Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A bolt out of the blue

Some of you may have noticed I have a tendency to post about the insanity that is religion. Since these lunatics want to turn the US into a theocracy, I think my obsession is justified.

So let's talk about thunder and lightning. A powerful force of nature that struck awe and dread into the hearts of man. In just about every religion you can name, it was God (or the chief of the Gods) throwing his lightning bolts at those who upset him. For the Vikings it was Thor and his magic hammer that caused lightning bolts. For the Romans it was Jove. For the Greeks it was Jupiter. Their chief God was an irate bugger who personally went around throwing lightning bolts at people. And for the Christians it was God. As the hymn has it:


His chariots of wrath

The deep thunderclouds form

And dark is his path

On the wings of the storm.


In fact lightning was one of the main reasons for believing that there was such a thing as a God. It caused violent damage (trees can literally explode as their sap turns instantly to superheated steam). It was capricious about who and what it hit, as though it was being controlled by somebody with human failings, superhuman powers and a list of people who had pissed him off. It was accompanied by a fucking loud noise. Twice I've had lightning strike very, very close to me. There is a bright flash which is accompanied at the very same instant by a very loud noise. Like a bomb had gone off. The first time it happened it was the first thunder of the storm, so I hadn't unplugged my modem, so my modem got fried. The second time it happened the storm came towards me slowly so I unplugged my modem before it got fried. Both times required a change of underwear. It's easy to understand why people would think that some invisible sky being was having a hissy fit.

All monotheistic religions also face a common problem: God doesn't behave as expected. The sinful rich often go unpunished while the pious poor often suffer from disease. You can only say "He'll get his comeuppance in Hell" and "She'll get her reward in Heaven" so many times before you start to wonder if God really does exist. But never fear, "God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform." So you're just too stupid to understand God's master plan and while it may seem like God is doing the exact opposite of what you'd expect, it's just that you don't comprehend the full plan. Religion is full of Orwellian doublethink like that - it has to be in order to reconcile theology with reality.

BTW, is it just me, or does anyone else immediately think of the Monty Python sketch The Ministry of Silly Walks when they see the phrase "God moves in mysterious ways"?

Anyway, when Christianity got going it decided to have churches instead of synagogues. The floor-plan of a church was shaped like a cross. Well, not really, because the Roman cross that Jesus was crucified upon was shaped like a T without the short upright by his head. So the floor-plan of a church is in the shape of the fictional cross that we see represented in a crucifix. And these churches had steeples. High towers.

Here's the problem. Those church steeples kept getting hit by lightning because they were usually the highest points around. But lightning is the personal, direct wrath of God. God punishing his own churches. Whoops! A bit difficult to reconcile.

Were the religious even remotely rational, they might take it as a sign that God wasn't entirely happy with their new religion and abandon it. Were the religious even remotely rational, they might take it as a sign that God hated the architectural design of their churches and they should come up with a different design (which, if they had abandoned the steeples, would actually have worked). Instead they decided that it must be demons throwing the lightning at their churches.

When you think about it, that was a major step to take. Previously lightning had been God's own personal way of dispensing wrath. Now not just Satan, but any minor demon, could throw lightning around. Even worse, God, who is omnipotent (all-fucking-powerful) and omnipresent (everywhere at fucking once) could not stop these petty demons blowing up churches! Of course, the way the religious got around this very large problem was (as with any other contradiction in their thinking) to pretend it didn't exist and ignore it.

Over the centuries, the Christians came up with the idea that ringing the church bells would scare the demons away and defend the church from lightning. Mediæval church bells were often inscribed with Fulgura Frango, meaning "I break up the lightning flashes." And a lot of bell-ringers were killed during thunderstorms as lightning hit the tower (which housed the bells) and followed the rope down to the bell-ringer.

The "demon theory of lightning" was about as successful as the "demon theory of disease." I.e., completely fucking useless. But that was all they had. From 1753 to 1786, lightning struck 386 French church towers, and lightning running down the bell ropes killed 103 French bell ringers. In 1786, the French government finally had to outlaw this piece of stupidity.

Ah, if only that were as bad as it got - many thousands of bell ringers across Europe killed except in those countries smart enough to outlaw this particular piece of religious insanity. But there was the problem of gunpowder for weapons and fireworks. Gunpowder factories frequently exploded killing hundreds of people in the area. Fireworks stored for celebrations frequently exploded killing hundreds of people in the area. Gunpowder stored for weapons frequently exploded killing hundreds of people in the area. So somebody got the bright idea of storing fireworks in churches, where they'd be protected by God.

I can hear you saying it: "You're shitting me! No way would they do that!" Yes, way. Even though churches were more likely to get hit by lightning than any other building. Even though the "demon theory of lightning" meant God couldn't protect a church from even minor demons hitting it with lightning. Even after all the dead bell-ringers (who were presumably pious) tugging their ropes for all they were worth. Even with the bells inscribed with Fulgura Frango failing to deflect the lightning flashes. Even with all the evidence that a church was the very last place you should store explosives, they were batfuck insane enough to do so. Religion means never having to admit to reality.

This reached a peak in the eighteenth century. In 1769 they stored 100 tons of gunpowder in the church of St Nazaire in Brescia. Lightning struck the tower and explosion destroyed one-sixth of the city and killed 3000 people. On and on it went. As late as 1856, the gunpowder stored in the vaults of the church of St Jean on the island of Rhodes exploded when lightning hit the church and 4000 were killed.

In 1753 Benjamin Franklin published a description of the lightning rod he'd invented in Poor Richard's Almanac (a publication, despite the name, written and printed by Franklin himself). The clergy went ballistic. Franklin was not a believer, he was a heretic. So they dubbed his invention the "heretical rod" and refused to desecrate their churches with it. They stuck with what they knew worked (except it didn't): prayer, supplication and bell-ringing (and, of course, after the storm burying the dead bell ringers).

Eventually, and at first only slowly, churches installed lightning rods and became far less likely to be hit by lightning. If lightning is still God's personal weapon, a simple metal rod is enough to deflect His wrath. If lightning is in the hands of petty demons, a metal rod can disrupt their plans even though God Himself could not stop them. If lightning is purely a natural event and not a weapon of God or petty demons then maybe there isn't a God after all. Of course, these are conclusions the church pretends don't exist and ignores because to discuss them would admit to inconsistencies in their theology. They just install lightning rods and try not to think of the implications.

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