Pygmies, Buffalo, and Christian Programming

Pygmies, Buffalo, and Christian Programming June 9, 2018

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 Programming

This 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 one religion, and you’ll be hooked for life.
Study two religions, and you’re done in an hour.
— Anon.


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/18/14.)

Photo credit: Wikimedia


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  • Michael Neville

    I remember some months ago trying to explain to Robert Lockett that I rejected the Bible as evidence for Jesus for exactly the same reason he rejected the Quran as evidence for Allah and the Rig Veda as evidence for Vishnu. He couldn’t understand how his holy book was at all similar to other religions’ holy books.

    • Mr. James Parson

      My GF does not believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I ask why; she responds with “It is all just made up”.

      And then I wait, …. and the light does not go on. darn

      • RichardSRussell

        I remember years ago reading a novel that posited Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula both operating in London at the same time and each often being confused for the other. If you read the original works in which they appear, they are indeed described in similar terms. I remember thinking at the time “Well, of course it’s easy to make that case in a novel. One of those guys is fictional.” Then I had to pause to figure out which one it was. Eventually the light did go on.

        • Michael Neville

          Vlad the Impaler aka Vladimir Dracula was a real person and was more or less after a fashion the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s character named Count Dracula.

        • Jim Jones

          I’m surprised that Trump doesn’t want a meeting with him.

        • Michael Neville

          The conversation would be completely one-sided, not that Trump would mind in the least.

        • TheNuszAbides

          i would almost shake the hand of whatever handler convinced him that either Vlad or Sherlock had done anything Good For Murka.

    • Ignorant Amos

      I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed to John Loftus’ “The Outsider Test for Faith”…what do I get by way of return? Crickets!

      • TheNuszAbides

        or Thomist just-so, or Presupp if-monsters. (either of which is just a particularly obnoxious cricket, i suppose.)

    • TheNuszAbides

      a man that obsessed with Demon Hunter, the scutum fidei, and his carefully curated version of The Ivory Tower (from which he’s happy to borrow biology jargon when he wants his fellow non-biologists to stop arguing with him) isn’t at all likely to understand anything that contradicts his selectively-anti-intellectual convictions.

  • Ignorant Amos

    (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.”)


    And for those in the UK where the OP link doesn’t work…

  • Brian Curtis

    An outside perspective is always essential. Thank you, Internet, for doing more to discredit religion than any number of reasoned arguments.

    • I do hope that modern technology is a net negative for religion. it does help spread the Word, but then it allows anyone to access naysayers like us.

      I remember a woman who was drifting away from a pretty conservative fundamentalism. She was using a Kindle to read atheist books. Unlike a paper book, where everyone can see what you’re reading, no one can tell when it’s electronic.

      • Jim Jones
        • There’s a reference to “Criticism of the Bible – Collection.” I’m not familiar with it. What is it?

        • Jim Jones

          Click on one of the links. You’ll get a list of titles (usually).


          Criticism of the Bible – Collection 35:

          We have 28 titles here:

          – Aasgaard – The Childhood of Jesus; Decoding the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2009)

          – Ausloos – The Deuteronomist’s History; the Role of the Deuteronomist in Historical-Critical Research into Genesis-Numbers (2015)

          – Black (Ed.) – Perspectives on the Ending of Mark; 4 Views (2008)

          – Callahan – Bible Prophecy, Failure or Fulfillment (1997)

          – Dozeman et al (Eds.) – The Book of Exodus; Composition, Reception, and Interpretation (2014)

          – Ehrman – Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016)

          – Gathercole – The Gospel of Judas; Rewriting Early Christianity (2007)

          – Godawa – Myth Became Fact; Storytelling, Imagination & Apologetics in the Bible (2012)

          – Hauser (Ed.) – Recent Research on the Major Prophets (2008)

          – Hoffmeler et al – Genesis – History, Fiction, or Neither; Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters (2015)

          – Iverson & Skinner (Eds.) – Mark as Story; Retrospect and Prospect (2011)

          – Jones – The Serpent’s Promise; the Retelling of the Bible Through the Eyes of Modern Science (2012)

          – Joosten – Collected Studies on the Septuagint; from Language to Interpretation and Beyond (2012)

          – Kaminsky et al – The Abingdon Introduction to the Bible; Understanding Jewish and Christian Scriptures (2014)

          – Kloppenborg & Newman (Eds.) – Editing the Bible; Assessing the Task Past and Present (2012)

          – Landy – Hosea, 2e (2011)

          – Lawrence – Sense and Stigma in the Gospels; Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters (2013)

          – Levy & Higham (Eds.) – The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating; Archaeology, Text and Science (2005)

          – Long – The Problem of Etiological Narrative in the Old Testament (1968)

          – McGowan & Richards (Eds.) – Method & Meaning; Essays on New Testament Interpretation.. (2011)

          – Melugin – The Formation of Isaiah 40-55 (1976)

          – Porter & Ong (Eds.) – The Origins of John’s Gospel (2016)

          – Sawyer – Sacred Texts and Sacred Meanings; Studies in Biblical Language and Literature (2011)

          – Simon – Four Approaches to the Book of Psalm; from Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra (1991)

          – Spong – Biblical Literalism; a Gentile Hersey (2016)

          – Thompson – The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel; the Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23, JSOT (1987)

          – Watson (Ed.) – Miracle Discourse in the New Testament (2012)

          – Yusseff – The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Gospel of Barnabas, and the New Testament, 2e (1993)

      • TheNuszAbides

        my mother believed i wasn’t dabbling in D&D for several years because i hid those books inside the books of other RPGs – since the moral panic was targeting the specific rather than the general, and no other adults in her circles had ever heard of any other such games, i had convinced her that there was a distinction with a difference.

        of course i got a bit too comfortable in my deception; she figured it out while we were camping. but even then she was fairly easily swayed by the argument that i never played an Assassin and generally preferred my Paladin.

        of course this has nothing to do with technology, but in the ‘prisoners of our environment’ vein, it probably would’ve been even more difficult at the time for me to stealthily pull off online gaming (even once the MUD/MUSH was available).

  • Greg G.


    How we know you are not Jesus.

    • RichardSRussell

      Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is great! Everybody who reads Cross Examined should bookmark it.

      NB: It doesn’t come out only on Saturday mornings.

      • Greg G.

        SMBC is a daily comic. xkcd comes out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Jesus and Mo is a weekly on Wednesday. The best thing about Wednesday is to read all three.

        • Grimlock

          Randall Munroe is quite simply brilliant.

        • TheNuszAbides

          oglaf is irregular, but that’s okay.

  • Greg G.

    Pastor Robert Morris Returns to Pulpit After Near Death Experience, Details Encounter With God

    I’m confused by the article. At one point he tells the congregation, “I’m here because of prayers.” Then he says he had a conversation where he told God that he didn’t think God was finished with him on earth and God said, “I’m not.”

    So if all those people didn’t pray, would God have been finished with him? If God wasn’t finished with him, why did he need the helicopter?

    Maybe The Christian Post isn’t telling the whole story.

    • Susan

      God said, “I’m not.” So if all those people didn’t pray, would God have been finished with him?

      We’ll know when they get an interview with “God”.

      In the meantime, there’s a lucrative career waiting for all of us if we just make shit up.

      • Greg G.

        Furthermore, why can’t God communicate with him while he is of sound mind and body instead of talking to him when his consciousness is at its least reliable state?

        • John MacDonald

          One of my favorite arguments against there being a “soul” is the traumatic brain injury argument (TBI). When there is a TBI, sometimes everything that constitutes someone’s personality is destroyed (even though the person is still alive). If the brain is responsible for everything we understand to be a “self,” then what is left as a “soul?”

        • Greg G.

          Then there is the argument that the soul is the seat of free will. But they tell us that the ability to sin is necessary for free will. If the soul goes to heaven, then there must be free will and the ability to sin. So either heaven is a place for the dead to sin forever or they will be cast into hell after their first sin.

          Unless the heat of hell is evenly distributed, the first ones there will claim the cooler spots while the longer it takes to get cast from heaven means those souls will be forced into the hottest areas. The slightest increase in agony in hell will accrue more total agony throughout the rest of eternity for those who get a taste of heaven and get to hell last.

        • John MacDonald

          And then there’s the question of how a finite transgression can warrant an infinite punishment?

        • Ignorant Amos

          A doG is for life, not just Christmas….ohhhps….soz….that’s a different discussion…//s

        • TheNuszAbides

          Unless the heat of hell is evenly distributed

          oh please. The Adversary would never fine-tune! … unless that’s what he WANTS us to think … *head explodes*

        • al kimeea

          The brain is just a radio receiving your soul/self, which remains intact despite any trauma to the gloop in yer noggin.

        • Steven Watson

          Since when has any Xtian pastor been of “sound mind”?

    • Otto

      >>>”Maybe The Christian Post isn’t telling the whole story.”


      But seriously…he says God is in control…is this news to them?

      It seems like God can only respond to the devil as if God has no idea what the devil is going to do next.

      • John MacDonald

        Satan can even cause God to do things that God didn’t know He would do. For instance, “3Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one on earth like him— blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil. He still retains his integrity, even though YOU INCITED ME against him to ruin him without cause.” (Job 2:3).

        • That Satan is a tricky bastard. He can fool Yahweh even though Yahweh is omniscient.