To help my international students understand English better, I regularly translate English measurements into metric: a yard to a meter; an ounce to a gram etc. It’s an easy process, abetted if necessary by using the computer. Of course, as we all know, the U.S. is the largest country in the world not to use the metric system. I just didn’t realize until recently that God was involved in the decision not to join everyone else.
The metric system was developed in France in the late 1700s during the revolution that overthrew the monarchy. The leaders wanted everything to be equal, including measurements. Before that time, businesses worked with a dizzying array of measurements, which varied around the globe and even from one city to the next in the same country. As a result, cheating was rampant.
The French were determined to change that. They chose the word “meter” from a Greek word meaning "measure" to stress the universality of the measurement. Kilogram was coined the same way. Terminology was the easy part. The actual process of creating a scientifically acceptable system took years to complete. After all, what is the perfect measurement that could be replicated over and over again?
After decades of debate and effort, countries around the world finally accepted the metric system. The U.S. was expected to join, especially since one of its leading intellects, Thomas Jefferson (left), originally promoted the idea.
It has never happened.
National leaders tried. They pushed educational programs, believing that schoolchildren taught the metric system would eventually lead the country in that direction. The need was evident. As machinery grew more complex, tolerances became narrower. To work properly, equipment had to be calibrated on such a narrow margin that nearly perfect measurements were absolutely required. The English system was simply not exact enough.
It had been developed – as names implied – by random measurements of the human body. A “foot’ was the length of the king’s foot, and so on. No one knew exactly how long a “yard” was, an “inch,” or the amount in a gallon.
Initially, every attempt to move to the metric system was thwarted by a handful of politicians sure the cost of conversion would outweigh the benefits. Then, in the late 1800s, as Congress finally debated the issue, God intervened. Or, at least, religious fanatics did on His behalf.
As author Robert Crease noted in his book on the history of measurements, “The extreme anti-metric system was born in Ohio and exhibited the classic signs of American antireform moments: xenophobia, rapid rhetoric, fabrication of ‘facts,’ reimagining history, conspiracy theories and appeals to the purity of nature and nation.”
In the 1800s, they claimed to oppose the metric system because, Crease added, they were supposedly “patriots, capitalists, Christians and adherents to God, country and nature.”
Sound familiar? These are the ancestors of today’s purveyors of religious ideas whose snake oil claims still drench American life.
Objections to metrics were based on the Great Pyramid (left) in Egypt, which supposedly contained secret knowledge. In their view, the pyramid was designed by some Israelite, possibly Noah, who was following God’s directions. As a result, the pyramid contained the “measure of man” created divinely to guide mankind.
One anti-metric opponent, John Taylor, claimed the pyramid “was an altar to the Lord in the middle of Egypt.”
It was, another adherent wrote, “a Bible in stone, a monument of science and religion never to be divorced.”
By adopting the metric system, Piazzi Smith added, the French “did ... formally abolish Christianity, burn the Bible, declare God to be non-existent, a mere invention of priests, and institute worship of humanity, or of themselves.”
Under that logic, the choice became one between the God-given system – the American version of it, of course – or the artificial metric system developed by mankind in defiance of heaven.
No one can be surprised to learn that the facts about the pyramid that such logic was based on were wrong. For example, the Egyptians did not, as claimed, use pi -- the ratio of height to sides and which was not developed until centuries later -- but a separate ratio that does nothing to support claims of divine guidance.
Such knowledge did not deter anyone. People pushing metrics were decried as “atheists, part of a worldwide conspiracy.”
In the end, opponents to the metric system won. Congress did finally approve adopting metrics in the 1970s, but nothing really has happened in the general public, although the universal system has become mandatory in “godless” science.
The echoes of that religion-soaked debate still reverberate throughout our society, poisoning education, politics and almost every aspect of our country.
The result is one eternal truth: by any standard, an argument that relies on God to buttress it does not measure up.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.