“As if the natural Calamities of Life were not sufficient for it, we turn the most indifferent Circumstances into Misfortunes, and suffer as much from trifling Accidents, as from real Evils. I have known the shooting of a Star spoil a Night's Rest; and have seen a Man in Love grow pale and lose his Appetite, upon the plucking of a Merry-thought. A Screech-Owl at Midnight has alarmed a Family, more than a Band of Robbers; nay, the Voice of a Cricket hath struck more Terrour, than the Roaring of a Lion. There is nothing so inconsiderable that may not appear dreadful to an Imagination that is filled with Omens and Prognosticks. A Rusty Nail, or a Crooked Pin, shoot up into Prodigies.”
~ Joseph Addison, 1711 
The controversial Procter & Gamble logo, now obsolete.
Case Studies in Modern Superstition
Urban legends are a rich source of moral panics, both historically and in our present day and age. In the early 1980s, the multinational consumer goods company Procter & Gamble was embroiled in unwanted media attention and controversy when fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists nationwide worked themselves up into a panicked frenzy over the company’s newly adopted logo.
This scare was a symptom of a much larger problem in American society at the time, one that persists to this day almost thirty years later. Fundamentalist faith, then as now, trained its adherents to see evil around every corner and discouraged the believers from engaging in independent homework. The faithful are trained to simply take the word of their spiritual leaders – pastors, teachers, parents, etc. If one of these authoritative figures declares something to be evil, believers follow up with a knee-jerk reaction and automatically assume there are major consequences in allowing these “evil things” to be tolerated.
The controversial logo in question actually had its origin in the mid-nineteenth century. The symbol was first emblazoned by barge workers on crates of P&G star candles starting in the year 1851 as a way of conveniently identifying the cargo. The general working public was not as literate as they are today. As a result, pictures were more commonly used than text, and in the case of P&G cargo, pictures were used to easily identify and distinguish crates belonging to different companies .
It was this identifying crate symbol that P&G modified and adopted as their trademark logo in the 1980s. The logo consisted of a bearded man’s face in a half-moon overlooking thirteen stars, which represented the original thirteen American colonies. These three elements (a moon, stars, the number 13) were erroneously interpreted by religious fundamentalists all over the country as a recipe for diabolical evil, and they made the fantastic leap from the new logo to claims that Procter & Gamble was involved in Satanism.
Fourteen years after the initial controversy began, an urban legend developed that both resurrected and further exacerbated the issue and brought it once again to the attention of a gullible public. In what turned out to be a completely unsubstantiated rumor that nevertheless spread rapidly, the president of Procter & Gamble was believed to have publicly admitted on the March 1, 1993 broadcast of The Phil Donahue Show to being a Satanist who supported the Church of Satan with the profits he made from the company. This rumor was first spread by a 1994 letter sent via the Internet to Christian bulletins internationally:
The president of Proctor [sic] & Gamble appeared on the Phil Donahue show on March 1, 1993. He announced that due to the openness of our society, he was coming out of the closet about his association with the CHURCH OF SATAN. He states that a large portion of the profits of Proctor & Gamble products go to support the SATANIC CHURCH. . . . Below are a list [sic] of Proctor & Gamble products. . . . Christians should remember that if they purchase any of these products, they will be contributing to the support of the Church of Satan. Inform other Christians about this! Stop buying other Proctor & Gamble products and let the president of Proctor & Gamble know that there are far more enough Christians to make a difference! Fundamentalist conspiracy-theorists with a pattern-seeking fetish who took this claim seriously apparently were immune to the otherwise common human phenomenon of déjà vu. Back in 1977, the exact same claim was made about the fast-food chain McDonald’s, who allegedly donated a portion of their profits to satanic interests. The P&G scare resembled the earlier McDonald’s scare in almost every particular, in fact; rumor had it that McDonald’s company founder and senior chairman Ray Kroc appeared on Phil Donahue and admitted that his company supported the Church of Satan through regular tithes. This startling disclosure was seen by exactly no one. Over a year later, Newsweek still had occasion to report on this tall tale:
False as it is, the word that Kroc was a Satanist spread through Southern and Midwestern Bible Belt towns for more than a year. In some towns, customers boycotted the golden arches, and kids even quit their McDonald’s-sponsored Little League teams. [The rumor] was widespread enough to send McDonald’s vice president Doug Timberlake on a defense mission to the Birmingham, Ala., Baptist ministers conference. Armed with transcripts of Kroc’s TV appearances and testimonials from clergymen who have checked out the gossip, he has been managing to convince consumers: there is no, repeat no, McDevil on Ray Kroc’s menu .When the selfsame rumor transferred itself to Procter & Gamble, the Phil Donahue Show confirmed that, in fact, the president of Procter & Gamble never once appeared on the show. Nor did he make any such admission in any other public forum or venue. Indeed, any CEO or president of a multinational corporation would be promptly fired by a board of directors if he or she claimed on national television to have a business relationship with the Church of Satan. Moreover, the direction of P&G’s profits, as with all public trade companies as per regulation and standard policy, is a matter of public record. All one needs to do to find out if portions of a company’s profits are going toward the Church of Satan is to consult the company’s financial documents. As any such consultation will reveal, corporation profits go to stockholders, not to religious organizations or churches favored by the higher-ups in the company.
But the credulous “sheeple” did not bother to take enough time to do any of their own homework to find out whether the rumor had any factual basis. Instead, large numbers of them promptly trashed all their Procter & Gamble products – an action of no small significance, since P&G made many household products. By tossing out anything and everything associated with the P&G name and refusing to buy any more of their products for fear of supporting the Church of Satan, religious fundamentalists nationwide were altering a whole lifestyle. Fundamentalist parents who had an affinity for washing their children’s mouths out with soap doubtless did so using soap produced by P&G. Little did they know they were employing the “Devil’s soap,” but once they were made aware of this by the evangelical rumor mill and television talk shows, they promptly amended their ways and boycotted the sinister soap.
It was also widely rumored that if one held up the Procter & Gamble logo in front a mirror, the Satanic “mark of the beast” (the number 666, as spoken of in the 13th chapter of the apocalyptic Book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament) could be seen within the swirls of the moon man’s flowing beard. Many also believed that the devil’s number was discernible when the thirteen stars of the logo were correctly connected in curving strokes .
This collective Type-II error of perception recalled a very similar incident that occurred in Canada in 1954. New bank notes were issued in Canada that year, bearing the likeness of the British Commonwealth’s new monarch Elizabeth II. But some Canadians thought they saw something sinister lurking in a tuft of the queen’s hair as depicted on the currency. And before long many more Canadians saw what they were told by a few to see: a depiction of a demon peering out from behind the ear of the queen’s likeness on the monies. Two years later, the Bank of Canada was forced to order bank note companies to alter the young queen’s hair such that the hair-loving demon would be concealed.
Do you see the demon hiding in the queen’s hair? Some people thought they did.
But back to our American case study: the wild rumors about the evil portents of the new P&G logo did not stop with mere pictorial fancies; a pernicious rumor starting in southern Minnesota even claimed that the logo proved the company was owned by the Moonies, the followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church . At one point, Procter & Gamble was bombarded with over 15,000 phone calls a month in the early 1980s from people who were afraid and/or infuriated that P&G was serving the Church of Satan .
Predictably, Procter & Gamble were soon forced to change their logo. The moon and stars was discontinued in 1985, just to shut everybody up. However, there are still people to this day who refuse to buy P&G products, for no other reason than that they took somebody’s misinformed word for it that the company is evil and marked with the Devil’s number.
In fact, the same specious claim about P&G’s CEO admitting to donating a portion of the company’s profits to the Church of Satan was resurrected once again in July 1999. This time around, P&G’s CEO was said to have admitted to diabolical associations on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on Monday, July 19, 1999. This date was amended from the originally given date of March 1, 1999, which was a Sunday. The show neither tapes nor airs on Sundays, and when this was pointed out, the fear-mongers quickly “fixed” the error. The claim about P&G’s business associations with Satanism was exactly the same in all particulars, with the exception of the media venue said to air the CEO’s admission.
In responding to inquiries made about this claim on the show’s online FAQ forum, Sally Jesse Raphael not only disconfirmed the persistent rumor, but also pointed out its wild implausibility:
The rumor going around that the president of Procter and Gamble appeared on The Sally Show and announced he was a member of the church of Satan is not true. This a hoax that's been going around in one form or another for the past 20 years...only originally, it concerned the Phil Donahue Show...then evolved to the Jenny Jones Show...and now it's evolved to The Sally Show. The president of Procter and Gamble has NEVER appeared on The Sally Show...NEVER. Nor has any other person in authority at P&G. . . . Frankly, this thing has gotten out of hand. If we had this man on our show, and he had said what it's alleged he said, we would have scored a broadcasting scoop and would have trumpeted it to all the newspapers. It would have been to the show's advantage. But there was no scoop, and there were no headlines .Of Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia and Triskaidekaphobia
The fear of the number 666 (hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia) is a funny thing. “The fact is that the digits 666 can be uncovered in almost anybody’s name, if you’re willing to work a little at such mischief-making,” wrote the late great mathematician and renowned skeptic Martin Gardner .
Gardner noted that for many decades, the Seventh-Day Adventist used biblical numerology to demonize the Roman Catholic Church. This was accomplished by numerically analyzing the Latin phrase attached to the pope, vicarius filii dei (“in place of the Son of God”), from which is derived the official title Vicar of Christ. Gardner writes, “By adding the letters that are Roman Numerals – V and U = 5 (the Romans used V for U), I = 1, C = 100, L = 50, and D = 500 – they get 666. Eventually, to their great embarrassment, the Adventists learned that the same method yields 666 when it is applied to Ellen Gould White, the name of their church’s nineteenth-century prophetess (if W, or double U, is taken as two Vs) .”
Using the kind of mental gymnastics employed by rabid propagators of conspiracy theorists, who saw evil numbers in many innocuous and mundane items of everyday life, Gardner demonstrated that people will find what they want to see, if they look hard enough:
It is possible to uncover 666 in the names of other leading fundamentalist preachers. By adopting the so-called Devil’s code (a favorite ploy of numerologists, whereby the alphabet is numbered backward from zero; Z = 0, Y = 1, X = 2 . . .) and multiplying each letter-value by 6, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell’s last name adds up to 666. Billy Graham requires more elaborate numerical treatment. His initials are W.F.G. (William Franklin Graham). Using the A = 1 code, the letters add up to 36. The sum of the counting numbers from 1 through 36 is 666, and 36 = 6 x 6 .Using the fundamentalist conspiracy theorists’ logic and methodology, their heroes Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart must also be agents of Satan. Gardner’s computations are as follows:
Using the A = 1, B = 2, . . . cipher, PAT adds to 37. R = 18. The product of 37 and 18 is 666.Even in 21st century America – a society that has fortunately seen the influence of the paragons of paranoid delusion (read Moral Majority) lose the level of influence it once enjoyed in its heyday in the 1980s – we continue to live in a culture of paranoia and fear, one in which advanced technology and centers of great learning have done little to erase the most absurd of superstitions.
How about Jimmy Swaggart, another Pentecostal Bible walloper? SWAGGART (A = 1, B = 2, . . .) adds to 96. JIMMY (A = 101, B = 102, . . .) adds to 570. The sum of the two numbers is 666 .
The persistence of superstition shows itself every time you walk into an elevator in most skyscrapers. In an effort to accommodate the superstitious fear of the number 13, considered by a surprisingly large number of otherwise rational people worldwide to be inherently evil, or an omen portentous of bad luck, about 85 percent of all high rises in the world have no 13th Floor. There are a variety of methods used for avoiding the ominous designation of 13 in building designs, but by far the most common method is to simply omit it altogether. Thus, the “14th Floor” is in all actuality the 13th Floor. But the superstition surrounding the number 13 created such fervor centuries ago that even today, skyscraper designers continue to acquiesce to the time-honored paranoid tradition of triskaidekaphobia by just denying the provisional existence of the number entirely.
This fear is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon. In one section of his fascinating and comprehensive 1841 work Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (a classic must-read for all skeptics) the Scottish journalist and poet Charles Mackay compiled and debunked popular superstitions related to fortune-telling and omens. “If thirteen persons sit at table,” Mackay reported, “one of them will die within the year; and all of them will be unhappy. Of all evil omens this is the worst .” He went on to observe,
In almost every country of Europe the same superstition prevails, and some carry it so far as to look upon the number thirteen as in every way ominous of evil; and if they find thirteen coins in their purse, cast away the odd one like a polluted thing .Today, over one century and a half later, similar superstitious measures can and have been observed among the general public on a daily basis. I was much amused to hear the following short but telling vignettes related by radio personality Seth Andrews, host of the popular internationally-broadcast radio show and podcast The Thinking Atheist:
“We have an ice-cream chain here in the Midwest called Braum’s. Love it. . . . And the receipt number, in large letters at the top of the receipt, was (you guessed it) 666. It was a joke . . . everybody I was with was like “Ohhh, 666!” . . . We were all laughing about it. But I grew up in a culture where 666 was the number of the Beast. There were people who wouldn’t stay in a hotel room that was 666, or the hotel wouldn’t number the room 666. Or, in any other context, they wouldn’t allow that number to come up! Or if they did see it, they would run the other way. I’ve seen people – I kid you not – who purchased something over the counter, and the total came to 6 dollars and 66 cents, and they bought a pack of gum to make the total something else! How jacked up is this world?! ”Very jacked up indeed, my friend. Very jacked up indeed.
Seth Andrews has sold his immortal soul for an ice cream.
Friends, of Death No Longer I’m Afraid!
I was born on February 13, 1987. As it turned out, this day was a Friday. Consequently, I turned thirteen years old early in the year 2000, the dawn of the new millennium and a time when expectations of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the concomitant destruction of the world and its unbelievers were common among the credulous.
While this fact alone would not greatly concern even many superstitious people (many millions of people have been born on a Friday 13th), the ill-fated number 13 actually crops up everywhere around me. In the English Gematria system, an ancient system in which numerical values are assigned to words or phrases in the belief that hidden relations and connections can be uncovered, “Nathaniel Todd Dickey” (my full name as it appears on my birth certificate) equals 1363. This number reduces to 13. In the English Ordinal system of set theory, in which numbers are assigned an order type, “Nathaniel Todd Dickey” equals 184, which also reduces to 13. And in the English Reduction system, my full name equals 85, which again reduces to 13. During my junior year in higher education, the dorm room number at the university I currently attend was 213. (Second month, thirteenth day . . . coincidence?). And here's another oddity: the four digits of the year of my birth add up to 25. The ancient Mayans, it is said, possessed accurate knowledge that the world is going to end in December 2012. As of this writing, I am 25 years old. And we only have a little over two months until the world expires.
This is how easy it is to seek out and find numerical relations in an effort to create a significance and meaning that is nonexistent. This is how easy it is to delude oneself.
Even before I became a full-fledged atheist and anti-theist, I was a skeptic of claims of the paranormal and supernatural, mainly as they related to New Age beliefs and practices, UFO mysticism, astrology, psychic phenomena, alternative medicine and the like. But I too was once an all-around very superstitious individual, mainly in my preteen and junior high school years. In those days, I often dreamed of being predestined by forces beyond my control to be consigned to hellfire and denied salvation. Being raised in a loving but nevertheless very religious environment only exacerbated these fears. Reason, rationality, doubt and skepticism are the best antidotes to fear and the resultant repression of the questioning instinct that drives our species to discover and progress farther and farther away from the caves of our very early ancestors. This I have discovered for myself, and I take inspiration for my rejection of the shackles of religion and superstition from many sources, not just science and philosophy. Although I do not know much about poetry and read very little of it, I glean inspiration from verse from time to time.
In the nineteenth century, the French poet and songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857) wrote an eloquent poem entitled Treize à table (“Thirteen at Table”), a poem that takes a rather philosophical approach to superstitions surrounding triskaidekaphobia. Although it is likely to impress the modern reader as archaic, I sense a genuine and relevant “moral” to be gleaned from it and applied to superstitions of today. Also, while the poem does get a little god-heavy and mysticism-laden in parts, the resulting conflicting signals detracts little from the overriding point (the poem was also written at a time when the word “God” was often used as a metaphor for nature that could be rationally studied).
In the poem, the narrator attends a dinner or some similar social function. After spilling salt, the socialite looks around the room and realizes he is the thirteenth guest. Chilled with horror, his fears are abruptly allayed when Death herself appears before him. She is an angel of light and beauty, not the monstrosity the salt-spiller had dreaded. Death proceeds to show the thirteenth guest the foolishness and irrationality of tormenting oneself with not only the fear of omens supposedly signaling the arrival of Death, but of the actual fear of Death herself. She is the friend, not the enemy, of humankind.
But I will let Béranger tell the tale:
Heavens above! at table we’re thirteen;
Look, the salt before me hath spilled;
Fatal number, ominous, I ween!
Death’s at hand; with horror am I chilled!
See, she comes! a goddess, sprite, or fay?
What! in smiles, with youthful charms displayed –
Sing your songs, and be your chorus gay:
Friends, of Death no longer I’m afraid!
Though a bidden guest she seem to be,
Though a garland round her brow may twine,
I alone can see her; ‘tis for me
O’er her head the rainbow colors shine.
Now she points to fetters that are burst;
At her breast asleep a babe is laid –
Drained my cup is; quench me, then, its thirst:
Friends, of Death no longer I’m afraid!
“Look!” she cries, “a daughter of the sky,
Hope my sister, wouldst thou quail at me?
Tell me, can the slave with right deny
Thanks, if set from chain and tyrant free?
Fallen angel, stripped by Fate below,
I with wings will have thee re-arrayed!”
Kiss us, Beauty! we’ll ecstatic grow:
Friends, of Death no longer I’m afraid!
“I’ll return; thy spirit,” she pursued,
“Shall o’erleap all worlds that float sublime,
Azure space, and flaming orbits strewed –
God ordained them – in the path of Time.
Fear not now to taste of harmless joy,
Whilst thy spirit in the yoke is stayed” –
Fleeting life in pleasure let’s employ:
Friends, of Death no longer I’m afraid!
‘Twas a vision – ‘tis all past away;
At the threshold howled a dog – she fled:
Ah! ‘tis vain recoiling in dismay;
Mortal foot the icy grave must tread.
Joyous crew, then, on the stream of Fate
Launch the skiff; our port shall soon be made –
Heaven hath numbered us – thirteen let’s wait:
Friends, of Death no longer I’m afraid! 
1. Joseph Addison, Spectator No. 7, Thursday, March 8, 1711.
2. Barbara Mikkelson, “Trademark of the Devil,” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/business/alliance/procter.asp (accessed 3 October 2012).
3. Feòrag NicBhrìde, “Let Sleeping Myths Lie,” The Pagan Prattle June 21, 1994.
4. “Tall Tales: McDevil Burgers?” Newsweek 23 October 1978, p. 85.
5. William Poundstone, Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983), p. 110.
6. Ibid., p. 109.
7. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends (London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), pp. 169-86.
8. “Sally’s Frequently Asked Questions (page 3),” retrieved from Internet Archive Wayback Machine, http://web.archive.org/web/20030405165701/http://www.sallyjr.com/sally4/frm_sallyfaq3blue.html (accessed 4 October 2012).
9. Martin Gardner, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 173.
10. Ibid., p. 172.
12. Ibid., p. 174.
13. Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Volume 1 2nd ed. (London: Office of the National Illustrated Library, 1852), p. 298.
15. Seth Andrews, “Harry Potter is of the Devil!” The Thinking Atheist Radio Podcast #42, 24 January 2012, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thethinkingatheist/2012/01/25/harry-potter-is-of-the-devil (accessed 1 October 2012).
16. Pierre-Jean de Béranger, “Thirteen at Table,” in William Young, ed., Béranger: Two Hundred of His Lyrical Poems Done into English Verse (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850), pp. 118-119.