No theists at 30,000 feet

May 12, 2011 • 6:34 am

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.

28 thoughts on “No theists at 30,000 feet

  1. Nicely put. I often use flying at 30,000′ to convey similar ideas. If a pilot asked you mid-flight for permission to switch to the “quantum-consciousness engines”, would you say yes? Smartphones are also nice props to suggest that, even on the ground, we are all rational materialists.

    1. He was convicted of manslaughter by an Italian court, and sentenced to ten years in prison.

      GCM

      1. Glad to hear that he was convicted, although I wonder if he had been catholic whether the result would have been the same.

  2. No atheists at 30,000 ft? Srsly? The person who said that must have been a theist with fear of flying, and a tendency to project. At 30,000 feet, I’m generally either bored, cramped, suffering sinus headache from dry air, strung out from sleep disruption; or reasonably comfortable and happy if I’ve managed to mitigate all the previous; but never more religious than I was at the boarding gate, or afterwards at the baggage claim.

    1. “No atheists at 30,000 ft? Srsly? The person who said that must have been a theist with fear of flying, and a tendency to project”

      Funny you should say that. A few years ago, a theist commented on a Pharyngula post that atheists had to have faith that airplanes wouldn’t crash or else they wouldn’t get on airplanes.

      1. It’s an equivocation on the word “faith”, with intent to sow confusion. We have “faith”, ie. inductively justified belief, in the laws of aeronautics, the competence of aircraft builders, the training of pilots, the regulatory framework that keeps everyone in the system (reasonably) honest, etc. Between that background knowledge and the statistics that show flying is safer than driving to the airport, we know the chances are very good we will arrive safely at our destination. Yes, there is an irreducible residue of risk — we know that accidents do happen. Is our choice to ignore that small chance of dying also a kind of “faith”? (ie. the a-rational decision to act in a way that assumes a good outcome, even in the presence of uncertainty). I think more could be said on that point, but even granting it does not warrant construing all knowledge claims as epistemtically equivalent, that your faith in Jesus is just as good as my “faith” that I will survive my next plane flight, that therefore atheists are just as “faith-filled” as the looniest fundamentalist.

        1. I view it more as confidence than faith – I’m confident that airplanes work most of the time, and don’t crash all that often. In addition, the latter just isn’t something I think about when I get into an airplane, just as I don’t usually think about the possibility of crashing my car when I start it up. Just because an activity is objectively risky doesn’t mean everyone automatically fears doing it. If that were the case, nobody would ever take heroin.

          1. I also prefer terms like “confidence”. Colloquially though, people sometimes use “faith” as a near synonym (eg. “I have faith in the system”), thus enabling the equivocation.

  3. “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.”

    Sorry, but it’s a false choice and displays no more wit than the other bit about no atheists at 30,000′.

    1. From my point of view both as a passenger and a pilot (Cessna Skyhawk 172), I don’t see this as a false choice at all.

      There is nothing magical about what keeps an aircraft from impacting the ground at high speed, and any pilot that did not have an appreciation for evidence based rational inquiry combined with a solid background in meteorology, turbulent air flow over smooth surfaces, gyroscopic precession (why does the aircraft rotate to the right on the z axis when you apply power to a propeller rotating on the x axis ?) etc would soon be a dead pilot.

      Which reminds me of the hoary old joke the instructor told us in flight school, “I want to die in my sleep like my grand father, not screaming in terror like his passengers”.

    2. Sure, one can be a perfectly contented theist at 30,000 feet — but that’s entirely superfluous to what’s keeping one safely in the air. Turns out, theism seems to be superfluous to pretty much everything important (including morality) except possibly the emotional state of the theist.

      The worst the headline of this post can be accused of is hyperbole to make a point.

  4. A dark blue coat and sky blue pants has been the officer dress uniform for the Army since at least the sixties when I wore one. The AirCav guys also wore spurs with their dress uniform.

  5. True story: I took flying lessons several years ago (just enough to solo before I ran out of time and money — it’s a very expensive hobby).

    In any event, on one training flight, we developed serious engine trouble. My flight instructor took over the handling while I set the transponder to 7-7-7-7 (basically, the setting to let the folks on the ground know where to bring the mops and shovels). I was instructed to look for a field to land “just in case”.

    We limped back to the airport safely.

    But at no time during that whole process did the thought of a god enter my mind. At no time did I seek the intervention of an imaginary friend. At no time did it ever occur to me that such a thing would be an appropriate action.

    My full attention was on the tasks at hand.

    Atheists at 30,000 feet, indeed (although I was only at about 6,000 feet when all the hugga-mugga happened.).

  6. The “No atheists in foxholes” saying is one of the very few that reliably gets a rise out of me. If you’re facing a determined enemy intent on harming you and your troops and you think the most useful thing you can do is pray, then you suck.

    1. That’s the version that I remember and I think it can easily be disproved.

      If you’ve been in a foxhole, or in a trench for weeks, deafened by gunfire, wet, cold and hungry and seen your best friend’s face blown off and your brother blinded and maimed for life, what is more likely – that you pray to God or that you come out of that hell an atheist?

      The good, the pure in heart, those who pray are stricken down no less often than the mean spirited, the greedy and the downright bad. How can anyone watch those around him die horribly and totally at random and go on thinking that it all serves some vast eternal plan beyond his comprehension?

      People may come out of that horrible experience believing in God perhaps through some divine grace or schizophrenia or a strictly religious upbringing or just stupidity, I do not know, only if they do, surely it cannot be because of the foxhole but in spite of it.

      The idea that nightmares like that make people believe in God is nonsensical – unless it can be shown that belief in God is a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in which case, surely a better aphorism would be, “There are no sane people in foxholes,”?

  7. 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.

    OMG! Dawkins believes in the literal truth of the Icarus myth. (spoof.) He fails to mention that Icarus’ wings only failed because he exceeded the design specifications, and that Daedelus managed just fine.

  8. love it…my facebook profile has had that saying in the ABOUT ME section since I logged on years ago… many people have not gotten what it means. Definitely my favorite quote by Richard.

  9. That god-is-my-copilot thing didn’t work out so well for the captain of EgyptAir Flight 990 in October 1999 — the one who returned to the cockpit just in time to struggle unsuccessfully with his co-pilot, who was chanting the “Tawakilt ala Allah” farewell prayer while plunging their Boeing 767 into the Atlantic just east of Nantucket: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/jun/09/egyptaircrash.usa

  10. OT: GCM, I was So glad to read your letter in the NYT book review Sunday. I’ve been livid ever since reading that ludicrous cheap shot at Lubchenco from that lame-ass reviewer…

Leave a Reply