by Greg Mayer
I mentioned to Jerry a while back that I’d heard somewhere the phrase “there are no atheists at 30,000 feet” (i.e. in an airplane), but that it’s actually just the opposite: anyone in a plane off the ground is fervently attached to Bernoulli’s principle, Newton’s laws, fluid dynamics, etc. At 30,000 ft., everyone is a rational materialist, and you damn well better make sure your pilot is, too. (Unlike the infamous Tuninter airline pilot in Italy a couple of years ago “who paused to pray instead of taking emergency measures before crash-landing his plane, killing 16 people”; the praying pilot survived.)
I was reminded of this by PZ’s recent post about his son, who is a Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry*, which drew some comments about foxholes. I decided to try to track down the source of the airplane phrase and reaction to it, and, as I’d suspected, Richard Dawkins was the source (although I might have first read it as quoted by the behavioral ecologist John Krebs). My recollection of it was a bit mangled. Here’s what Dawkins wrote in River Out of Eden (1995, pp. 31-32):
Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principles and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icarus don’t.
So, he was addressing cultural relativism, but I think the point holds for theism as well. And I also found that the original phrase is usually stated as there are “no atheists on airplanes crashing from 30,000 feet”, but I think the Tunisian pilot story puts paid to the idea that that might be a good thing.
*Although Lt. Myers wears crossed sabers and an all-blue uniform, there actually aren’t any horse soldiers in the U.S. Army anymore. The army has recently adopted a blue service uniform (reminiscent of Civil War uniforms), and cavalry insignia are used for certain armored units.