Just So Stories

“People long ago didn’t understand how the universe worked; they didn’t understand lightning, for example, so they made up Thor and Zeus to explain it.  That’s where religion came from.”

Yeah, this’n’s an oldie.  But it never really goes out of style.  Whenever and wherever people are arguing about the existence of God, this notion–I think of it as the “Just So Stories” theory, after the silly Kipling tales about how the camel got his hump, etc.–is bound to pop up if the argument goes on long enough.

The counter-argument is obvious: “Well, I do know how lightning works, and I’m still religious.”  At one point, I recall, I was on the verge of snapping that back at someone.  Then I stopped and thought: do I know how lightning works?  As I vaguely understood it, when atmospheric conditions are right, a difference of electrical charges builds up between the clouds and the ground.  The system doesn’t “like” the difference in charges, so when it gets too high, a big old burst of electrons jumps from one to the other.  I couldn’t recall whether it went from sky to ground or vice versa.  I think I read in xkcd or somewhere that it does both in quick succession.

But thinking about it just raised a bunch of questions I couldn’t answer: how, exactly, does that difference in charges build up?  The simplest guess would be that the air steals the electrons from the ground, or the other way around, and then they get stolen right back, and the balance is restored.  But why would that happen?  Is electricity indecisive, or what?  Can it not make up its damn mind about where it wants to be?  And what, specifically, about storm conditions make that happen?

Don’t get me wrong; I know that scientists have an exquisitely reasoned model for lightning.  It’s just that, honestly, I’d never bothered to figure out how that model worked.  Barring a handful of meteorologists and weather nerds, nobody does.  I suspect most people don’t even remember enough from science class to give my lame blather about unbalanced charges; they just say, “it’s electricity,” and leave it at that.  Which, from a practical perspective, isn’t much better than just chalking it up to some grumpy redhead chucking his hammer around.

This ignorance extends to more or less every domain of our lives, including things which are much more important to us than the occasional light-show in the sky.  We all depend on our cars, for example, but only mechanics or engineers can generally tell us more than “they burn gas to move.”  And not one person in ten can give a reasoned, not-lame explanation of how electricity actually works.  Let alone computers, or the internet.  Or our own bodies.

It’s not that we’re stupid, I think.  We just don’t care that much.  Scientific knowledge is very important for the scientists who actually work on it; for the rest of us, it can be fun to learn–especially if it involves the Mythbusters blowing up a car–but we’re generally content to leave it a mystery.  Because the nuts and bolts simply don’t affect us enough to care about.

And, if you look at actual religions, you’ll find this basic truth reflected.  The Bible contains two “how-it-happened” stories, the Creation and Babel, but both are found in the first half of Genesis.  The rest of the long, long book really could not care less about how any specific natural phenomenon works, and the book of Job flat out tells us (at some length) that we’re not getting the answers from God.  If we were so concerned with understanding these sorts of thing, you’d think we’d work harder at it.

As for Zeus and Thor, both are said to be causes of lightning, but in both cases, that activity is not a major part of their role or character.  Zeus’s job in the pantheon is to be the patron of kings, guardian of the cosmic order, and (apparently) role model for rapists and perverts.  Thor, from what we understand of him–most of what we know comes from the Eddas and Sagas, written down centuries after Scandinavia became Christian–was more of a general protector from enemies.

The rest of their respective pantheons bear this out: the Gods in each case are primarily oriented around human concerns.  Apollo’s solar functions are a largely irrelevant detail, frequently forgotten by storytellers who have him wooing girls or meddling in the Trojan war during the daytime when he should be at the reins.  His more important role is to preside over poetry and prophecy, and to expiate men’s crimes.  Likewise Artemis is less moon goddess than huntress, Poseidon is there to watch over sailors, and Hephaestus is only a fire-god so he can be a smith.  And so on for the Norse–but this post is too long already.  More to follow, hopefully.

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