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Meditation 312
Misplaced Faith

To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments. Meditation 319 provides another perspective on the issues raised here.

In May of 1986, my job, then in Ottawa, required me to go to Edmonton for a few days. Edmonton is home to the West Edmonton Mall, the world's largest[1] indoor shopping centre. And in that shopping centre, is the Mindbender which was then[2] the world's largest triple-loop indoor roller coaster.

Of course I had to ride it.

The ride had only been open for two months, and the line-up was long. The organizers had cunningly made sure the queue was predominantly after buying a ticket, rather then before. Get the money before people realize how long they have to stand around and wait.

This gave me ample time to observe the roller coaster in action for a number of circuits. I came to realize that people were behaving differently on this roller coaster than those I had gone on before. They were not throwing their hands in the air; they were gripping the bar in front of them as tightly as possible. They were not screaming; they were riding with their jaws clenched. And at the end of the ride, most people were white faced. They had been truly scared.[3]

Naturally, I started wondering "Is this thing safe?"

So I started rationalizing away my doubts. The engineers who designed this just had to know what they were doing. There had to be government regulations for roller coasters. The ride just had to have met government safety regulations. There had to be regular and frequent safety inspections. All maintenance and routine procedures had to be double if not triple checked. The owner's insurance company had to have requirements that everything possible be done to ensure safety. Potential legal liability had to make sure the owner would operate the ride responsibly. I had no certain knowledge that any of these rationalizations was true; but the fact the ride was actually operating supported the idea. I did not know, I had faith.

I took the ride. It was the first time I'd done a triple loop on a roller coaster. It was exciting. I enjoyed it. I was happy I had rationalized away my doubt.

Two weeks later, 3 people died on this same roller coaster.

As it turned out, the rationalizations I had made were incorrect. Those things on which I had based my faith in the safety of the ride were not in place.[4]

I was just lucky that my faith had not placed me in the same situation two weeks later.

I sometimes write as if the difference between believers and non-believers is faith. That is not true when we consider "faith" in its broadest sense. We all need faith to get through the routine of our lives. We can't know everything for certain: we have faith in the safety of the food we buy, we faith in the safety of transportation systems; we have faith in the skill of our physicians; etc.

But, this type of faith is built up by real world experience. Even when such faith turns out to be misplaced, the test of experience shows that it was reasonable to have had such faith.

The difference between believers and non-believers is faith in the narrower sense - religious faith or belief in a deity. And this type of belief, in my view though believers may see it differently, is not based on real world experience. It is based on myth.

Footnotes:

  1. Canadians, as part of our national inferiority complex, have a penchant for things called "world's largest." Medicine Hat, where I lived at time of writing this, is home to the world's largest teepee.
  2. It may still be.
  3. In retrospect, it is more likely that the apparent fear most people were feeling was due to unfamiliarity with this type of roller coaster. It was very new. It is not currently considered one of the world's scariest roller coasters.
  4. After being closed for over a year to make necessary changes, the ride was reopened and it has operated safely since then. The safety regime I rationalized into place to get myself to ride now actually exists