“Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand.”
~ Karl Marx
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
~ Vladimir Lenin
“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
~ John Lennon
“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
~ Groucho Marx
A big part of what it is to be human is the ability to make shit up. Be it a story, a lie, or a club sandwich. The mastery of our world exists only in our perception and manipulation of it. We cannot change the facts of the universe — only how we perceive and operate within them.
With no great speed or strength advantage over other species, humanity managed to evolve the only asset it had — an oversized brain — to ultimately achieve supremacy over every other species on the planet.
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
~ Genesis 1:26
In cosmically short order, early humans moved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to socialized, sedentary and civilized farmers who found ways to shelter and protect themselves from predators and the elements. In this protection and stability, they were afforded the opportunity to use their oversized brains for something more than outwitting wild boars or finding suitable places to hide from lions.
From the early days of making shit up about the twinkling dots in the night sky to Aristotle’s suppositions about spontaneous generation of things like mice and frogs, early man’s approach to answering the questions of life, the universe and everything were limited mostly to thought experiments. Practical matters could be tested and proven, but those intangible affairs of ethics, philosophy and purpose were left to reason and conjecture.
The invention of the wheel was a pretty straightforward activity. Put a couple of wheels on a cart and voila! Problem solved. But there were no tools or processes to prove speculation on the unseen.
Thus, one would imagine, emerged the first sales pitches as one member of the tribe sought to convince the others of his ideas regarding the origin of man or the nature of water. And very likely the first stories, as every sales pitch needs a story to lend it credibility.
“Look, Ughakpo, I’m telling you the truth. You inhale the ground up deer antler powder and you’re gonna be ten times stronger. You know Ravulon over in the next village? Well he’s been taking this stuff for three full moons and I saw the guy literally lift a yak over his head at the summer solstice bonfire,” one story might have begun.
It’s not a far stretch from that to Homer’s tales of the wanderings and conquests of Odysseus.
Early literature frequently served multiple purposes beyond simple entertainment: to record and interpret (with notable embellishments) historical events, to offer metaphorical lessons on morality, or to attempt to explain the world.
Some events recurred through multiple civilizations over the course of hundreds of years. One example is a great flood that was referenced first in literature by the Mesopotamians in the Epic of Gilgamesh. A similar story was proffered by the Babylonians hundreds of years later in the Atrahasis Epic. Two centuries after that, the Hebrew Bible offered its own accounting of this great flood.
Westerners are most familiar with the Hebrew version of the story, which involves a righteous man named Noah, who lived to be some 950 years old. In the course of his long life, he was approached by God with a difficult task.
God wanted Noah to build a large ship “three floors high” with rooms in it. He directed him on the type of wood to use, but left the bulk of the engineering to Noah himself. He did tell him though to make sure the ark didn’t leak because he was about to send a great flood that would “destroy the whole world.”
After years of work, Noah and his sons finished building the ark. God then told Noah to go get a pair of every animal on the earth. So he did. Then he put them all in the ark. And then God flooded the earth and everyone died except for Noah and his shipmates.
There’s a rather large suspension of disbelief required in that whole story, but you can get the science behind it from the Ark Encounter theme park, where some people were so committed to proving the veracity of the story that they spent $100 Million to reconstruct Noah’s boat.
The business people behind the Ark Encounter are among the 77.5 million Americans, who believe the Bible is the literal word of God. That’s 24% of the U.S. population, who believe the outlandish tale of the great flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Adam and Eve, and every other story in the Bible.
One might assume the stories were never meant to be taken literally. Many, a reasonable person might assume, were likely written to teach lessons of morality, piety or obedience. It’s easy to see how the story of Noah’s ark serves as a warning to its adherents that people should live righteously, lest they face the unmitigated wrath of God.
Noah’s story continues with his descendants, who had grown powerful and in their prosperity had forgotten the lesson of the great flood. Noah’s great-great grandchildren lived in a world that had one language and a common speech. The people of this great city set out to build a tower to Heaven so they could be like God and would no longer need Him. The story says God came to earth, saw what the people were doing, and freaked the fuck out. In Genesis 11:7, He said, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
And so he did. Gave everyone a different language and scattered them across the planet. And so the story goes, that’s why there are different languages on Earth today.
Not really sure what lesson is to be learned from that story other than that this God fellow is an insecure dick. Imagine a world where God didn’t mess up the common tongue — how much easier it would be to communicate with men and women of different cultures around the globe. And how much easier it would be to quickly spread our made up shit.
But thankfully we still manage to spread our stories. After all, millions of people believe Walt Disney is cryogenically frozen, Pop Rocks and Pepsi killed Mikey from the Life cereal commercials, vaccines cause autism, or that you shouldn’t swim after eating or wake sleepwalkers.
Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and cults all appeal to the same aspect of our humanity. They seek to fill in the void of the unknown. Our innate and infinite inquisitiveness compels us to search for answers. Whether it’s the disappearance of Amelia Earhart or the meaning of life, we can’t stand an open question.
When things don’t go our way — or worse, we don’t even understand how things are going — we’ll grasp at anything to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes it’s easier to drink the Kool-Aid than to accept reality.
Sometimes people just make shit up because they’re batshit crazy.
And sometimes people make shit up with a purpose.
Language, for example, is a human invention developed to accomplish the task of communal living. It came from common groups of people needing to convey a set of desires, which evolved to expressing opinions, arguing those opinions, and ultimately insulting those who don’t believe them.
But one language was just made up by a dude with a keen desire to make the world a better place. In 1887, a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Leyzer Zamenhoff published his “International Language” under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto — or “Dr. Hopeful” in the new language, which came to bear his name: Esperanto. Though it sounds like a Native American tribe, the Esperanto language is based on Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages.
Zamenhoff wasn’t seeking fame or fortune or to simply build a better mousetrap. He developed the language during an era of rising international tensions leading up to the first World War. He hoped a common language would help achieve mutual understanding across nations, ultimately bringing peace and prosperity to the world.
The language boomed during the period between the two World Wars, but faltered after World War II, when English became the de facto international language among emerging economies in the post war industrialization boom.
Esperantism still hung on in pockets, however, as a kind of alternative to Anglo-centric globalization. But by the end of the Cold War, the English language had won.
Esperantism may be down, but it’s not out. According to the Universal Esperanto Association, somewhere between 500,000 and two million people speak Esperanto today. While those numbers may be shy of those who speak Pig Latin or Afrikaans, Esperanto is the world’s most successful actual made up language, with speakers including J.R.R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Jules Verne, Pope John Paul II, and George Soros.
(Speaking of made-up shit: Soros, a progressive billionaire philanthropist and Holocaust survivor who has donated billions of dollars to global causes aimed at reducing poverty and increasing scholarship, has been targeted by crap-spewing hate monger and internet conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Jones, who claims the Sandy Hook massacre was faked, the government is using juice boxes to make children gay, and 9/11 was an “inside job,” routinely claims George Soros is the head of an international “Jewish mafia” that worked with Hitler to exterminate Jews.)
But learning a whole language is hard, and the rewards of Esperantism seem minimal compared to the effort that must be required. Why work so hard on a language that might unite the world, when you can put in far less effort to master an accent that will help divide it?
There’s a moneyed, mellifluous, high church tone that Americans immediately associate with country clubs, brandy, and weekends in the Hamptons.
Some people just sound like money.
It’s a slow and honeyed, non-rhotic accentuation that sounds vaguely — but not quite — British. Its speakers drop their Rs and stretch their vowels, peppering their words with short, clipped T sounds. When the Rs are pronounced, they’re trilled amidst lilting vowels.
This is the Mid-Atlantic Accent. Not to be confused with the traditional accents of Americans who live on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Mid-Atlantic is meant to metaphorically represent a vocal midpoint between British and American speech. It is an amalgamation of elements of American English and British Received Pronunciation.
Which is to say it is a made-up affectation that wasn’t derived from any regional dialect. Rather it was invented (roughly the same time as Esperanto) to convey a new breed of American class and sophistication. Mid-Atlantic speech was taught in private schools in the American Northeast and in acting schools in the first half of the 20th Century.
Early use of the Mid-Atlantic dialect can be heard in recordings of U.S. Presidents Cleveland, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. It was popular in Hollywood at the time of the advent of sound in motion pictures. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn spoke with perfect Mid-Atlantic articulation, which was en vogue at the time as more refined than reality.
The Mid-Atlantic accent’s lifespan closely mirrored that of Esperanto though — both fading from popularity by the end of World War II. The Mid-Atlantic accent survived, however, among patrician intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Alsop — all of whom were raised primarily in the Northeastern United States (and some additionally educated in London). The accent could also be heard in the voices of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Julia Child, George Plimpton, Diana Vreeland, H. P. Lovecraft, and Cornelius Vanderbilt IV.
If your name is Cornelius, Franklin, Gore or H.P., it helps to have an accent to match. The appellations and the intonations together convey a level of wealth and distinction that stand apart from traditional American dialects, and are especially helpful when slurring your opponent in a political debate.
You can learn to speak Mid-Atlantic yourself with the help of Edith Skinner’s Speak With Distinction.
Who knows, it could help you become more influential in all manner of settings, which could be important should you ever desire to make up some shit on your own.
Whether selling deer antler spray or an estimation of the number of stars in the universe, it is important for the champion of the idea to possess some level of influence or credibility. It is better to be a charismatic preacher or certificated expert if you want anyone to buy your made up shit. Because from conspiracy theories to religions, an unproven idea is only as powerful as the number of people who believe it.
It is difficult to differentiate between a religion and a cult. Is the distinction based on either’s number of adherents? One would have to assume that fewer than 100 followers and it’s definitely a cult. But what is the line that must be crossed for it to be accepted as a religion? Perhaps that distinction is based more on time of existence vs. number of followers.
Do cults get tax breaks?
To receive a tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, an organization must have some combination of the following in order to be classified as a church: a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a distinct religious history, an organization of ordained ministers, established places of worship, some form of internal management, and a regular congregation. Seems a well-organized, business-minded cult leader could flip that switch with relative ease.
cult church managed to do just that.
Scientology claims to have roots in the beliefs of “all great religions” dating back to prehistoric man. But as an organization, it was founded in the 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote the church’s holy text, Dianetics.
As outlined in the holy text, Scientologists believe we are all immortal spiritual beings called “thetans,” who inhabit human bodies. Our experiences extend well beyond a single lifetime, and we all have unlimited capabilities that can be unearthed with proper help and guidance. This help and guidance comes in the form of a process called “auditing,” which involves regular, lengthy interrogations, which are designed to elicit responses that can ultimately clear our minds and allow us to reach our ultimate potential.
The process of auditing by itself sounds more like a bastardization of psychotherapy than a religion — probably not enough to receive tax exempt status from the IRS. A proper church, after all, needs a “formal code of doctrine.” Thankfully, as the most prolific author in the world, L. Ron Hubbard had a wealth of stories from which to cull this doctrine.
Hubbard chose the story of Xenu, an evil dictator who ruled the Galactic Confederation 75 million years ago. Facing a massive overpopulation crisis in His galactic territory, Xenu captured 13.5 trillion people, froze them, tossed them into volcanoes on Earth (which by-the-by was then called Teegeeack), and then blew them up with nuclear weapons.
The IRS doesn’t attempt to quantify or validate the claims or beliefs of any organization filing for exemption under 501(c)(3), and so after more than fifty years of legal battles, which included Hubbard fleeing the United States to escape the IRS, the Scientologists won, joining the ranks of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, and dozens of other religious organizations that don’t pay taxes in the United States.
It was a great victory for the human spirit and our boundless ability to make shit up. And who’s to say space wars are any more absurd than aardvarks on an ark?
The Whole Truth
The truth is we don’t know. Not for sure.
Some people believe that about six thousand years ago an all-powerful (but petty) God created the earth in a single week. Some believe we are immortal space people, and some believe lost tribes of Israel wound up in the New World and ordained the United States as God’s chosen country, personally blessed by Jesus.
Faith is a choice. Truth is not. Faith requires a suspension of disbelief. Truth requires scientific rigor and a universal outcome.
Relativists would argue that there are no absolute truths because knowledge, truth and morality all exist only in relation to culture, society or historical context.
But there are objective truths. Regardless of time, place and circumstance, we know the chemical composition of water. We know how gravity works. And we know that light is sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave. We know the Earth is a sphere. These truths can and have been proven by science. But what of the illuminati, the lizard people, or the Steele Dossier?
And so goes one of the basic tenets of philosophy: What is truth?
Any search for this truth must start with a question and be followed by a series of suppositions (i.e. made up shit). The rigors with which the made up shit can be tested and proven will determine its validity.
Cogito Ergo Somewhere Over the Rainbow
French philosopher René Descartes, the father of modern Western philosophy and analytical geometry, set out on this very mission.
To a skeptic, however, Descartes’ quest was tainted from the start. In an unprovable supposition, Descartes believed a divine spirit came to him in three dreams and delivered to him the essence of a new philosophy (and also of analytical geometry). Among the secrets he claimed to have been given by supernatural power was the idea of applying mathematical methodology to philosophy.
In Discourse on Method, Descartes set out to find a set of universal truths that are beyond question.
“All Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principals, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics. By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.”
~ René Descartes
He attempted to wipe away every truth he previously thought he knew and started making shit up. He boiled his starting point down to the acceptance that all he knew for sure was that he was a being who had the power of thought (cogito ergo sum). He further established that he could not trust his senses. Perception was, therefore, unreliable.
Therefore, nothing could be known for sure without deductive reason. Descartes’ meditations on the subject led him down the ontological path to proof of the existence of a benevolent God. God must exist, he argued, because he could imagine such an entity.
Too bad the visions given to Descartes by the divine spirit were not as clear as the ones he was given for mathematics.
It could well be argued that Descartes’ progression from identification of himself as a thinking being to the existence of an all-powerful God is an illogical leap — one that, despite his best efforts, was tainted by his presuppositions. And despite his attempt to pursue philosophical thought in the same manner in which one might solve a math problem, his deductions on the metaphysical cannot be proven the way a mathematical equation can.
If the logic of the “father of modern Western philosophy” is not ironclad, how can we mere mortals expect to find universally satisfactory answers?
Since few of us have the luxury of spending our lives in deep, meditative thought on the notion, we have to either stop and accept whatever other made up shit resonates the most with us, or alternatively dismiss all beliefs and accept that as our reality … or start making up some shit of our own.