What believers am I talking about? Mainly those of the Christian fundamentalist type. Although, I think it would be safe to include a majority of Muslims as well. Even some orthodox Jews could fall into this category. I will most often use the term fundamentalist. Fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of their sacred texts (the Bible for Christians), and stick to a, supposedly,* strict interpretation. Christian fundamentalists are usually young Earth creationists, so they reject evolution period, as well. Evolution is one of the major opposing truths they do not want their children to learn about.
It struck me several months ago that if fundamentalists really believe in the inerrancy and truth of their scriptures, why should they be afraid of having their children exposed to science and other areas of knowledge that require critical thinking. So, here I am asking the question in my title. In this post I will look into why this is their situation (being afraid), explaining why it would be dangerous to their beliefs to broaden their knowledge base. Along the way, I will provide more on both their position and what it is they are afraid of in more detail.
Before I begin I want to say something on the difference between two types of beliefs. When I am speaking of belief in its religious sense, I am often thinking about it along psychological lines. A belief is psychologically valid, if one is ready to act on it. This is oppose to philosophical belief, where a belief needs justifying by evidence and coherent reason to be accepted. These are of course bare bone explanations of these two kinds of belief, which can have various arguments and counterarguments and quite a lot of nuances to them.
One reason fundamentalists are afraid is that their religion requires this – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Phil. 2:12). I also think that religious beliefs originate as a response to fear.^ Human beings found themselves in a hostile and fearful world in which they had to navigate.† They found by praying to a deity or spirit sometimes they were able to deal with their problem(s). It worked often enough for them to do it all the time. At some point some wiseman started to tell stories about how the world work. Often enough it help with their navigation of the world with its problems and its dangers. But, human beings found themselves afraid of death. Could a god, goddess, goddesses, or gods provide for a life after death? Some decided that it could. So, fear in life and in death were made a little less by beliefs in their deities. Enough that, eventually, it could be written down and followed generation after generation.
Generation after generation human beings prayed to and honored their gods or goddesses; and they had written proof. But, there were some that questioned what was written down. These were eliminated by ostracization or death. Sometimes the heretic would repent and be accepted back again by the community. But, then real knowledge started to accumulate. It was harder to discount when observation and argument came together, but still the religious leaders would hold to their god (by this time it was mostly gods), and try to eliminate unwanted knowledge. But, they could not. So fear continued and because of this knowledge was ignore by the many, but it was kept alive by the few who braved the consequences. But, religious leaders decided to keep the masses in ignorance.
Finally, scientific knowledge could not be ignored. Some theologians attempted to square science with religion, but they would have to distort both to do it. At this time most scientists were religious or at the very least did not state any opposition to a belief in god. And, some of these same theologians were also scientists, but over time this became rarer and rarer. But, still religion was able more or less to make peace with science. The heliocentric universe (the solar system – the part of the universe then known) became accept inspite of a few biblical statements that indicated otherwise. A spherical world was also accepted. Then, science would cause even more grief with the discovery of evolution by natural selection. For some this would be the final split—religion must war against science and for some, science needed to war against religion. Some were able to see a path toward peace though. These would be known as liberalists, and those who sided with religion against science became your fundamentalists. And, there were some who would ditch god and religion altogether.
I have been describing what occurred in Christendom, but it could be expanded further afield to Islam and Judaism, and maybe even the Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The Islam scientific revolution (if it could really be called that) occured between the 8th and the 13th centuries before for it was shut down. It was not until the Islamic world was introduced to modern Western culture that some were to break free of Islam or were able to liberalize. But, the fundamentalist (those who insisted on the perfection of the Koran and stuck to a strict interpretation) did not accept modern ideas, including science, either. They would teach their children only the Koran.
What about today? It certainly seems like most fundamentalists are afraid of exposing themselves and their children to science (particularly evolution) and critical thinking. Why should this be so, if they know the truth and the truth will set you free? Why should they be afraid? Maybe, it is because their “full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11) is not so full proof. Is not faith supposed to conquer all? Is not faith chosen as proof because it requires no evidence except for hope (Heb 11:1)? If Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), what else do you need? What is the fundamentalist to fear if their scriptures declare they have the truth? They should have nothing to fear. Although considered as an add-on to the Gospel of Mark, you see there, “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them” (Mark 20:18). If they do not have to fear serpents or poison, what do they have to fear.
Well, maybe they do not have a monopoly on truth. Maybe, they do not have the truth at all. Fundamentalist are fond of quoting (2 Timothy 3:16): “All Scripture is breathed out by God”, but outside the Bible there is no confirmation of this claim. So, to accept anything from the Bible as true you need to have collaborating evidence from outside of it. Very little of what is claimed to be historical in it is independently verified, let alone any statement written therein. Well, could these statements be right anyway? Not likely—there is plenty of internal contradictions and many falsified statements contained in the Bible, so this is enough to call into question just about everything in it. So, we can see that what fundamentalists actually have is pretty flimsy truths.
And, somewhere within these fundamentalists’ minds there must be some doubt. Why else would they try their hardest to get evolution out of public schools? Or is truth fragile? Actually it is. Except for logic and mathematics (and this depends on the acceptance of certain definitions and axioms), there is very little certainty to be found. Science is firmly grounded on its provisional knowledge. However, there is little to doubt from well confirmed theories like relativity theories (special and general) or quantum physics (quantum mechanics or quantum field theory), which happen to be the best confirmed of all scientific theories. Evolution is also well confirmed via many different ways.‡ Will, any of these theories be found to be wanting? Yes, in physics the search continues for a quantum theory of gravity that will combine relativity with quantum physics. But, neither of these theories are likely to be totally false. What of evolution? Evolution is a well established fact. However, evolution by natural selection has been modified and probably will continue to be tweaked.
Any scientist should be willing to accept the provisional status of all confirmed scientific theories, which is unlike those in the fundamentalists’ camp, who cannot see clear that there could be anything doubtful to their beliefs. Although, their words and actions belie this certainty in those beliefs. They cannot be honest with themselves, let alone to others they disagree. They continue to attempt to change these others’ minds, which are mostly open and not closed. If the fundamentalists had convincing evidence and arguments on their side these other minds would most likely accept it. But, this is not very likely to occur as I pointed out its failure so far above.
I have not talked about critical thinking or rationality so far. I think of rationality as the practice of using coherent reasoning. And, what may that be? I define coherent reasoning as thinking that contains no obvious inconsistencies or contradictions. Some people call this logical thinking, and dictionaries tend to agree. However, when I think of thinking logically, while it certainly avoids incoherent reasoning, I think of symbolic logic. “p ⇒ q, p; ∴ q” is one such argument. The symbol ⇒ means implies or if, then, and the symbol ∴ means therefore. But, how often in everyday life do we think or reason along these lines? Not very often, but if your thought contains no inconsistencies or contradictions it can be put into logical form. There are also syllogism, but I will not bore you with any examples of these.
Do fundamentalists think rationally or do they value rationality? Of course, at times, they think rationally, but when it comes to their religious beliefs, it seems that their thinking is often shoddy. Now, I will be the first to admit that nobody thinks rationally at all times. For one it takes hard work to avoid or eliminate inconsistencies and contradictions. But, maybe more important is the fact that are emotions affect how we think, and feelings are intimately connected with cognitive thought (of which rationality is a part). Matter of fact our feelings are so important that little rational thought would be done without them.
As for the second part of the above question, I do not feel that they hold rationality in high regards. I say this for multiple reasons. One, faith seems to be a fall back position, when evidence and rational thought is against their fundamentalist beliefs. Even some greats of theology, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, used faith to defend certain doctrines (e.g. the trinity). With this way of thinking rationality is being devalued. Two, fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, so that it is not possible to doubt what the Bible states. And since, the Bible definitely contains inconsistencies and contradictions, this outlook devalues rationality. And, three, by shunning the scientific method as our best way of figuring out reality, they again devalue rationality.
I think by my above statements on rationality, you can see how fundamentalists could fear critical thinking because, if taught and practiced, it would lead them away from many of their most cherished and important religious beliefs. This fear drives them from valuing critical thinking skills, and hence to the avoidance of learning how best to think. Not to beat a dead horse fundamentalists are compelled to do as little critical thinking as possible when applied to their religious beliefs.
To sum up: Fundamentalists believe they have the eternal truth when it comes to god. They also fear science and critical thinking. This appears incompatible to me. If one knows the truth and is willing to live by that truth, one should not live in fear of alternative explanations or alternative ways of thinking. So, if you are a fundamentalist I feel that your faith demands that you should not avoid science and critical thinking because, holding the truth, how can anything mar your sacred truths? Fear. Your supposed true beliefs are actually a fear response. That what you fear may or not not be real, but in this case were it is in response to god it is false.
* I wrote “supposedly” here because it is not possible to give a strict interpretation. There needs to be a good deal of cherry picking in order to avoid contradictions within the biblical text. I write more on cherry picking in Do You Want to Pick Some Cherries?
^ This will be more fully hashed out in a future post.
† Currently, I am only guessing at the early stages of this summation.
‡ (1) The fossil record clearly shows the evolution of some species with many of the so-called “missing links”; (2) even stronger is the fact that not one later species has been found in earlier rock strata; (3) genetic evidence where similar species share a large percentage of their genes (the difference between human beings and chimpanzees is only two to three percent); (4) and, similar to genetic evidence, like proteins are used by many different species.