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131. How Fundamentalist Are You?

A common phrase that CBT therapists teach their clients is 'thoughts are not facts.' It's not difficult to see how that idea could be helpful when somebody thinks they are worthless, or that everyone is looking at them critically in social situations, or that if they don't clean the bathroom fifty times every day, their family will die of an infection. It's easy to look at someone else's unhelpful thinking and see how distorted it is. But how good are we at doing the same for ourselves? Last night I went to hear a talk by a young man, Jonny Scaramanga, who spent three years, from the ages of 11-14, in a creationist school. I had no idea there were such things in the UK, let alone fifty or so of them, and little understanding of what went on in them. This was a Skeptics meeting, so there weren't too many protagonists of fundamental Christianity in the audience, and we spent an hour or two being pleasantly shocked by the revelations we heard from Mr Scaramanga (so named because his father was at school with Ian Fleming). We heard that the creationist viewpoint, while being the issue that more liberal-minded people have focussed on, in fact forms a very small part of the curriculum. The curriculum of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), the programme used across many creationist schools both in the uk and abroad, is aimed at teaching students 'to see life from God's point of view'. This point of view is interleaved in all subjects, including maths and science. Scaramanga tells us that by the time he left this school he believed, without a shadow of doubt, that God is right wing, that being left-wing is evil, that non-believers were all going to hell, that women should be submissive to men, and children to parents, and that government healthcare and benefits were wrong. ACE's line on the latter is that "God's plan is for these needs to be met first by family members, and then by local churches, but not by government programs." Scaramanga said at the start that we should, despite enjoying the series of laughable claims that he was about to present, remember that these are real schools and that real children go there. Spare a thought, he said. Because we do enjoy laughing at views that we believe to be completely wrong and prejudicial and frankly stupid. It is fun to be shocked, at a distance, in the knowledge that we are in the moral majority, the enlightened, liberal and rational ones. And I do believe that we are relatively enlightened, liberal and rational, when compared with the view of the world that these children come out of school with. And I thank goodness for that, or whatever is responsible. However, just think for a moment about what we believe unquestioningly. What if some group of more evolved beings is watching us, laughing at our certainty, about a whole host of things? We have been told about the theory of evolution, and most of us believe it. If somebody asked us for the proof of it, though, where would we be? How many of us could recite the science behind it? I know I couldn't and I have a scientific education. I mentioned this to someone at the talk and she looked a little confused for a moment, and lost for words. Finally she said 'but carbon dating, that proves it doesn't it?' And that was the extent of her evidence base, for something she totally believed. So how are we different from creationists? Put simply, their highest authority for their beliefs on how the world began is the bible and the people who have interpreted it for them. For others the highest authority is science, and the people who interpret it for them. It seems most people trust scientists in a way that they don't trust priests. But it is still a matter of trust. Darwin's theory of evolution has been a working assumption for scientists for many years. Much work has been done to prove it and findings have often done just that. But if you set off on a course of investigation based on assumptions then you are in trouble if you're wrong, as each assumption is a fork in the road, producing more evidence on which you can build more assumptions, taking you further and further from the truth. A wrong turning early on means you may have to backtrack through a century of thought before you find the error. That is not to say that there isn't a great deal of evidence for evolution, but not all of it hangs together by any means. And, you know, there are entire museums dedicated to what is claimed to be evidence that the world began as described in the book of Genesis. Just the other day some Chinese evangelical Christians claimed to have found a piece of Noah's Ark in Turkey, proven by none other than, yes, carbon dating. If we start to consider the possibility that the people we trust are fallible (and many scientists have been found to be wrong, and some frankly dishonest, down the centuries) and that things we assume to be true may not be, we can start feeling pretty disorientated and shaky. We need to have beliefs about how the world is in order to feel safe. That's why human beings have always striven to make sense of the world, whether through religion or science or philosophy, to avoid the feelings that come of seeing so much that we don't understand. And once an explanation is found it is only natural to hang on to it, especially if everyone we know is hanging on to it too. The moral of the story? In the words of the spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, 'Don't take your thoughts too seriously!' We can have our beliefs, but if we are really interested in what is true then 'tis best we hold them lightly. Try this:

  1. Think of something you assume to be true. It may be the theory of evolution, that men and women are equal (or not), that the sun will continue to come up every morning. Or it may be that someone likes you, or doesn't like you, that eating carbohydrates is bad, that one political party would be better for the country than another, that there is a god, or not. Notice what it feels like to be sure.

  2. Ask yourself, how do I know it's true? Do you have evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny, or is it more of an assumption or belief?

  3. What would it be like to consider for a moment that this thing may not be true? Or at best only partially true? What does it feel like to be less than sure?

  4. What would it be like to take your thoughts less seriously?

'Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show, but wonder on, till truth makes all things plain.' From A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare With love Anita