According to the Ussher chronology, computed in the 1650s from a literal reading of the Bible by James Ussher, an Anglican Archbishop, the first day of creation began on the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC. Presumably that takes into account the missing day caused by Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still. Because there was no year Zero, the universe will be 6,011 years old this Thursday (we’re writing on Tuesday, 21 Oct 2008).
Fortunately, no one is being compelled to celebrate the occasion. But belief in The Truth™ wasn’t always optional — indeed, mandatory belief has a horrific history.
Giordano Bruno, an early proponent of heliocentrism, was convicted of heresy by the Inquisition and burned at the stake in 1600 — a fact not lost on Galileo when he too was tried for heresy in 1632. Bruno’s works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, as was Galileo’s book on the solar system.
But let’s not talk about Europe — they’re so … European over there! In the New World, 60 years after Galileo’s heresy trial, there was that wonderful time when America was truly a blessed place. We had none of that “separation of church and state” nonsense in 1692. That was when a village of devout Puritans, about 16 miles from Boston, was the site of the infamous Salem witch trials. Nineteen of the accused were hanged, another was “pressed” to death, and a few more died in prison.
A dozen years later, in nearby Boston, Benjamin Franklin was born. The America in which he lived — and helped to create — was a very different place. It’s so different that the Salem witch trials seem to us as if they happened on a different planet. What changed? Not religion, because The Truth™ never changes. It was the Enlightenment, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment.
The intellectual sunburst radiating from those philosophical movements gave us the American Revolution and Constitution. We now enjoy freedoms that would have been unimaginable to the inhabitants of old Salem. We are so free that we may, if we wish, ignore the birthday of the universe.
But don’t think — not even for a moment — that our current freedom is permanent. There are those among us, such as mystics, prognosticators, soothsayers, conjurers, witch-doctors, and creationists — especially creationists — who would gladly turn back the clock to restore what they imagine were the good old days. The gap between them and the witch-hunters of old Salem is so narrow that you could spit across it. Such people can never be entrusted with political power.
When we speak of creationists, please bear in mind that there’s a big difference between someone who: (a) believes in a creator; and (b) also believes in creationism. The former may be a gentle soul; the latter is a potential witch-burner.
Ah, we know what you’re thinking: We’re making too much of some ghastly events that happened long ago. And besides, you’re thinking, “There were so few” of such episodes. Right. But state-sponsored terrorism doesn’t need all that many victims — as long as they’re well-chosen and highly publicized. How many are prosecuted each year in the US for tax fraud? This information isn’t current, but the Department of Justice tells us here that:
In 2004, the Justice Department’s Tax Division authorized prosecutions against 1,381 defendants for tax crimes, an increase of more than 57 percent over the 877 defendants authorized for prosecution in 2001.
That’s very few prosecutions for a country of 300 million people. A little bit of terror goes a long way. It’s not that difficult for a few to terrorize many. All it takes is dedication — and political power.
So when the creationists voice their current battle cry — “Teach the controversy!” — we should respond: “Never again!”
Oh, before we forget — Happy Birthday, Universe!
Copyright © 2008. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.