didn’t really believe it themselves.

2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.

3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.

4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.

Again, I’m not happy to be saying such things about anyone, and I’m only doing so here reluctantly, yet this is the appalling truth.

Maybe you’re also a bit reluctant to accept this. Maybe you’re thinking Hanlon’s/Heinlein’s Razor should apply — the axiom that reminds us to “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

I wish that applied here. As I said above, I spent a long time distributing that dossier on that assumption that I was, in fact, dealing with stupidity rather than malice. But the spreading of this rumor cannot be adequately explained by stupidity. Stupidity alone doesn’t make one hostile to irrefutable facts. Stupidity cannot account for their vicious anger when the rumor is debunked — anger at the person doing the debunking, and anger at the whole world for not turning out to be the nightmare they wanted it to be.

But in any case, no one is stupid enough to really believe such a story. The coworkers or relatives who fill your inbox with urban legends and hoaxes may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but none of them is stupid enough to believe this. And neither are those people who claim that they do believe it.

Go back and unbracket all of the implausibilities and impossibilities of this story. It just makes no sense. Why would a member of a secret evil society of evil go on national TV to tell the world about it? And why would this proudly evil company now deny the very same thing? Why does the name of the TV host keep changing while the CEO himself is never named? And how come no one can seem to find anyone who actually saw this alleged broadcast? And …

And why are we even bothering to discuss the holes in this story? It’s nothing but holes. Any one of those holes should stop the hearer short, preventing them from passing this ridiculous story along and adding their approval to it.

If a person is smart enough to comprehend this story and then to repeat it, then that person is, by definition, not stupid enough to really believe it.

I used to believe that maybe some people were that stupid. They were acting that stupid, so I went along. I believed that the people I was sending that dossier to were merely innocent dupes.

But in truth they were neither innocent nor dupes. The category of innocent dupe does not apply here. No one could be honestly misled by such a story. The only way to have been misled by it is dishonestly — which is to say deliberately, willingly and willfully. They are claiming to believe a foolish thing, but they are not guilty of foolishness. They are guilty of malice.

They are just plain guilty.

Which brings us to the interesting and complicated question: Why? Why would anyone choose to pretend to believe such preposterous and malicious falsehoods? What’s in it for them?

For some few of them, the answer to that doesn’t turn out to be all that complicated or all that interesting. They did it for money.

The P&G rumor seems to have originated among rival soap-sellers — people affiliated with a giant multilevel marketing scheme with roots in the evangelical subculture (it rhymes with “Spam Ray”). Their marketing model is based on old-fashioned social networking, which partly accounts for why the rumor remains so widespread among American evangelicals. It also explains why the rumor seems to have been tailored to appeal to evangelicals in particular — with the CEO allegedly declaring his allegiance to the Church of Satan rather than to, say, the American Nazi Party or the Klan or communism.

The people who created this rumor, in other words, employed it as a way of convincing prospective buyers to purchase their detergent instead of Tide because Tide worships the Devil. That seems hamfisted and over-the-top doesn’t it? A vaguer, less extreme rumor might have seemed likelier to work better — something subtler than the ultimate trump card of claiming that P&G was literally in league with Satan.

But the rumor was effective. Spectacularly effective. It went viral years before most of us had ever thought to use that term that way. And it lives on, still surfacing and resurfacing after decades spent trying to kill it through truth-telling dossiers and aggressive litigation.

Confronted with the runaway success of such an absurd and over-the-top claim, the reflexive response is to think something like, “Wow, a lot of people really are gullible and stupid.” But again — and this is my point here — this has nothing to do with either stupidity or gullibility. The widespread promotion and pretend-acceptance of this rumor cannot be adequately explained by stupidity. It can only be attributed to malice.

This story, as with the many others like it, is spread maliciously. The people spreading it are not fools. They are not suffering from a mental defect, but from a moral one. They have chosen to bear false witness, and they do so knowingly.

So money was one motive for those who first created and began to spread the P&G rumor. Theirs is the easiest case. Greed is relatively mundane and uncomplicated. But what of the others, what of those who pretend to believe this rumor and enthusiastically spread it to others without the possibility of financial benefit?

Theirs is a far more complicated, and more interesting, situation. Too complicated to get into this morning, so this post will have to have a Part 2.

(Keep reading: False Witnesses 2.)

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  • inge

    Caravelle: When I was small, the grandmother of the kid next door used to dress up as Santa, make a big show in front of the assembled kids and hand out presents. That went well until the kid next door was, for the first time, old enough to join in (three years and nine months) and when “Santa” appeared, he utterly, totally lost it. He screamed and ran into a wall several times before he managed to move the heavy antique sofa enough to slip behind it and hide. He also shat his pants.
    We never did that again. To this day I have no idea if he was scared of Santa, or if seeing his grandma with a false beard freaked him out.

  • Caravelle

    Yay, a new page ! Let’s all make our New Page’s Resolutions, preferably involving the proper closing of italics tags !
    @Inge : To this day I have no idea if he was scared of Santa, or if seeing his grandma with a false beard freaked him out.
    Or maybe his grandma was Death…
    (is there a way to make a “creepy” smiley ?)

  • Tonio

    I figured out Santa Claus for myself when I was a child. Later, my parents asked me to tell my brother the news, and he wouldn’t believe me. My wife also figured out Santa for herself. We’re not religious, and when we first had children, I had a small concern that teaching Santa and the Easter Bunny would inadvertently teach them not to be skeptical about religious doctrine. They’ve already figured out that the mall Santas aren’t the “real” Santa. I don’t see how Santa would be an existential matter. “Ho ho ho, existence precedes and commands essence”? “Merry Christmas, you are nothing other than your life”?

  • Cowboy Diva

    Tonio, get thee to a copy of Hogfather.

  • Tonio

    Cowboy Diva, I know Prachett’s work only from the excellent Good Omens. With our children, we talk less about Santa and the Easter Bunny and more about fairies and unicorns, simply so the kids can enjoy the fantasy. We’ve never presented these in existential terms, and we’re not even fans of fantasy literature, either. To understand the Discworld book, would I have to read all the previous volumes?

  • Drake Pope

    To understand the Discworld book, would I have to read all the previous volumes
    One of the best parts is that you can read Discworld in any order. In fact, I didn’t even bother reading the first few because after reading the last ones I thought the first two were really lousy.

  • “Ho ho ho, existence precedes and commands essence”? “Merry Christmas, you are nothing other than your life”?
    Oh, man, I want to believe in that Santa. Can he exist, please?

  • Caravelle

    Tonio, if the existential Santa is because of my post, by “existential questions” I meant questions about the world, how it works, what’s real, etc. The kind of questions where the answers will help build the child’s worldview. Though not everyone might consider it this way, whether Santa exists or not is a fact about the world and reality and it’s not something I’d want to lie to my children about.
    As for Hogfather, it’s definitely one of my favorites. I was looking for the superstore scene in the TV adaptation on youtube but didn’t find it, surely it is there ?
    The most direct predecessor of “Hogfather” is “Soul Music” but I think the former is definitely better so unless you’re doing them all in order I’d suggest you read it first. Otherwise there’s “Guards! Guards!” that introduces the setting and some minor characters, nothing vital but you can’t go wrong reading it either way.
    So to answer your questions : no, you don’t need to have read the previous volumes to understand a Discworld book, “Hogfather” in particular.

  • cjmr

    Tooth book for Praline: Throw Your Tooth On the Roof

  • Tonio

    Now I wish Picard, Data and LaForge were real, just in case something goes wrong at the Large Hadron Collider today. Picard would be the best spokesperson for the project, because he could explain its significance in Saganian terms.
    Though not everyone might consider it this way, whether Santa exists or not is a fact about the world and reality and it’s not something I’d want to lie to my children about.
    I appreciate your concern. I suspect that Santa may serve to hone a child’s sense of skepticism. I’m trying not to deliberately push worldview on my children at all, unless you consider skepticism itself a worldview. One can be skeptical and still indulge in fantasy in a healthy way.

  • just in case something goes wrong at the Large Hadron Collider today
    The problem is, if something does “go wrong,” if we can even use that term, it will probably be in Stephen Hawking’s bet that the Higgs Particle won’t be found. I don’t think even Jean-Luc Picard will be able to explain that one easily. We might need Michio Kaku.
    Although, fortunately, he exists. And has awesome hair.

  • Caravelle

    Now I wish Picard, Data and LaForge were real, just in case something goes wrong at the Large Hadron Collider today. Picard would be the best spokesperson for the project, because he could explain its significance in Saganian terms.
    Picard might be a great spokesperson, and Data’s ability to calculate the probability of the End of the World to the last decimal would be… reassuring ? or not ?
    Either way, I’ll take LaForge any day. “Why are you worrying about the LHC ? Oh but there’s no risk of that, not with a dilithium plasma convector shield ! I’ll set one up, give me five hours !”
    Wouldn’t that be the awesomest thing EVER though, if the LHC started up, some scientist went “what the hell…” and a few moments later the USS Enterprise would land in Geneva.
    “We see you have discovered Warp Drive…”

  • Tonio

    The first time I heard of Kaku was on an atheist board where a believer was insisting that Kaku’s theories had theological implications. The poster was insisting that the ultimate goal of individual human life was to have control over the universe.

  • hapax

    I wouldn’t tell my kids about Santa or the Tooth Fairy either. It’s just messing with them; they have to know the truth some time, and why not start straight away?
    WTF? I mean seriously, do people really think in this black/white, either/or, truth/lie sort of way? Do they think that children do?
    When my son was four years old, I managed to get him an autographed copy of Peter Spier’s gorgeous Noah’s Ark. After we had finished examining its intricate, minutely detailed drawings, my son asked “Mama, is that how it happened?” I asked him, “What do you think?” He thought for a while and said, “It’s not a REAL story, but a TRUE story.” And I said, “That makes sense to me.”
    Children live in a world of myth and metaphor, where Story tells them “truths” that may have no relationship to “facts.” When my daughter was five, she told me a lovely story about taking her pillow and sliding down the rays of the setting sun, filled with gorgeous sensual imagery of the colors and tastes and textures of every color in the sky. Should I have said, “That’s nice, dear, but red has no flavor and purple has no scent, and it isn’t technically possible to sit on a sunbeam?” Heckopete, should I have corrected her use of “sunset” and said, “Well, darling, you know the sun doesn’t set, the earth rotates away from it?” After all, anything else would have been LYING to her, and setting her up for cynicism and disappointment!
    Sheesh. Why do people have so little faith in their own children?

  • a believer was insisting that Kaku’s theories had theological implications
    Um, wow. That’s a mighty good mis-reading there. Admittedly I haven’t read too much Kaku, but I’ve never really gotten a theological vibe off of his stuff.
    insisting that the ultimate goal of individual human life was to have control over the universe
    The whole multiply and subdue commandment updated for the Star Trek set, eh? I’ll be that was a fun conversation.

  • Tonio

    “We see you have discovered Warp Drive…”
    Damn right! When I was a kid, I hoped that going to the Moon would be as logistically easy as flying to L.A. (Assuming that your flight didn’t get rerouted to the Sea of Tranquility.) Imagine if I could take my children to Proxima Centauri or Sirius for their high-school graduations.

  • Tonio, they’ve already turned it on. Everything’s fine, though the test particle streams are all going in the same direction for now (i.e. not ‘colliding’).
    We get colliding streams later on this month, or in October, depending on testing and such. While the energies involved are titanic compared to what we sue to power a light bulb, we have more energetic cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere every single day, and none of them have ‘black-holed’ the Earth. So Geds is right.
    Though I hear the LHC is keeping a guy named Gordon Freeman around with a crowbar just in case.
    (I though Michio Kaku was a goofy, head-in-the-clouds dreamer when I first saw him on Discovery. Then I looked him up on Wikipedia and had to admit that he’s a dreamer with better credentials than I’ll ever have.)

  • we have more energetic cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere every single day, and none of them have ‘black-holed’ the Earth. So Geds is right.
    Woohoo! I’m right about something!
    Although I totally don’t get the entire attempt to freak people out over the LHC. Black holes are caused by stars collapsing in on themselves. Two particles colliding, even at near light speed, doesn’t get close to that. Moreover, I think the whole process needs sustained collisions, too, like a nuclear chain reaction. I could be wrong about the second part, though.
    he’s a dreamer with better credentials than I’ll ever have
    And an ability to explain really complicated science-y stuff on par with Stephen Jay Gould, Sagan, or Ken Miller…

  • Tonio

    Everything’s fine, though the test particle streams are all going in the same direction for now (i.e. not ‘colliding’).
    I wasn’t seriously expecting any problems – I was simply indulging my fond memories of TNG. I read about the LHC months ago in National Geographic and I’m thoroughly fascinated by it.
    Though I hear the LHC is keeping a guy named Gordon Freeman around with a crowbar just in case.
    Why haven’t I heard of Half-Life before?

  • Why haven’t I heard of Half-Life before?
    Because you’ve been living under a rock with your fingers in your ears yelling, “La la la la la?”
    Also, maybe the LHC will give us Portals. That would make my life so much more awesome.

  • Caravelle

    After we had finished examining its intricate, minutely detailed drawings, my son asked “Mama, is that how it happened?” I asked him, “What do you think?” He thought for a while and said, “It’s not a REAL story, but a TRUE story.” And I said, “That makes sense to me.”
    But you didn’t answer “yes”.
    Children live in a world of myth and metaphor, where Story tells them “truths” that may have no relationship to “facts.” When my daughter was five, she told me a lovely story about taking her pillow and sliding down the rays of the setting sun, filled with gorgeous sensual imagery of the colors and tastes and textures of every color in the sky. Should I have said, “That’s nice, dear, but red has no flavor and purple has no scent, and it isn’t technically possible to sit on a sunbeam?” Heckopete, should I have corrected her use of “sunset” and said, “Well, darling, you know the sun doesn’t set, the earth rotates away from it?” After all, anything else would have been LYING to her, and setting her up for cynicism and disappointment!
    No need to be insulting.

  • Tonio

    Because you’ve been living under a rock with your fingers in your ears yelling, “La la la la la?”
    I don’t know any video-game fanatics. If it weren’t for this blog, I wouldn’t know of the existence of several subcultures. Hell, until one of my kids’ cousins brought a Hannah Montana CD to a party, I had no idea what her music sounded like.

  • hapax

    Caravelle: No need to be insulting.
    I agree. Which is why I took strong exception to the many posts accusing parents who tell Santa stories as “lying”, “messing with [their children’s] heads” and, frankly, engaging in borderline child abuse.
    I don’t want my — or anybody’s — children taught the Easter Bunny in public schools, any more than I want them taught the Easter Resurrection story, the sacrifices of the Goddess Eostre, or that the East Wind brings pestilence. OTOH, I have no objection to any of these being referred to as part of our common cultural heritage. And I deeply resent anyone feeling free to pass judgment about which part of that common cultural heritage I choose to emphasize in my own home, with my own children.
    And, while I’m feeling feisty, I’ve taught my children that “Joy to the World” isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a Christmas carol. It’s an eschatological hymn.

  • Tonio

    But if you asked me about Monty Python or Motown or Judas Priest or Harlan Ellison or Superman, I could go on and on…

  • Froborr

    hapax: I tend to agree with you, which is a sufficiently rare occurrence that we should celebrate. My parents didn’t talk about Santa and the Easter Bunny because we didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. The Tooth Fairy and the Passover story, on the other hand, were presented much more as “It’s not a real story, but it’s a true story” sort of thing, and my Mom’s enormous collection of children’s fantasy literature was available to me from a very young age, at first her reading to me, and later me reading it myself. (I remain appalled at how few Americans have read The Story of the Amulet, which was one of my favorites as a boy.) Meanwhile my father told hilarious, rambling Trickster/Fool stories of his supposed childhood friend Silly Willy, and my mother told the adventures of the Snuffly Snortly Dog as a sort of bedtime serial.
    They never predicated a story with “This isn’t true, but…” Rather, they simply told the stories.
    I’m having trouble articulating how this is different from the Santa thing. I think a lot of it is to do with intent. Storytelling is different from lying, primarily as a matter of intent. My parents were not trying to convince me that Silly Willy or the Snuffly Snortly Dog or the Tooth Fairy were real.
    On the other hand, not having ever believed in, well, anything, I wonder how much of what I’m hereby dubbing the South Park Effect is true. I refer to an incident that occurred about three or four years into the series’ run and marked a major watershed moment. In the episode in question, the boys discover to their horror that there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, and are enraged that their parents have been lying to them. Kyle, in particular, begins to question everything, eventually reaching near-hysterical as he realizes he doesn’t know whether God or even he himself is real.
    From that point on in the series, the boys become more and more skeptical of their parents, and eventually of adults and authority in general. There’s a lot of other events that serve to cement their opinion that their parents and the adults in town are neither great minds nor paragons of virtue (in fact, they become increasingly over-the-top examples of stupidity, apathy, and mass hysteria as the series becomes steadily less slapstick and more satirical), but finding out about the Tooth Fairy is the beginning (Santa Claus cannot fill that functioin because he demonstrably exists in the South Park universe).
    So, if Santa Claus helps children understand that they can’t accept everything they’re told, especially not from people who claim authority without demonstrating expertise, if it encourages them to question, well, that’s definitely a good thing.
    On the LHC: Actually, two particles slammed into one another at sufficiently high speeds *could* generate a black hole. Maybe. A black hole is created whenever an object passes a certain *density*, it is not dependent on mass. In other words, you could make a black hole out of two electrons if you could cram them in a small enough space.
    The only naturally occurring environment we know of in which densities sufficient to create a black hole occur is in the death throes of a star massing more than (very roughly) five times the Sun’s mass. However, one could imagine artificially creating similar densities in a much, much smaller space with a much, much smaller mass.
    The thing is, though, our best understanding of quantum mechanics probably predicts (we’re on the edge of the known here) that black holes should slowly evaporate into radiation, with the rate of evaporation increasing the smaller the black hole is. So, really, if the LHC creates a black hole it will probably explode again (with the force of, oh, maybe a couple of lightbulbs turning on) immediately after, unless they rapidly keep pumping mass into it faster than it can evaporate.
    A (slightly) more realistic concern is the creation of “strange matter”, which would be matter where protons, neutrons, and electrons are replaced with their more massive “strange” equivalents (“strange” meaning nothing in particular except that it possesses a quantum-mechanical property called “strangeness”, a term which implies nothing other than that quantum physicists like giving things silly names). Strange particles are normally fairly unstable, but if one created a stable few strange atoms, there is a possibility they might start converting surrounding normal matter into strange matter, cue end-of-world chain reaction as the Earth collapses into a small ball of strange matter.
    The probability of this occurring when the LHC goes into full operation is less than the chance that a meteor or comet big enough to shatter the Earth will show up in the inner Solar System and do so within the next fifteen years. It is much, much less than the probability that a “dinosaur-killer” — a meteor or comet big enough to cause global ecological disaster and mass extinction — will hit us in the same period.

  • until one of my kids’ cousins brought a Hannah Montana CD to a party, I had no idea what her music sounded like.
    And I’ll bet that every once in a while you remember that moment and wish you could go back to the before time. Once you hear Hanna Montana you can’t unhear it.

  • Froborr

    Oh, and also on the LHC:
    A giant, insanely complicated underground machine is being used to cross particle beams, with the intent of recreating the moment after the Big Bang on a small scale.
    Super-science rules.

  • A black hole is created whenever an object passes a certain *density*, it is not dependent on mass.
    Ah. I think I’d learned that once upon a time and kept it with the whole collapsing stars thing, but forgot that it’s a matter of correlation and opportunity, not causation.

  • Tonio

    It’s an eschatological hymn.
    How so? The lyrics don’t seem much different from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

  • Jeff

    what we sue to power a light bulb
    Damn trial lawyers! (I loev tpyos!)

  • Tonio

    So, if Santa Claus helps children understand that they can’t accept everything they’re told, especially not from people who claim authority without demonstrating expertise, if it encourages them to question, well, that’s definitely a good thing.
    Well said.
    The probability of this occurring when the LHC goes into full operation is less than the chance that a meteor or comet big enough to shatter the Earth will show up in the inner Solar System and do so within the next fifteen years.
    Idea for a science fiction movie – the comet is about to strike Switzerland, the LHC opens a wormhole through the planet, and the comet shoots harmlessly out the other side in the Pacific.

  • Cowboy Diva

    Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.
    yeah, definitely eschatological theme. But then, as it was explained by bemused mainline protestant clergy to this benighted (but not bareback…at that time…) southern baptist, advent is in fact an end-time concept.
    or were they pulling my leg?

  • J

    First off, no, I’m saying the precise opposite of “religion is as religious people do.” My non-religious participation in a religious ritual does not make it any less religious.
    So what DOES make it religious? What the hell makes anything more or less religious?
    For that matter, why do Christians get to claim Christmas is a Christian holiday? Pagans were celebratin’ Yule way before it was cool.
    I really don’t see what the GOAL of your argument is, much less it’s sense.

  • J

    So, if Santa Claus helps children understand that they can’t accept everything they’re told, especially not from people who claim authority without demonstrating expertise, if it encourages them to question, well, that’s definitely a good thing.
    I dunno. It’s one thing to foster a child’s imaginative life by reading him or her fanciful stories or giving them toys of make-believe characters. But in a world where the ‘properity gospel’ is as large and corrosive a force as it is, I think tying together actual events in a child’s life (i.e. the mysterious appearance of goodies on Christmas) to an imaginary persona is . . . off.
    Too, I can’t get over the sly malignity of the “Yes, Virginia” letter: To me, it will always amount to a grown man lying to a little girl.
    Read all the Harry Potter and Brer Rabbit and Jason and the Argonaut and, fuck, even Bible stories you want to your kid, but if they ask if it’s ‘real’, then be honest and say No without infantile winking.

  • hapax

    Froborr: if Santa Claus helps children understand that they can’t accept everything they’re told, especially not from people who claim authority without demonstrating expertise, if it encourages them to question, well, that’s definitely a good thing.
    Holy Hannah, I agree with Froborr, too! Forget about black holes and strange particles, this is a terrifying sign of the End times!
    J: if they ask if it’s ‘real’, then be honest and say No without infantile winking
    Well, J, I don’t claim to have comprehensive expertise on the totality of “Reality.” I wish I did.

  • SchrodingersDuck

    Actually, two particles slammed into one another at sufficiently high speeds *could* generate a black hole. Maybe. A black hole is created whenever an object passes a certain *density*, it is not dependent on mass. In other words, you could make a black hole out of two electrons if you could cram them in a small enough space.
    Trouble is, there is a lower limit to how small a black hole can be – about 20 micrograms (roughly the weight of a speck of dust). That might not seem like much, but that is equivalent to a LOT of energy – ten trillion times the amount pumped out by the LHC. By our current theories, in order to make a black-hole capable of devouring a planet in a particle accelerator, it would have to be the size of a galaxy.
    The black hole panic is largely because according to one interpretation of string theory (one of the theories meant to unite Einstein’s theories with modern quantum physics), there may be extra dimensions (like our up-down, left-right, forwards-backwards ones) folded up, too small to see, and gravity would be able to “leak” from these hidden dimensions and make the black hole more powerful. There’s no experimental proof of it, but nor is there any disproof (we so far lack sensitive enough equipment to measure these tiny changes in gravity over the minute distances involved), so it so far remains a possible, albeit slightly fringe, theory.
    And even if it does turn out to be true and the Earth is eaten by a black hole. Well, the last act of the planet will be disproving Hawking radiation (and by extension, most of quantum physics) and proving that there are multiple hidden dimensions leaking gravity into ours (both of these probably Nobel Prize winning discoveries). That’s a much more dignified way to go than getting squashed by a comet or blown into radioactive dust.

  • hapax

    Most of the eschatalogical meaning of “Joy to the World” comes in the later verses. It’s a celebration of the millenial Kingdom.
    Cowboy Diva: advent is in fact an end-time concept
    Well, sorta. It exists in that lovely theological concept “in illo tempore”, which sort of means “it happened once in history, it simultaneously will happen in some unspecified future but real point in time, it is simultaneously happening Right Now in the Mind of God and the heart of every person who allows it to.” It’s the same time-space in which the blood and wine at the altar becomes the sacrificial death of Jesus.
    Now that I think about it, it may be the very same time-space indicated by “once upon a time” or “long ago, in a galaxy far far away…”

  • SchrodingersDuck

    Idea for a science fiction movie – the comet is about to strike Switzerland, the LHC opens a wormhole through the planet, and the comet shoots harmlessly out the other side in the Pacific.
    There was actually a fun Torchwood radio play today as part of BBC Radio 4’s “Big Bang Day” with a plot not a million miles from that. It was a neutron-eating alien rather than a comet, but it otherwise followed your idea fairly closely. You can download the episode from the BBC websites. It’s rather good, and not totally unscientific (except for the slightly daft ending) – though it does have spoilers for Torchwood season 2.

  • Cowboy Diva

    hapax (at the risk of truly annoying everyone else), how does that fit in with the concept of kairos?

  • Sarah Jane

    I know several people who were very upset to find out there was no Santa, and who had a difficult time trusting their parents after that — who actively sheltered their more naive friends from discovering the “awful truth” about Santa. Maybe it’s inevitable that some people will react that way to their first taste of disillusionment, but it also makes me wonder.
    The story itself is sweet and harmless, and children are often far more comfortable than adults with the idea of imaginary friends, fantastic stories, and make-believe. But when parents jump through all kinds of hoops to maintain the illusion, it can take on a darker and more deceptive tone. Staging elaborate shows of going to see “Santa” in the mall, discovering “reindeer prints” in the yard, or hearing “sleigh bells”… when does this become more trick than treat? And what about the ever-more-complicated stories that must be created to explain how Santa can go down all those chimneys at once, or how he will get the presents there if there is no chimney and no fireplace, or how he will know where to find the child if the family is at a relative’s house for Christmas?
    Perhaps the other side of this question is whether a child regularly reads or hears other fantasy stories. If a parent reads, tells stories, and discusses various make-believe characters as though they were real, it gives a child the necessary framework for understanding that Santa is a fun story, but not necessarily real.
    So perhaps the question is not whether or not to “do Santa” with your kids, but to respect their intelligence and not engage in complicated mindplay beyond the point of their own, healthy skepticism.

  • Froborr

    Sarah Jane, have a delicious noncorporeal You Said What I Was Trying To But Better brand Internet cookie.
    So what DOES make it religious? What the hell makes anything more or less religious?
    A religious ritual is a ritual which derives its meaning from a religion. (I suppose one could have a religious ritual which derives its meaning from multiple religions, but I’m not aware of any.)
    For that matter, why do Christians get to claim Christmas is a Christian holiday? Pagans were celebratin’ Yule way before it was cool.
    Because, while many of the particulars of Christmas derive from pagan celebrations and secular cultural traditions, it derives its modern meaning from Christianity — a celebration of the incarnation of the Christian deity. One could argue that the meaning of Christmas is in transition, but that’s always true of every meaning of everything all the time, so it’s a somewhat silly argument.
    I really don’t see what the GOAL of your argument is, much less it’s sense.
    The goal of my argument, as I have already stated, is to demonstrate that there is no “secular Christmas”, at least in the Western world at this time.

  • Froborr

    Clarification: the italicized items are from J. They have no relation to Sarah Jane’s comments, and it was not my intent to praise the italicized text.

  • Sniffnoy

    A bit late here, but rather than say “People are stupid enough” or “The problem isn’t stupidity, but something else”, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that the term “stupidity” ceases to be useful in this context. A friend of mine pointed out recently how often smart people can believe really dumb things, because they’re very good at rationalizing it – very good at finding things that support it, while ignoring the evidence against it. My initial response was “Well, they’re not really very smart then, now are they?”, but when you’re talking about Serge Lang claiming that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that obviously isn’t right.
    So I guess being smart in the “making connections and theory-building” sense doesn’t have a lot to do with being smart in the “critical thinking” sense, and comments about whether people are or aren’t stupid enough are really not actually very meaningful, because what’s meant by stupid? It seems that people can be “stupid enough” in the appropriate sense, but not in other ways. I think we need to figure out some more precise language if we really want to talk about this.
    Though I suppose the exception is that Fred actually claims that these people don’t really believe it, and actively are malicious, which, true or not, does make sense independently of my comment above.

  • hapax

    Cowboy Diva, as I understand it, kairos is a particular point in time that is invested with meaning and significance, and compels a response. You might call it “Time With Intent.”
    “in illo tempore” is more like a corrider outside time, in which particular historical events in the past and the future are simultaneously present in the subjective experience (or soul, perhaps) of the participants.
    Of course the two can coincide — and do, at the climax of the Divine Liturgy.

  • inge

    Caravelle: Or maybe his grandma was Death…
    She never spoke in capital letters.
    Tonio: I know Prachett’s work only from the excellent Good Omens.
    I read “The Light Fantastic” and “The Colour of Magic” when they were pretty new and hated them. Years later I read “Good Omens” and relized that there were parts in it that I liked which didn’t sound like Gaiman. I tried some more Pratchett, and found that I love the ones with the guards, that the ones with Death are good, the topicals are OK and I have no use for witches and wizards. You can start with Discworld whereever you want and go in any direction. Though my favorite Discworld book is “Night Watch”, and that’s the only one I would not recommend as a starter.
    BTW, existentialism + Good Omens: There is a Good Omens fanfic somewhere where Adam has become existentialist, and is throwing his whole Antichrist powers into that philosophy, making life, eh, existence, for Aziraphale and Crowley difficult…
    MikhailBorg: We have more energetic cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere every single day, and none of them have ‘black-holed’ the Earth.
    You’ve seen xkcd on the topic?
    Generally: On Santa and tales for children:
    As far as I can remember back there was alwas a division between “stories that are true” (Nero feeding Christians to the lions, Luther travling to Worms to defend his theses), “stories that might be true” (Saint Nicholas anonymosly giving three purses of gold for the poor man’s daughters’ dowry) and “stories that are fun to tell but are not real” (Jesus and Saint Peter traveling the land and saving a farmer who made a deal with the devil). Santa and the Easter bunny clearly fell into the last category. Gospels and Acts was carefully kept in the middle category.
    Goodness, talk about a Christian upbringing…

  • Jeff

    Of course the two can coincide — and do, at the climax of the Divine Liturgy.
    But do they produce a black hole?

  • hapax

    But do they produce a black hole?
    No, a eucatastrophe.
    Actually, to bring in a theme from t’other thread, it’s a bit like the altered psychological perception of time in the process of childbirth. Of course, that could be considered a eucatastrophe as well.

  • there was alwas a division between “stories that are true” (Nero feeding Christians to the lions
    Which, right there, is an interesting place to start. Because while it is a part of the historical record that Christians were fed to lions, they probably weren’t singled out more than any other marginalized group but we got most such information from sources who are, at best, unreliable, if not outright liars (cough Eusebius cough).

  • Thanks for the rec, Cjmr!
    WTF? I mean seriously, do people really think in this black/white, either/or, truth/lie sort of way? Do they think that children do?
    I’m thinking of a particular example, so there was some backup for it. I’m not saying everyone who tells Santa stories is abusing their kids; telling it as a fairy story they’re not expected to take literally is fine and nice. That’s what my parents did with me, that’s probably what I’d do with my kids. I’m pretty much with Sarah Jane: the problem is trying to convince kids that a fairy tale is a fact. That doesn’t encourage a love of fantasy and imagination; if anything, it teaches disrespect for the imagination, as if an idea can only be cool and exiting if it’s literally true.
    Also, let’s accept that kids are individuals, and some are more credulous than others, just as some adults are. Some kids pick up that it’s a fairy story, some take it seriously, because people are different and kids are people. Telling ‘true’ stories to a serious-minded, fact-oriented child is not the same as telling ‘true’ stories to a kid who spends all their time in imaginative play: maybe Janie can roll with the fantasy, but Johnny takes everything literally if you don’t phrase it carefully, and you should adapt your storytelling to their different needs if Johnny isn’t going to be at a disadvantage.
    So, if Santa Claus helps children understand that they can’t accept everything they’re told, especially not from people who claim authority without demonstrating expertise, if it encourages them to question, well, that’s definitely a good thing.
    I don’t really buy that. It’s not as if life won’t spontaneously furnish your kids with unplanned examples of you screwing up! Or, come to that, of other authority figures saying something stupid. We don’t need to engineer situations where it’ll happen; by that logic, we should sometimes punish our kids when they haven’t done anything so they don’t grow up assuming authorities are always just. It makes me think of C.S. Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower: ‘Not only boys but grown men were beaten without cause on occasion, and Bush had nodded sagely when it happened, thinking that contact with injustice in a world that was essentially unjust was part of everyone’s education.’ (Not that I’m saying you’re advocating unjust violence, of course, just that sometimes the distress outweighs the educational advantage.)
    Being only human, I fully expect to furnish my future kids with ample and striking examples of Mum Not Being Perfect, and I intend to take advantage of those situations to teach the valuable lesson that you should never assume someone’s always right just because they’re in charge – but that’ll be making the best of making a mistake. Being unreliable on purpose just to prove that authorities aren’t always trustworthy seems a bit extreme.
    (And again, no, I’m not saying that telling fairy stories is being unreliable, just going to excessive lengths to make the kids take the fairy stories literally.)

  • inge

    Geds, on Nero, Christians and Lions:
    True to the same extent IMO as “Caesar conquered Gallia”. He didn’t do it alone, he did a lot of other things, and the authorative period source on it is spun for a purpose.
    Problem with historical stories is that they are never true enough. History is a frustrating science.