Americans believe some wacky stuff. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15% of our fellow citizens believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.” 25% believe that witches are real. And two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world” (which is the intellectual equivalent of claiming your dog is an alien who invented time).
Those stats are a little scary, but compare them with what an educated Englishman would have believed in the 1500’s:
He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea. . . . He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England—he knows they are to be found in Belgium. . . . He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians. . . . He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.
Wow. Mice are definitely not spontaneously generated in piles of straw.
He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind.
This guy sounds like the drunkest possible uncle at Thanksgiving.
He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone knows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. He believes the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. He believes that dreams predict the future, if we know how to interpret them. He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours.
"A century and a third later," Steven Pinker commented, "an educated descendant of this Englishman would believe none of these things.”
The average person today is far more rational and informed than just two centuries ago.
That's a fact worth celebrating.