My sister – let’s call her Sarah – was recently elected to her local school board. Her reasons for running were of a fiscal nature; she was concerned that the school was acting in a financially irresponsible manner, so she decided she could have the greatest impact by joining the school board.
Being from a small city, Sarah ran unopposed and had no problem winning the single-candidate election. However, in order to have her name placed on the ballot at all, she was required to collect one hundred signatures from local registered voters, which she accomplished by going door-to-door throughout her neighborhood.
At one house, she was greeted by a rather gruff, middle-aged man who demanded to know her stance on the theory of evolution. Taken aback, she responded that she was running for the school board based solely on financial reasons; her person beliefs in origin of life on earth were irrelevant. The man continued to press her, and when she admitted that she did not believe in evolution, this man abruptly informed her that he would not sign her petition, and closed the door in her face.
Sarah was rather peeved by this incident. She thought this man was rude and inconsiderate, and just as dogmatic as any fundamentalist Christian. She also failed to see how her views on an issue as peripheral as the theory of evolution should influence her eligibility to hold a spot on the school board.
My sister is an intelligent person. She is a college graduate, having earned excellent grades throughout her academic career. She has spent years working in the field of early childhood education, and her knowledge of pedagogy and early childhood psychology is superb. Yet my sister is also a fundamentalist Christian: she believes that God created the world in six days a mere 5,000 years ago, and that someday soon he will return from the sky, trumpets blazing, to simultaneously call his flock to heaven and bring on the seven years of tribulation foretold in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.
How can we explain such contradictions? How can seemingly intelligent people adhere to such ridiculous belief systems? And how can she, and others like her, fail to see the inherent conflict of interest in running for an elected position which is directly related to the education of our children?
What we find is that such people have, generally speaking, never fully considered the ramifications of their beliefs. My sister embraces the fruits of science in virtually every aspect of her life: the food she eats, the TV she watches, the Internet she enjoys, the car she drives, the medicines she takes. She utilizes these benefits of science without hesitation or reflection, but when a well-established tenet of science appears to contradict a cherished childhood belief, she rejects it.
Such behavior is illogical and unreasonable, and seems to be in complete opposition to the level of education and critical thinking she brings to most aspects of life. But again, what we find is that she has, quite simply, failed to fully consider the implications of her religious beliefs. She, like myself, was raised in a fundamentalist Protestant Christian household. Growing up in such an environment can be a truly traumatic experience, as anyone who has seen “Jesus Camp” can tell you. This primitive, 5,000-year-old myth about the creation of the earth was thoroughly ingrained in her impressionable, childhood mind, and it has stayed there ever since.
Once a child has been indoctrinated in any religious belief system, it is remarkably difficult to break free – particularly in Christianity, which is an especially parasitic religion. For embedded into the most basic tenets of Christianity, and as discussed in great detail by Richard Dawkins and others, are two important characteristics: a belief in the notion of faith as a virtue, and a belief in the existence of hell as an actual physical place.
When a young child is told that he/she must believe a certain set of tenets or face eternal damnation, that child will invariably force him/herself to believe. And when it is further added that unquestioning adherence to these belief,”faith,” is a virtue to be rewarded – and, by extension, that questioning them is a vice to be punished – that child will all the more passionately and blindly throw him/herself behind those beliefs – however absurd they may be.
Once those beliefs are deeply ingrained in the childhood psyche, they are remarkably tenacious. Rooting them out – through a long process of tedious self-reflection which is perhaps never fully complete – can be an experience as traumatic as the initial indoctrination. As a result, we find people like my sister who are both intelligent and highly educated, yet clinging to an antiquated belief system that predates the advent of science by two millennia – give or take a few.
Should a person like Sarah be allowed to serve on the school board? In this particular circumstance I would say yes, because I know her to be a reasonable person who would not actively strive to push her own beliefs onto the school. In general, however, I would argue that public educational institutions have no place for adherents of ancient pre-science superstitions, and their very presence could be detrimental to our continued development as a civilization and as a species. Our society is founded on the ideals of science, and it is dangerous to allow anyone who questions the veracity of science obtain a position which might influence the education of our children.