Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Denying evolution is lying

Posted by Ann on March 12, 2011

My father is a charismatic preacher. He has an ability to convince people to trust him implicitly. Maybe my years of interacting with him contributed to my desire to research the operations of the brain, to study the science of psychology. Much of what he says doesn’t make practical sense. Yet his ideas were pushed on me as truth. I was ordered to follow his rules (and my mother’s) based in these ideas in order to live in his home as a child, as are most children living under the rule of parents. At the same time, something always seemed off, not only about my parent’s fundamentalism, but also their perception of the world. Their views on homosexuality, gay marriage, women’s rights, sexuality, morality, child-rearing, evolution, and science in general.

Rob Burton, a board-certified neurologist and psychiatrist, describes the phenomenon of people who believe they are right, even when they are not:

Once we realize that the brain has very powerful inbuilt involuntary mechanisms for assessing unconscious cognitive activity, it is easy to see how it can send into consciousness a message that we know something that we can’t presently recall—the modest tip-of-the-tongue feeling. At the other end of the spectrum would be the profound “feeling of knowing” that accompanies unconsciously held beliefs—a major component of the unshakeable attachment to fundamentalist beliefs—both religious and otherwise—such as belief in UFOs or false memories…It is quite likely that the same reward system [as triggered by drugs] provides the positive feedback necessary for us to learn and to continue wanting to learn. The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a “know it all” to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.

Being raised as a fundamentalist I remember my father was always certain. But certainty does not equal truth. Doubt seems to me the only way to truth. Even people who say “I question everything” can proceed to their next sentence, stating something with absolute certainty. It’s simply hard to not be certain. We all seem to be hypocritical this way. We can erase, start over, but then we believe again. At some point, as I studied the science of the brain, psychology, I realized it would help to believe something about the world and people or I’d be completely adrift in some kind of limbo madness. Over time I realized my beliefs were not to be the beliefs of my charismatic parents. They were beliefs based in a different paradigm.

Deciphering the mystery of why so many people believed my father as a pastor was God’s mouthpiece, while I saw him a regular person, became part of my eventual quest for knowledge about people and the world (kinda indirectly in the beginning). The study of the science of psychology provided me with a type of home when I didn’t have a place to call home, so to speak. Figuring out people, not just my family, but all of us, and why we are so irrational became a primary interest for me. For me I suppose it was never as much about debunking beliefs, but understanding the world’s beliefs as the way to undermine fundamentalism and work toward long-term positive change in the world. I developed an understanding of change as a process, and came to believe from my studies a change in a minority can change a majority perspective slowly over time.

After my experience growing up first as an MK, then in a charismatic family with a father who didn’t value doubt (I was known as the only family member “stubborn” enough to disagree with him even if he always “won”), I will never be the same as people around me who can believe easily, who value belief. I can’t hand over this critical faculty any more, and never will be able to do it liberally again. I don’t care how someone postures, or how they spin it (or spit it), this doesn’t make their certainty truth. We are all, as humans, irrational. And I have chosen to believe in basic human rights, in compassion, in equality, in independence–knowing these are all biologically and socially based ideas. Recognizing in the end the world is, in a sense, just a big zoo. We humans, to us, the star attraction.

Every day, hundreds of observations and experiments pour into the hopper of the scientific literature. Many of them don’t have much to do with evolution – they’re observations about he details of physiology, biochemistry, development, and so on – but many of them do. And every fact that has something to do with evolution confirms its truth. Every fossil that we find, every DNA molecule that we sequence, every organ system that we dissect, supports the idea that species evolved from common ancestors. Despite innumerable possible observations that could prove evolution untrue, we don’t have a single one. We don’t find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order. DNA sequencing supports the evolutionary relationships of species originally deduced from the fossil record. And, as natural selection predicts, we find no species with adaptations that only benefit a different species. We do find dead genes and vestigial organs, incomprehensible under the idea of special creation. Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That is as close as we can get to a scientific truth. – Jerry Coyne

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