Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2004



Many people think of religion as something that happens in a church on a holy day. The religious leaders who speak from the pulpits constantly remind worshippers that God will be with them outside the church, too, but the concept of "listen to a holy man at a religious place and perform the rituals he or she prescribes" is pretty much the core of the conventional definition of religion.

But religion, like most other aspects of human existence, is profoundly affected by technology, and one of those effects has been to spontaneously create new, informal religions. This is an essay on one of those new religions.

That new religion is “Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector” before we fly on an airplane -- more formally known as: Airport security. 

A definition of religion: Attempting to exploit false positives

First let me define religion as I see it. Religion is the engaging in ritual to affect the forces of nature to be more favorable to humanity in general and to the worshipper and those he or she cares about in particular.

This behavior springs from an effort to exploit some of the "false positives" that we observe in the patterns of nature that are around us all the time. False positives are patterns in life we observe that aren’t really there. Seeing “The Man in the Moon” is a good example of seeing a false positive – not seeing a tiger lurking in the grass nearby is an example of seeing a false negative.


The Three Essentials of Religion

Religion has three essentials: Faith, ritual, and sacrifice.

First, a person must have faith that what they do or think can make a difference in the course of world events. The difference may be small, even as small as personally existing for another day, but there must be a personal feeling that "My existence does make a difference."

Second, a religious believer must feel that performing rituals produces a benefit. Rituals are acts that a person undertakes in order to do two things: Demonstrate faith and produce a better future. Consider a prayer before a meal. "Dear God, please bless this food ... ."  What does this do? It takes up some time, and it asks for supernatural intervention to make the world a better place.

Third, generally, for a prayer to work, there must be some sacrifice. The sacrifice can be as small as taking the time to make the prayer, but it is usually much, much larger.  

The difference between science and religion

The goal of science is almost identical to the goal of religion: To make the world a better place for humanity by observing patterns and using those patterns to predict and influence the future. The difference is that science actively tries to exclude false positives from the body of knowledge it uses to make predictions. It is more rigorous in what it will try to predict and more rigorous in expecting a predictable result.

Science did not come into its own as a better predictor of reality than religion until the Industrial Age. As the Age of Steam evolved, science worked much better at predicting the outcome of machine design than religion did. Before that time, science and religion were comparable in their ability to produce good productivity. As steam-powered machinery began to out-produce human- and animal- powered designs, science came into its own.

I remember reading an anecdotal story that, in my mind, highlights the difference between science and religion. As the British were in the process of establishing control over India, they often cooperated with the local rulers by giving them military hardware. One time, they gave a local ruler a cannon. The ruler's soldiers took the cannon and started practicing with it. The British military advisor who came with the cannon noticed that before every shot, the soldiers would say a prayer. His comment was, "They would better spend their time cleaning the cannon than praying over it."

The local soldiers were employing the religious approach to making the cannon work better, and the British advisor was advocating the scientific approach to making it work better. The locals were looking for supernatural help, and the advisor was looking for natural help.

The difference between science and religion is that science calls upon natural forces to influence the world around us, while religion calls upon supernatural forces.

Where science and religion mix

The line between science and religion has never been razor-sharp -- when there is an unknown to be faced, both science and religion can be called upon. These days, when a human distrusts science, he or she turns to religion for answers. When a human distrusts both science and religion, he or she will turn to the root of both: Fortune telling.

Religion and science mix where humans can't put full faith in science. Science is very good at predicting the future in what are now called the "hard sciences", such as physics and chemistry. Science is not so good at predicting the future in what are now called the "soft sciences", such as psychology. So, while priests are rarely invited by engineers to invoke divine intervention into the developing of new software or a new engine, the priest is often invited in to help the psychologist with solving problems such as curing a mentally ill person.

One of the odd places science and religion mix is in flying airplanes.

Religion in Aviation

Aviation is, in theory, one of the "hardest" of design professions. The components of air flight -- electricity and electronics, metals and plastics, air and fuel -- are all well described by scientific theory. The "softest" part of aircraft design and operation is keeping the cargo – humans -- comfortable while the airplane does its thing.

But in spite of this hardness, there's a lot of religion in aircraft operation because much of humanity has an instinctual fear of flying. Historic and prehistoric mankind has always experienced walking, so almost all humans are comfortable with the concept of moving across the ground on foot or on some device that is solidly in contact with the ground.  Evolution weeded out those who were not.

Historic and prehistoric mankind has usually had the opportunity to play around in rivers or on beaches, so many humans are comfortable with the concept of being in or on the water. Many... but this comfort is not as ubiquitous as traveling on the ground; there are many people who fear being in or on water. And finally, very few historic or prehistoric humans have had the opportunity to fly. Before balloons and airplanes, the nearest a human could come to flying was jumping off a rock. The result: There are many humans who are very uncomfortable with the concept of floating above the ground.  Evolution has had no reason to weed out this fear.

The result of this instinctual fear is that the whole process of flying people is a lot "softer" than the airplane design and operation part is. The result of that is that there is a lot more religion in the act of flying than most aviation designers and airplane operators have given thought to.

How Does Religion Express Itself in Aviation?

As stated earlier, religion requires faith, ritual, and sacrifice. Those flyers with an instinctual fear of flying need to perform some ritual that they have faith in, and they need to make some sacrifice. One early way this need for faith was shown was in the travel insurance vending machines that were in airports as early as the fifties. These were a start at providing ritual and sacrifice: Fill out the form and pay money, but they were not enough. They were, in retrospect, a symptom of a powerful need, and that need would blindside the aviation industry seriously in the 2000's.

Why was the industry blind-sided by this need for faith, ritual and sacrifice?

The early adopters of aviation were not people who were afraid to fly. Clear into the 1960's, the number of fliers compared to the total population of traveling people was small. So, people who were afraid of flying always had viable alternatives.

What the early adopters of flying saw was people who were, at first, a little afraid to get on their planes, but these people would lose that fear after one or two flights. This made the early adopters feel that they had successfully met the challenge to the whole problem of people being scared of flying. What they did not notice were the people who flew only once and never returned, or those who never got on in the first place.

But as the sixties rolled by, the percentage of fliers in the traveling population increased and the viable alternatives to flying decreased. Businesspeople who were reluctant to fly found they had to fly or lose business. Vacationers found that their friends who flew gained a couple days of vacation on them, and they would miss out on socializing if they didn't fly.

The result was a lot more people who still had instinctual fears of flying, and would keep those fears, were getting on airplanes and "gritting their teeth" as the plane took off. The first adopters, who now ran the airline companies, didn't notice that this latent fear was still there in their customers, and in more and more of them.

These fearful customers -- now a substantial minority -- needed a religion to make them comfortable with flying. They needed faith, ritual, and sacrifice.

Enter hijacking and terrorism

These growing numbers of uncomfortable flyers did not stand up to the airline companies and demand their rights to a religion because they didn't know what they wanted; they just knew that they were not happy in the air and very happy when they were done with the flying. They were brave people who did not show their fear. But who wants to be brave every week or every month? Brave is nice once in a while, but relief from having to be brave on a regular basis is even nicer.

Hijackers and terrorists have inadvertently provided a means to solve this problem that fearful flyers have. In the forties and fifties, media turned airline crashes into media circuses, and the call went up for the government to do something. The government people were as clueless as the early adopters as to what was motivating this grassroots call for action, but they followed their first instinct, which was to concentrate on airline safety. At first, they concentrated on behind-the-scenes efforts, such as licensing and inspection rules. It wasn't until hijackers and terrorists entered the picture that the religious needs of the fearful flying public were, inadvertently, serviced.

Faith, ritual, sacrifice ... The government began mandating that the airlines and airports increase security. As much as the airlines and airports protested, the high-profile way to do this was to implement "secure corridors" in airports. As these were put in place, the government, airlines, and airports told people, "Now you don't have to worry. Have faith, you are secure." These measures were, in time, supplemented with lots of hardware to help out, such as metal detectors and X-ray machines.

But with each new spectacular crash or hijacking, the public outcry for more security rose. What the airlines and airports discovered was that a substantial minority of people really felt better about flying if they had to stand in line and be searched, and the majority of fliers grumbled, but went along with the ritual.

Faith, ritual, sacrifice ... Now the worriers have a ritual: Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector. The process of completing the ritual takes hours, and it can be very uncertain. This is sacrifice. Now people can worry while they are still on the ground: "Will I get through security OK? Will the plane actually take off?" With modern security procedures in place, people can feel relief when they get on the plane instead of worry!

With ritual and sacrifice, you have laid the foundation for faith, my children. Now you can have faith that worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector will make your plane fly better.

As an indication that faith is still very much involved, try badmouthing the security process while at an airport. The fact that airport security can't take a joke is very much a symptom that it is something that is still built mostly on faith. Most faith-based systems are hypersensitive to criticism, and faith that the Holy Metal Detector will make your plane fly better is no exception.

As an example of a non-faith-based system, try badmouthing your car. See if it stops running or drives you to a police station for questioning.

A second example of the faith-based foundation: At as I left for Korea in March 2004, I was selected for special treatment from the TSA. Along with other things, I was asked to take off my shoes, and the TSA officer then proceeded to wand very carefully around my sock-covered foot. I had watched him do this to other travelers, so I didn't feel singled out, but try as I might, I couldn't imagine what kind of hazardous device I could hide between my foot and a thin sock, so I asked him, "What, specifically, are you looking for on my foot?"

The answer I got back was, "On you? I don't expect to find anything, Sir. But, you know, there are bad people out there. ... "

In other words, he did not answer my question. He evaded it with priestly mumbo-jumbo. If the system was built on fact, not faith, he would have been able to give me a straightforward answer.

What should the aviation industry have done? What can it do now?

Faith-based systems can be dismantled, but it's often a long and difficult process. In the case of the airline industry, the first step has to be recognition that the industry is dealing with a problem of an instinctual fear of flying -- a faith problem -- not a problem of terrorism or hijacking.

What the industry needs to do is design a faith system that allows those with fears to be comforted -- allowed to perform ritual and sacrifice -- while not inconveniencing those without fears. The other challenge is that the believers cannot see themselves as fools for engaging in their ritual and sacrifice while others around them don't. This is not as impossible as it sounds; this is the heart of all religious tolerance.

Because a robust faith system was not in place before 9-11, the industry was blind-sided by the screams for more security following 9-11, and the industry is now well on its way to marginalization, compared to what it would be if the security/faith issue could be solved.

Parameters for a Robust Faith System for Flying (RFSfF)

The Robust Faith System for Flying (RFSfF) will have the following goals.

Breaking the linkage between anti-terrorism and feeling safe

One big step an RFSfF needs to take is decoupling the linkage between having massive, intrusive on-ground airport security and the feeling of safe flying. But if the ostensible reason for all that security is to deal with terrorists, how should terrorists be dealt with?

Addressing the anti-terrorist part of the problem, when there is no religion involved, is amazingly simple and cheap. A cost effective way to deal with terrorists is to empower passengers to deal with them. As I have pointed out in my “Memorable Disasters” essay, the terrorists who took over the 9-11 planes did it with harsh language, not box cutters. They did have box cutters, but it was their intimidating manner, not the box cutters, that let them control the plane.

The disaster happened because the passengers did not act against the terrorists. Had the passengers acted, as they did in plane four, the terrorists would not have succeeded in producing a disaster-of-the-century and in changing the course of world history. Why didn't the passengers act? Because they've been told repeatedly not to act. Up until now the airlines and the government have felt that hijacking was something trained airline personnel should handle, not amateur passengers.

This worked reasonably well as long as the terrorists were never suicidal. Now that some are, the system has broken down seriously, and the cost of flying, in terms of comfort, cost, certainty, and time, has skyrocketed.

The Cheap (and Good) Fix

Terrorism and hijackings are one-in-a-million events. Anti-terrorist measures should take this into account. Instead of thoroughly searching every passenger and every piece of luggage for every flight, we should be empowering passengers to do deal with those one-in-a-million hijackings that do occur. How do we do that? With the pre-takeoff training session: The same one where all fliers are told how to deal with one-in-a-million cabin depressurizations and one-in-a-million crashes in the water. Simply add to that session, "In the unlikely event of a hijacking attempt, passengers should ... (fill in with whatever the government/airlines want passengers to do to foil hijackings)”. This will work as long as the government sanctioned action is not, “Sit back and do nothing; your trained airline personnel will take care of this delicate situation."

This is an appropriate fix for a one-in-a-million problem. It produces uncertainty for the aspiring terrorist (some of the passengers will act against them, but how many is unknown), and this uncertainty of passenger compliance with their threats will discourage those who are cold-bloodedly planning mayhem. The training allows passengers to handle any spontaneous, amateurish attempts very neatly. All this good solution can be ours for the cost of adding a couple more paragraphs in a training session.

The biggest downside to this solution is that the flying community and the media must become tolerant of false positives happening on airplanes because there will be many. Headlines of "Innocent Passenger Injured by Fellow Passengers" cannot provoke an "I'm outraged what Janet Jackson did at the Superbowl, and we need to see that it never happens again"-like response, or this solution won't work.

Also, this solution will not work in a vacuum. The root of the security crisis problem is that many fliers need a ritual and sacrifice to ease their discomfort with flying, and listening to another couple of paragraphs in the already tedious pre-takeoff training session is not adding enough ritual or sacrifice.

There must be more to this new informal religion, and it must be believable.

L. Ron Hubbard, where are you now when we really need you!

(L. Ron Hubbard founded the modern religion of Scientology.)


People's tolerance for the cumbersome airline security procedures that are in place now is a symptom of a deeper need. The need is not for more airline security, it is a need to address an instinctual, generalized fear of flying that many people have.

This fear can be addressed by recognizing that instinctual fear is something that religion deals with better than science, and in this case, an informal religion has already sprung up to address the need. That religion is “Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector”.

Religion is built on faith, ritual, and sacrifice. The way to deal with the post 9-11 airport security crisis is to develop a more robust and convenient faith system (religion) for fearful fliers, not more security systems. We need a way that fearful flyers can engage in ritual and sacrifice which they can have faith in and that less fearful fliers do not need to be encumbered with. (This is religious tolerance.)

We need better flying-religion systems, not more security systems.

-- The End --