Tuesday, March 5, 2013

God probably didn't hurl lightning bolts at the Vatican

Sean Ewart

What are the odds? 1 in 112.

I hate applauding the BBC because sincerity makes me uncomfortable.

But on March 1 the Corporation (I call them that because, if I have to praise them, I'm going to make them sound as Orwellian as possible) published an article that struck me as absolutely genius.

The February 11 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was marked, not only by a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, by lightning striking St. Peter's Basilica. Twice. It's as if the fury of the Lord was unleashed upon the lightning rods of the Vatican...

Divine intervention is an explanation that, once applied to questions of causality and correlation, immediately stifles further investigation. Lightning struck St. Peter's Basilica on the same day the Pope announced his resignation? It must be God. Next question.

Falling back on the divine is also a convenient way to fabricate order out of a universe that tends, as we know, towards chaos. Survivors of freak accidents often recount feeling somehow chosen. I tend to view them as lucky. Probability is a wonderful thing. Randomness is predictable.

But the Corporation, upon receiving word the Vatican was struck by lightning on the day the Pope announced his resignation was not content to either ascribe the event to divine intervention or to stand by while others did so. And for that reason, I commend them.

“When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on 11 February, it wasn't the only shock to hit the Vatican. There were also electrical shocks, as two separate bolts of lightning struck St Peter's. An act of God, some concluded - but how unlikely is such an event?”

I shan’t bore you with the details, but the Corporation concludes that, “if there is lightning around, St Peter's has a reasonably high chance of getting a bolt.”

This sort of investigation should be done more frequently.

While we certainly are not capable of explaining everything, we can at the very least attempt to educate more people about randomness. And, more importantly, with better investigation we can stop in their tracks those who attribute hurricanes to “the gays” and basic economics to the saturation of any given society in Christianity.

These are not frivolous goals.

Because when we stop saying, “I'm not sure what _X was, so it must have something to do with God,” we can move forward human understanding.

I don't want to attribute to the Corporation more than it deserves. They are not saving humanity anymore than a better understanding of our universe will. For all we know we will wake up tomorrow and better understand that an asteroid the size of the Moon is bound for Earth, where it will devastate all life.

But if we content ourselves to continue to imagine the divine hand behind everything, we will never know anything. The blinders must come off. Indeed, when the Vatican (I assume) installed lightning rods on the Basilica, they were already cognizant of the basic properties of lightning. Which is why the Vatican is “not currently attributing” the strikes to the Lord. I wonder how many other “miracles” would likewise be explained away once subjected to the light of understanding.

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