Imagine, for a moment, you are a skilled archaeologist, having devoted years of your life to the uncovering, cataloguing, and assimilation of physical artifacts. You are on an expedition in Sweden, doing research into Scandinavian artifacts in the hopes of illuminating the lives and history of Vikings. One of the artifacts, one of many you publicly announce to little fanfare, is a shard of pottery. Only three words of the old language are clearly legible: “slave,” “king,” and “judge.”
Those three words, common in Viking stories and legends of the day, say nothing about what or whom they refer to, and could be anything from a child’s reader to an epic poem. A minority of modern Scandinavians still believe in the Viking gods, and they proudly insist that it refers to Odin—who in Norse mythology (oops, I mean in their truth) is the “king” of the gods, the head of the twelve “judges,” and to whom male “slaves” were sacrificed during blót festivals. What more proof could any rational person need? Odin is said to have visited Uppsala, Sweden in person—the king of the gods walking on earth—and those three words on the pottery prove it!
The next day, all of Sweden is abuzz with wonder. The neo-Vikings rattle loudly in the media that their ancient beliefs have been shown true. A week later, their exaltation spreads to the world’s newspapers, which pick up the story and spread it uncritically and with arresting headlines. “The God Odin is Proven Real,” the stories read, “By Startling New Archaelogical Find.” You are now a hero to neo-Vikings everywhere: you have just proven Odin.
Sound implausible? Read on.
I don’t remember being taught to read news stories critically. Were you? It’s not taught in schools except by rebelliously brilliant teachers, and even if were it’s a heavily discouraged skill in America. In the face of such odds I had to learn to do it myself. The Odin story ought to make it clear how important this skill is, and how obvious the critical faculty comes to you when it’s a subject you’re not blind about. But what happens when it’s your religion?
This is what happens.
Read the article if you like. If you’re too busy, here are some juicy excerpts:
Astounding new evidence has been unearthed in Israel that could confirm the biblical story of King David.
Until now, almost nothing has been found that would prove the biblical account of a shepherd boy from the 10th century BC who slew the giant Goliath and went on to become the King of Israel who founded Jerusalem.
But today Hebrew University archaeology professor Yosef Garfinkel announced the discovery of a tiny, but potentially invaluable, piece of pottery at the site of the ruins of an ancient fortified city south-west of Jerusalem dated to the time of King David.
Scholars are still trying to decipher the full text of the inscription, but Garfinkel said they are excited at the prospect of a link to David because they have already translated the words for “king,” “judge,” and “slave”, which he said suggested it was some sort of official note from the time of his reign.
Allow me to summarize.
- “Almost nothing” has ever been found to corroborate the Biblical account of King David.
- Only three words have been translated on the inscription. They are extremely common words.
- No mention is made of David, and nothing about the artifact says anything about him, or whether he even exists.
- Even if the above three points were not true, even if David were somehow mentioned or reasonably indicated, nothing is said about the Goliath legend.
Therefore, the newspaper editors concluded, it made sense to entitle the article “‘Proof’ David slew Goliath found as Israeli archaeologists unearth ‘oldest ever Hebrew text.'”
This is why I think the media is stupid.
It’s also an example of how religion makes people abandon even the most elementary standards of common sense.
If you think the latter bit is an exaggeration, by the way, and that religious literalists aren’t so ign’ant as to shoehorn such a flimsy fact into a declaration of Biblical “proof,” then check out what happened the last time a vague piece of pottery turned up, in 1993:
- An Ancient Inscription Proves King David Was Real
- An Ancient Inscription Proves King David Was Real (see how same story spreads to other sites)
- Historical Evidence for King David
- “David” Has Been Found
And so on. I understand the need for meaning in our lives. My own pursuit of it, where successful, has been as a result of removing the blind spots that separate me from what’s true about the world. Attaching to vague or demonstrably false assertions because they make you feel a sense of meaning does not make your life more meaningful. I’ve found the greatest meaning in creativity, generosity, friends, and family. I don’t have to make stuff up about pottery, or about old books poorly transcribed from the oral legends of illiterate superstitious desert dwellers.
For the record, so as not to offend any beautiful bikini-wearing Swedes, Sweden is one of the most atheistic countries in the world. They are also the second-happiest.
You know what’s ironic about the Odin analogy I started out with? If there were such a thing as a neo-Viking—and, let’s be honest, there probably is—they would probably find the “Proof David Slew Goliath” pronouncements ludicrous.