Kevin Alton is a full-time freelance youth ministry creative. He’s the co-founder of Youthworker Circuit, content curator for Science for Youth Ministry, and can be found on most social media as @thekevinalton.
Ignorance just isn’t what it used to be.
There was once a time when you could genuinely not know stuff. Knowledge didn’t come to you; a person would be well versed in their immediate surroundings and capable of managing most of their daily needs. Learning beyond what was necessary would have been a luxury, requiring precious time and effort besides. There’s that line floating around that a single issue of the New York Times contains more information than a 17th century person would encounter in a lifetime.
Beyond the knowledge required for basic survival skills, there are instances where we must find a way to make sense of things. Death, life, natural disasters and other phenomena all outstripped the available logical means of ancient cultures, so they were forced to literally make sense of them. If we can’t know it but must explain it, a myth will carry that burden. This is just one kind of myth; also, just one kind of understandable ignorance.
As the world progressed, another kind of myth evolved. This myth was different. Our first myth was attempting to convey understanding; our second myth is a widely held belief that is founded in something untrue. There’s a key difference there. While a creation myth or other origin story might not bear out factually according to science or some other means of measure, it does not mean that the myth is false or untrue. Usually these myths are conveying a truth deeper than the facts can handle. The Cherokee creation myth in detailed description reveals the incredible relationship between humanity and the earth. The creation stories in Genesis reveal the intimate relationship between creator and creation, with our part to play as caretaker. Those intangible things cannot be upended by science.
This second myth gains its strength from repetition and absorption without further questioning or research. “You shouldn’t swim for two hours after eating—you’ll get cramps.” No you won’t. “Bulls hate the color red.” Did you know bulls are colorblind? “If you ask an undercover cop if they’re a cop, they have to tell you.” [facepalm] Seriously?
When applied to people, this type of myth serves to make heroes and heroines out of some and goats out of others. Tell me some more about how tall Abraham Lincoln was and how short Napoleon was. When applied to cultures, it quickly leads to cultural stereotypes like the rude French or the friendly Canadian. When applied to matters of faith, we end up with a bizarre grab bag of oh-yeah-well-I-heards that are unfounded, untrue, and serve no real end other than their own existence. The book Galileo Goes to Jail unpacks no less than 25 such myths born out of the perceived conflict between science and faith. This kind of myth contains an ignorance that can be remedied.
Knowledge at this point is unavoidable. We’ve arrived at a place where you very nearly can’t not know something. The moment you realize you don’t know something, you just go ahead and find out. I’m very aware that there are things I once knew that I no longer bother to keep in my head. Information is simply too accessible. I couldn’t tell you the mobile numbers of any three friends. I don’t know my bank account number. Or the Social Security numbers of my children. Why would I need to know any of that when I can find it out in an instant?
The proliferation of knowledge opens the door, however, for a third kind of myth: the carefully constructed and maintained myth of disinformation. The ability to build and spread a wholly false version of “the truth” is not entirely a modern invention, but we’ve gotten incredibly thorough about it. Our sources now play a heavier role in our pursuit of the truth than any need for a personal grasp of the facts. We don’t investigate the news; we trust whatever our choice of trusted news source might be between CNN, FOX, MSNBC, or The Skimm. Our acceptance of a single source on any subject means shutting out knowledge—ignorance has become a willful act.
Today’s youth are completely comfortable living a multi-sourced existence, and the church is having a hard time keeping up. Christianity would prefer to be considered the source on all things, with scripture being the central mouthpiece of truth. Youth are a little confused by that stance. They’re not asking the church to be the answer to their whole lives and don’t understand why one of their sources—if in fact it is one—is asking them to ignore one or more of their other sources.
By failing to be in conversation with the other sources available to youth and young adults—particularly science—the church risks losing them altogether. This isn’t a direct comparison, but nobody “sometimes watches” FOX News. It’s all or nothing for those people. If the church asks all or nothing of the next generation, the smart money is on nothing.
Here’s where it gets interesting: I think deep down the church knows that, in its current state, it won’t hold up well to scrutiny.
To be continued tomorrow…
This essay was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM