Sunday, May 27, 2007

Atheists with Attitude: Books: The New Yorker:

Great portents and disasters turn some minds to God and others away from him. When an unusually bright and long-tailed comet was tracked through the sky in the last two months of 1680, posters and sermons called on Christians to repent. A hen in Rome seemed to confirm that the Day of Judgment was near. On December 2nd, it made an extraordinarily loud cackle and produced an exceptionally large egg, on which could be seen a likeness of the comet, or so it was said. This added to the religious panic. But the comet also sparked a small triumph for rationalism. In the next few years, as Armageddon somehow failed to arrive, a stream of pamphlets across Europe and America argued that heavenly displays were purely natural phenomena. The skeptics won the day. From the eighteenth century onward, no respectable intellectual saw comets as direct messages from God—though there were still some fears that one might eventually hit the earth.