By Jerry Adler
A dozen or so years ago, I was working on a profile of Zig Ziglar, the famous motivational speaker who died in 2012, and I went to hear him speak at his church in a suburb of Dallas. His topic, as a lay lecturer in adult Sunday school, was the threat of cults, and he began by mocking the creation myth of Scientology — the whole baroque science-fiction epic starting 4 quadrillion years ago and proceeding through the Galactic Overlord, the frozen thetans and the nuclear holocaust on a planet called Teegeeack.
“Now, I ask you,” he said, wrapping up his recitation, “how could any of this fool an intelligent, thinking man or woman who has read the first four chapters of Genesis?”
Well, yes, precisely. Scientology is incompatible with Christianity, or Judaism or Islam; you cannot by any stretch of reason believe in both. What went without saying, to Ziglar and to his audience that morning, was the logical superiority of a six-day Creation and a talking snake, and by extension the flood and the ark, the litany of biblical miracles and the Resurrection.
But from an agnostic standpoint, there’s no inherent reason to believe one account over the other. They are stories written in books that function as their own authority. People believe in the Bible as a matter of faith, because they accept its message of redemption, not because of empirical evidence or the inherent plausibility of the individual stories within it. This has been true as far back as Augustine, who held that faith and reason go together, but faith leads the way: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” Or, in the more pungent formulation of Mark Twain, faith consists of “believing what you know ain’t so.”
Does that remind you of something transpiring in American society at this moment? Many Americans subscribe to conspiracy theories as preposterous as anything L. Ron Hubbard could have dreamt up, and — because they relate to current events and real living people — far more dangerous. Just in the past few days, a man shot up a Washington pizzeria, acting under the delusion that it was the headquarters of a child-sex ring involving Hillary Clinton, and a woman who believed that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was a government hoax was arrested for making threats against the parents of a child who died there.
Picture: VOA News (voanews.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons