15 August 2006

Thou Shalt Not Golf

I hate contemporary Christian music. At church last week, the band sang a couple of new songs (a rare occurrence, but it was also a new band). One of the songs included a line about how God "has told every lightning bolt where it should go."

God controls every bolt of lightning?!!! WTF!

Now, I know this is only a song, and it's not taken from the bible itself or anything the pastor said that day (in the bible, God only explicitly controls lightning on occasion); however, the pastor didn't veto that line in the song, so I assume that he doesn't have a problem with it. With that view in mind, I consider that line to be fair game.

And fair game it is. Whoa-boy, that's a doozy of a thing to accuse God of doing.

Lightning strikes kill an average of 73 people a year in the US, and injure hundreds more.

Check out the National Geographic article linked above. It's scary: if God controls every single lightning bolt, he's killing a lot of people, mainly those who enjoy outdoor sports, like golf, hiking, and camping.

So why the vendetta against golfers?

Well, it turns out that God may not be controlling where lightning strikes after all. You see, though incomplete, the science of lightning is rather well understood. Lightning is a mechanism for the quick equalization of electrical charge between the atmosphere and the ground. As such, the electricity requires a path, favouring one that offers the least resistance. Solid objects, like steel poles, trees, and even people offer less resistance to electrical current than air. Consider this quote from the National Geographic interview with Vladimir Rakov, an electrical engineer and lightning expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville:

As for the question as to whether or not lightning can strike the same place twice, Rakov says that the answer depends on what kind of place that is.

Statistically, he said, during cloud-to-ground lightning, the channel of discharge is merely looking for a place on the ground, which is a random act assuming the ground is flat and geologically uniform.

For example, Rakov says that one square meter of terrain in a flat Florida field gets hit by lightning once every 100 millennia, thus if that area gets hit, it would not be hit for another 1,000 human generations, which he considers in all practical purposes to be never.

The reality, however, is that the ground is not uniform and lightning is attracted to certain ground features and not to others. "From a lightning point of view, yes, it does strike the same place many times, particularly if it is a tall structure," said Rakov.
So this leads to a rather startling conclusion:

God doesn't control where lightning strikes; WE DO.

Or rather, while still being dangerous and chaotic, we can influence where lightning strikes due to our understanding of how lightning operates. Benjamin Franklin was the first to figure this out. Noting that you can influence lightning so that it will tend to strike a tall metal object more than a surrounding low area, he invented the lightning rod. Along those same lines, the CN Tower, 553 m (1815 ft) high in the heart of Toronto, is struck by lightning a stupefying 75 times a year!

(Photo source)

So God has no vendetta against golfers. Holding a metal club in the air, a golfer runs the risk of providing the lowest-resistance path for electrical current in a storm.

I never figured that God, who controls every lightning strike, would choose to give up control so easily.

This is just one example of the God of the Gaps receding in the face of scientific inquiry. By treating the world as rational, by hypothesizing, experimenting, and coming up with theories that fit observations, humanity has eliminated the superstition associated with nature and replaced it with understanding (at least for the segment of the population that chooses to embrace a rational and impartial world). This understanding saves more lives than any prayer for safety in a storm ever could.

The idea that we don't know anything about lightning strikes reeks of an anti-naturalistic world view: a view rooted in the Dark Ages that embraces mysticism and fear. It makes me sad that so many religious people have such a low opinion of human knowledge that they are stuck in the stone age: "Remember kids, rain is God crying, wind is God exhaling (a foul wind is God farting), and if you're bad, God may hit you with a lightning bolt!"

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At October 31, 2006 10:38 p.m., Anonymous Michael said...

Eh....God never strikes anyone with lightning out of vengence...They just wandered too close while He was playing with his Tesla Coil. (Nikola Tesla and God are good friends...)

At March 04, 2012 12:27 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wet blanket time. Using the view that God created the earth (which for some strange reason I believe the band who used this line holds to) God created the rules for how lightning strikes. Voila, he controls it. If I would creat a video game where an arrow shoots at the character at a certain trajectory when the character passes certain points, I control the arrows. If God made the rules, he controls it. Plus, if you go by what most Christians believe, he can change the rules up at any time. Hopefully this doesn't look like grabbing some cheap, easy answer, because it simply applies logic to a set of rules the Christian believes in. As his highness (the aardvark) isn't Christian and like most people sees what he wants to see, it's no wonder he doesn't bother looking through it in that perspective. Anyways, great and funny post.


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