The Local Yarn

Jillette’s Wipeout Test

“If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.”

We might call this the “wipeout test”. It is true that no religion would pass it, and that the laws of physical science probably would. But interestingly, this doesn’t actually say anything about a religion’s value or truth. It just reflects that a religion is more purely(2) a product of complex relationships between particular people.

I can illustrate this by applying the wipeout test to Canadian Culture, for example. If every single trace of Canadian Culture died out and nothing were passed on, it would never come back. This is because Canadian culture, like a religion, is the product of a complex history of the interaction of millions of limited human perspectives and their relationships. This says nothing about the value of Canadian culture. It doesn’t make sense to say that because of the wipeout test, Canadian Culture is somehow “false”.

Of course, many religious people would prefer to think their religion and gods are uniquely knowable apart from the people that describe them. And of course this is what Jillette is pushing back against. But I think maybe there are, or could be, things — contingent, irreproducible things — stories, cultures, even gods — that are valuable to us, and help us understand true things about ourselves, even though they would never survive Jillette’s test.

  1. Via
  2. Science, too, is, in large part, a product of complex relationships between humans.