About Those Gods Who Built the Canals on Mars…

…and their die-hard apologists—who look SO familiar 

On the evening of 30 October 1938, CBS Radio’s The Mercury Theatre, broadcast a dramatization H.G. Wells’s novel War of the Worlds. The program was presented in the form of news bulletins, and many listeners became terrified: It sounded, for all the world, like a Martian invasion was under way.

Panic was so widespread that it made the front page of the New York Times. The broadcast had begun with this chilling declaration:

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

Why did the ominous words about the world being watched sound plausible? So plausible that an alien invasion even seemed possible? Well, the world had been prepared for this scenario—at least in part—by the imagination and life work of Percival Lowell.

Lowell was a Bostonian aristocrat who enjoyed a distinguished career as a specialist on Japanese culture. For the last 25 years of his life, though, he indulged his fascination with Mars. He built a telescope in Arizona to study Mars, and made detailed drawings of our nearest neighbor in the solar system. He was sure he saw extensive canals, and he imagined that an ancient and advanced Martian civilization was engaged in a massive engineering project to redistribute water from the Martian polar caps. He was not shy in broadcasting his conclusions, and the lore about very smart Martians grew in the popular imagination. In fact, H.G. Wells himself was at least partially inspired by Lowell’s work.

Today, of course, Mars has been studied more than any other planet in the solar system. Throughout the 20th century telescopes and photography improved, and dozens of probes have been sent to Mars. Every square kilometer of its surface has been mapped, and our robots have been crawling over the barren landscape for more than a decade. Indeed, the terrain is fascinating, but we now know that there are no canals. There is no life at all. Lowell had been seeing things, perhaps imperfections in the telescope lens or atmospheric aberrations, but he had been dead wrong. The ancient and advanced Martian civilization has been falsified. It existed only in Lowell’s imagination, and got wiped out by real information.

A Lesson Here for Apologists

Now here’s a thought experiment to bring home the truth about the perennial apologist enterprise. What if Percival Lowell’s enthusiasm about Martian canal builders had spawned a religion? We know from the history of human gullibility that it doesn’t take much to get people to bow down and worship something new. People used to think that Mars itself was a god. So a cult could have emerged—let’s call it Marcanalism—about a pantheon of clever Martian gods who reengineered a planet, and with whom humans could communicate telepathically. Human imagination could have filled in hundreds of details about the Martian gods.

Just one exceptionally zealous human claiming to discover encrypted golden plates once buried in a New York meadow by Martian explorers could have attracted millions of followers in no time, with temples and bureaucracies, priests and squeaky-clean door-to-door missionaries to promote the new one-true-religion. The Marcanal elders could have lifted a lot from the Mormon playbook!

Everything was going just swell until really smart engineers on Earth built bigger telescopes to peer at Mars and sent robot rovers to snoop around its desolate plains, finding not so much as a weed. It turns out that there are no canals or Martian engineers, no Martians or any life at all. The place is barren and dead, but with enough atmosphere to whip up blinding dust storms. The busy earth-bound engineers have continued their probing and suspect that, aeons ago, water may have flowed. Their search for life on the Red Planet, even microbial Martians, continues.

But the earth-bound Marcanalists are not 
about to take all of this denial and negativity lying down. They know that their Martian deities are real. They testify passionately to the personal relationships they have with these deities who reside just one orbit away. It’s insulting to say that they have been imagining everything. All the outside skeptics—those who don’t appreciate the subtlety and beauty of true Marcanalism, and the personal rewards of the faith—just don’t get it.

And, of course, there are highly trained Marcanalist apologists who do a mighty job of explaining why Marcanalism isn’t a bunch of hooey. Why, all those canals that Percival Lowell saw have since been buried by colossal sandstorms. The Martian engineer-saints have taken refuge in vast underground caverns out of sight from prying telescopes and rovers. The Marcanalist apologists even claim that their faith has deep roots in the Roman worship of Mars. Ordinary Romans prayed to the same deities modern Marcanalists do.

Naturally, there has been a massive cover-up of the truth by NASA. Occasionally NASA slips up and leaves the evidence for Marcanalism in full view: The famous “face mountain” photo clearly shows a remnant of the engineering glory that once was. A walking figure can be spotted in another. Just look closely at thousands of Mars photos: Numbers and letters can be seen etched on stones. Of course, NASA scoffs at these phenomena. But if it can fake a Moon landing, it can fake or slant the evidence to falsify Marcanalism.

Christian and Marcanal Apologists: Birds of a Feather

The marching orders to apologists from all ecclesiastical authorities is precisely the same: Build the case—against all odds and evidence—that our one-true-faith remains intact, immune to all assaults from science, reason, and common sense.

Christian apologists are recruited from the ranks of true believers who are heavily invested emotionally and whose thinking will never budge. They sing from the same choir book: “No, No, No–We’re not wrong!” They’d rather put their hands in a fire than fess up that cherished dogmas have been falsified. Indeed, their brains are so wired that they cannot do so. Hence they qualify perfectly as apologists. They will never waver. It’s postman piety: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press. Today's post is an excerpt from the final chapter of the book.