"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in everything," wrote English author GK Chesterton.
It's a rather apt description of many God-sneering Australians who've turned their back on organised religion but embraced the kooky catch-all of "spirituality".
Aside from "pull my finger", the line guaranteed to get me exiting a conversation is "I'm really spiritual". The speaker often thinks this marks them as open-minded or non-conformist but to my ear signifies someone willing to believe endless varieties of horseshit.
Astrology, animal allies, auras, aromatherapy, astral travel, Ayurvedic healing - that's just the nonsense I could think of beginning with the letter A - there's truly no irrationality that won't find gullible adherents expressing an eerily similar certainty to that of many church-going faithful.
As any scientist will tell you, certainty is the enemy of reason. Some of science's greatest "truths" are at best provisional, destined to be found wrong when future discoveries lead to new "facts". For all its advances, science still can't answer enduring questions such as "the meaning of life", "what happens when we die?" and "what is a human soul?".
What it can reliably tell us, however, is that a vial of water, a coffee grounds enema or crystal pressed to your forehead will not cure headaches, let alone cancer. This is why a knowledge of science is indispensable for scattering silly fantasy and its sillier disciples.
The Chesterton quote above comes from a recent article by T. Michael Ellis in the Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, a century-old organisation whose mission is to "support reason against prejudice, science against superstition, evidence against blind faith".
A former member of the association, Ellis believes Australians are increasingly scientifically illiterate and thus lack the education to spot hokum.
"Children leave school not knowing a single thing about science. I'd hazard a guess only one person in about 10,000 in this country would know precisely why there are seasons*," writes Ellis.
"And yet this is 450 years after Galileo, and 2200 years after Erastosthenes! This is simply not acceptable in a first world country ... [and] leads to a much wider problem than religion, namely widespread superstition."
Superstition is "belief entertained regardless of reason or knowledge", and it multiplies. Once you believe the planet Pluto can influence your love life and finances, it's easier to accept fluoridated drinking water harms you, immunisation causes autism, sugar is a poison or anthropogenic climate change is not happening.
You don't have to be an idiot to entertain any of these fashionable delusions, however, you do need to be scientifically ignorant. Precious few credible scientists still argue against man-made climate change or affirm such bull's wool as iridology, homeopathy, reflexology or meridian therapy.
Worryingly, there are millions of Aussies who do.
"Education used to be centred on the three Rs, but today we live in the scientific age. We should be concentrating on RRRS," writes Ellis, suggesting General Science should be compulsory for all students up to Year 10.
"For those not specialising in one of the sciences (such as biology, geology, chemistry or physics), General Science should still be compulsory until Year 11 (and must be passed).
"When society is scientifically literate, religion and superstition wither away," writes Ellis.
The weed, he argues, is scientific ignorance, the roots of which die when exposed to reason and logic and take with them a host of nutty falsehoods best left in fairytales and magic shows.
*Earth experiences seasons because it is tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees.
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