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On Imaginary Things

I visited the Greenwich Royal Observatory recently, home of Greenwich Mean Time, and had occasion to think about imaginary things.

As you probably already know, Greenwich is home of the Prime Meridian of the world (Longitude 0o).  The Prime Meridian is the basis of Greenwich Mean Time, which in turn provides the references for all 24 time zones.  Each new day officially dawns in Greenwich and has done since 1884, before which standardized time didn’t matter so much because there wasn’t a lot of long-distance travel and every locality kept to their own local time.  Then railways came in, often with single tracks, and it suddenly became very important to know exactly where all the locomotives were at what time, which meant a standard central time system so they didn’t go zooming into one another all the time in what would have been a totally unamusing way.  (You can read all sorts of interesting facts about the Prime Meridian, Greenwich Mean Time and such things at the Greenwich Royal Observatory website.)

Though they don’t use this word on the website, all around the Royal Observatory they frequently refer to the Prime Meridian (and in fact every meridian) as an imaginary line.  Meridians are completely arbitrary; the Prime Meridian could have been anywhere in the world, it’s historical happenstance that it ended up at Greenwich.  However, without them, we wouldn’t be able to make accurate star maps, or divide the world into time zones that facilitate international communications and trade, or navigate accurately.

While I was at the observatory I called to mind a conversation in which I’d taken part a few years previously.  I was visiting a friend who studies genetics at Queen Mary University of London.  Some of her lab-mates began talking about religion.  I have a vague notion that this was prompted by them asking about my field of study and discovering that I’m at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, but I’m not certain.

One of them, in the course of this conversation, began to expound upon the theme that it is very strange that in this modern era of science and technology people still continue to believe in God or gods as the case may be.  This was much to the approval of several of the other members of the conversation.  “It’s like, ‘Hello, imaginary invisible space man!’  Honestly, it defies reason.”

I was deeply offended by this.  Not because I am myself very religious, but my friend the geneticist is.  Obviously unlike the meridians, she would never refer to God as imaginary.  (At least I don’t think so.  We don’t talk about this very much, to be honest.)  But even if, like me, you are not a believer, it should not be that difficult to see that this thing which could be perceived as imaginary is still a vital force in people’s lives around the globe.  Imaginary is not the same as unimportant, or frivolous, or unreasonable.

Dismissing religion is a personal choice, but to refuse to engage with anyone who is religious, and to dismiss them as somehow less intellectually capable is more than just condescendingly ignorant.  It’s also very sad.  Because such people are cutting themselves off from all the richness and human variety that the world has to offer.  (This is why I’ve always felt a touch sorry for Richard Dawkins.)

I’m not saying that when I see Mormons (or Scientologists) with nametags approaching me on the street, I don’t suddenly find that I have an extremely urgent phone call that can’t be put off, with much apologetic hand-waving.  I’ve no wish to be prosteletysed to–I’ve heard the arguments and they don’t convince me.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t see how meaningful and wonderful it is for them.  Nor that we could never find common ground.

And most religious people would probably be pretty offended by me calling something that gives them a source of guidance (or whatever they take from their faith) imaginary.  That’s what I was thinking about as I, like so many tourists before me, hopped across the Prime Meridian: imaginary, and also completely vital to the everyday workings of every human on the planet.

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