Progressive Airline Mechanics

In an e-mail conversation I had some time ago, a Christian minister attempted to convince me that atheists, despite what they might say, live life on the basis of faith in the same way that Christians do:


The life of faith is not completely irrational, nor is the life of rationality without some degree of faith. It comes down to a fundamental question: In whom do you put your trust?

Every time you get on a plane you trust the mechanics, inspectors, manufacturers and pilots with your life. You do not know if the gauges and indicators were properly manufactured. You have no idea if the mechanics inspected the plane properly. Your pilot could be on drugs. Your sitting in the cabin is an act of faith on your part.

For some definition of "faith", that might be true. But here's the difference: When I fly on a plane, my trust of the mechanics is not based on blind faith, but on strong evidence - the evidence that thousands of airplane flights crisscross the world each day and land safely. Fatal accidents are extremely rare, and when they do happen, government agencies initiate a determined investigation to recover the plane's black box, find out exactly what went wrong and prevent it from ever happening again, often resulting in new safety policies or changes in how airplanes are constructed.

Religion, on the other hand, is most definitely based on blind faith. God does not appear in any visible form or speak in an audible voice to anyone alive today, and the people who claim otherwise are widely agreed to be mentally ill, even by other believers. Every time they go to church, lay believers trust the priests, ministers, and scriptures to truthfully convey God's will to them. Usually they have done no independent research to find out whether the teachings of those authorities are reliable, but even when they have, those efforts are bound to end in frustration, because religious beliefs ultimately do not end in facts, but in guesses, faith, and assumptions. Although religious authorities say that everything that happens unfolds according to God's plan, this statement is untestable, because there is no clear definition of what God's plan is. When a believer's prayers fail to come true, there is no investigation, only pious platitudes offered in lieu of an explanation. When religious beliefs lead to discord and disaster, there is never an attempt to find out why and possibly revise those teachings, only exhortations to pray more and believe more fervently.

These two cases are not even remotely comparable. If the airlines worked like religious people say God works, there would be dozens of flights plunging out of the sky each day, killing thousands of people in fiery crashes; but there would be absolutely no effort by anyone to determine the reason, and when an outraged relative of one of the deceased demanded an explanation, they would be waved off with an excuse such as, "This is progressive airline mechanics. We're improving our planes in multiple ways, gradually," or, "Yes, these are tragedies, but believe us, we want to stop them just as much as you, and soon a day will come when we'll really get to work and then there will never be another airplane crash again," or even, "We have specialized training you don't and know a lot of things you couldn't hope to understand, so just trust us when we tell you that we know what we're doing."

No human being would accept such an explanation from an airline mechanic, of course. That most people seem perfectly happy to accept an exactly equivalent explanation from a priest just goes to show the fundamental illogic of religious belief in general and theodicy in particular.

Again from this Christian's e-mail:

I just don't know why individuals object so much to the POSSIBILITY of faith in God, yet operate with the same TYPE of faith all the time? In whom do you trust?

This is the crucial equivocation. If an atheist has faith, it is only in the sense of being reliant on the evidence to support important conclusions. But the religious person's faith is utterly different, in that it specifically refers to drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence. These two things are not the same type of faith at all.

There is just no rational way to compare trust in human beings - whose existence and abilities are doubted by no one, who can be held to a rigorous and independent standard, and whose behavior in a given situation can usually be understood and explained - with faith in an invisible, silent, absent god, whose motives are inscrutable, who acts for reasons we cannot hope to understand, in ways that are indistinguishable from random chance operating under the scope of natural law. In the latter situation, there is no good reason to think there is any plan at all, much less a planner, and so far religion has given us no evidence that indicates otherwise.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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