Half a century ago, anthropologist Colin Turnbull spent several years with Mbuti pygmies in eastern Congo. On one occasion, he took his Mbuti assistant to an overlook that offered a view of a distant plain where buffalo grazed. The Mbuti were familiar with buffalo, but they lived their lives in the forest and were not familiar with distance. The assistant pointed to the distant buffalo and asked what kind insects they were.
To him, distance was measured in meters, not kilometers, and he refused to believe that the bugs were actually huge animals.
(For you “Father Ted” fans, this was the point that Ted tried to make with dull-witted Dougal when he contrasted the plastic toy cows with cows in a field: “These are small, but the ones out there are far away.”)
Escape from Camp 14
A more debilitating example of being programmed by one’s environment is the story of a 26-year-old man who escaped in 2005 from a North Korean prison camp, then to China, then South Korea, and finally the United States. This was documented in the book Escape from Camp 14. He had been in the prison camp, not because he had committed a crime, but because he had been born there as the child of two inmates.
Though he made it to freedom, the story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Life had taught him since birth that survival meant husbanding precious energy by shirking work. Survival was immediate—steal food or shoes, avoid punishment, hide to rest from difficult manual labor. He adapted poorly in the West to the vaguer notion that if he didn’t arrive on time or didn’t complete his work that he might eventually lose his job.
Christian ProgrammingThis is similar to Christians who seem programmed to not be able to see what, to atheists, seems obvious—for example, that the skepticism that Christians apply to other religions sinks theirs as well. Or that “the atheist worldview is hopeless,” even if true, is irrelevant to someone looking for the truth. Or that quoting the Bible does nothing to satisfy the atheist’s demand for evidence.
Remember the Mbuti assistant? He adjusted to the idea of distant animals and size constancy over a few days. And the Clergy Project—an intellectual halfway house for clergy who are losing or have lost the faith—shows that even the most-invested believers can choose reason over Christianity.
Study two religions, and you’re done in an hour.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/18/14.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia