Well, it’s happened. I have officially hit that age where I want to shake younger people by the shoulders and scream at them not to waste their beautiful, precious, oh-so-finite youth. I can hardly bear to see young people trapped in relationships that make them deeply unhappy, toiling away at “safe” jobs that they can’t stand, ignoring the educations they get handed on a silver platter, sitting on their winning lottery tickets, as Chuckie put it so well, while the rest of us schlubs are stuck doing our metaphorical construction work. It pains me to see them wasting their strong, vibrant, resilient, powerful, years on nonsense they despise and stupidity that makes them hurt. And the worst part? There’s no use whatsoever in saying so to them. They wouldn’t listen any more than I did when I was that young. It is with quite a bit of bittersweet shaking-of-the-head that I wonder if my own mother or the women around me thought the same thing when they saw me doing the stupid shit I did to waste my own youth. The worst vice is advice, as the old saying goes, so I hold my tongue unless asked.
But even more tragic than seeing someone waste youth is seeing someone waste a child’s curiosity.
One of the more interesting things to come out of the now-famous Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate was this little list from Buzzfeed about questions creationists want to pose to “evolutionists” (the term is meant to be a pejorative, but it just means “people who accept reality”).
Their questions are meant to shut “evolutionists” down, not stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not to be answered. I say this because anybody with a computer and an internet connection could search for their less-obviously-strong-arming fearmongering questions. No, they aren’t interested in answers. They are interested in shutting the opposition up already. They are interested in looking smug and being right. They just want to show off their faith and their ability to parrot talking-points. They aren’t genuinely curious. Look at their faces. They don’t really want to know the answers. If they wanted to know this stuff, they would. You know how long it takes to write one of these essays? Would you like to know how much of it is research and reading to learn the various points of view and what both sides of the issue are saying? It’d make you decide blogging probably isn’t for you, if I told you. But I do it because I am curious. I want to know what’s going on. I ask questions and I find answers to them. That’s what curiosity is. It doesn’t parrot a talking-point. It asks with a genuine desire to find the answer.
Curiosity knows that sometimes what we find when we seek answers will make us reformulate our ideas and opinions, and that’s okay. I’d far rather discover I was wrong than keep thinking I was right about something when I was really wrong. My wrongness won’t go away the longer I hold a wrong opinion. It won’t magically become right, like I think many right-wing toxic Christians think their wrong opinions will if they just keep repeating them often enough.
But despite their complete lack of desire for answers for these “questions,” these bright-eyed-yet-smug Christians are getting them from all over the place.
Let’s look at the first one: “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?” This man is vitally interested in making sure we are all influencing the minds of children in a positive way, and by that he means he wants to make sure that whatever we tell them makes them more indoctrinated into Biblical literalism. He knows that the work Bill Nye does drives children away from the literalist reading of the Bible that Ken Ham promotes. He wants Bill Nye to hang his head and seriously ponder whether telling children the truth and about reality and science will make them go to Hell or something. He is smiling his big ole Jesus smile because he thinks Bill Nye is a negative influence and he wants to jab at him for it. Incidentally, the answer is “Yes, he’s doing a world of good getting kids interested in science, and you’ll be thankful for it if you ever get a lifestyle disease and learn that prayer doesn’t do squat to cure it.” (Don’t you wonder which creationist-homeschooled child in that audience might have advanced the war against cancer if his or her curiosity hadn’t been shut down? Perhaps it would have been one of those two gobsmacked, red-cheeked teenaged boys the cameras focused on early on.)
The second is very obviously one meant to inspire terror and fear: “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?” This is one that Christians tend to think non-Christians worry about a lot, and this particular Christian wants us to be afraid. She wants to remind us that there is something to be terrified of. So much for a religion of peace and love. This isn’t curiosity either; it’s more of an attempt to strong-arm someone into fearing what she fears. By the way, the answer is “First show me a god that exists. Then we’ll talk about whether or not we need to be ‘scared’ of him/her/it/them.”
It goes on and on like that: non-questions, questions meant to inspire fear or awe without evidence, pandering and terrorizing, all interspersed with big ole Jesus smiles and smug grins and smarmy AHA!-GOTCHA! expressions, the same kind Douglas Adams would have called “brickable.” Many of the questions have absolutely nothing to do with evolution or creationism, like “What about noetics?” or “Where do you derive objective meaning in life?”, because these Christians were taught to avoid reality by asking red herrings like these of themselves and others. Sometimes a Christian asks a genuine question, but one we’ve answered many times over and which a simple ten-second Google search would very quickly clear up for them, like stuff about how sunsets could possibly exist without a god or correcting a creationist’s erroneous ideas about how Newtonian physics works (or setting a Christian straight about space aliens), but these Christians are all totally convinced that nobody has ever answered these questions and that they are the total gotchas they were spoon-fed long ago and taught to say when challenged.
I just realized that Young-Earth Creationism is like the tae kwon do or “krotty” of Christianity. It teaches kids all sorts of stupid moves that, if done in a real fight, will all but guarantee that child will be destroyed. But meanwhile, the kids taking all those classes are convinced they’re learning “self-defense.” They’re not spending that time learning real self-defense or even a really useful martial art, of which there are many. But they’re convinced they are learning both self-defense and a really useful martial art. They act like total jackasses in high school because they’re convinced their hands are register-able killing weapons (true: I knew a couple guys in high school who claimed this). Then the first time they get into a fight they absolutely can’t ditch, they get their butts kicked. And it isn’t totally even their fault; the adults around them all told them all these years that their efforts were going to pay off and that this was totally effective stuff they were learning. They bought into the training they were getting a little too much and didn’t question it.
And they didn’t question it because their curiosity got shut down. No, it sure isn’t just creationism that does that.
Have you ever heard that old story about the little child who asked what held up the Earth? An elder told the child, “It’s held up on the back of a vast turtle.” The child asked, “But what holds up the turtle?” And the elder replied, “Another turtle.” When the child started to ask, “But what holds up that–” the elder cut the child off and said, “Look, it’s turtles all the way down!” The story doesn’t relate what the child did after being told to quit asking questions, but I wonder. Did the child say “Screw you, I want to know!” and go off to dig a hole to see if there was a turtle shell down there somewhere? Or did the child frown and say, “Umm, okay, I guess you must be right” and not ask anymore?
Every one of these people in this Buzzfeed article started off as children, and every one of them started their journey with a child’s limitless capacity for wonder and curiosity. And every one of them got their curiosity turned off, shut down, and destroyed by religious zealots who successfully taught them to quit asking what was under all the turtles. “God did it” is an incomplete sentence. It tells the kid not to wonder how exactly “God did it” and just focus on the fact that “God did it.” The child is taught that wondering “how?” is a sin and a challenge that cannot stand, like the rabbits in Strawberry’s warren in Watership Down learned to quit asking where anybody was. (I’d better not have spoiled it for you.)
Creationists are doing their children the greatest disservice there is by stifling their curiosity in the name of strong-arming them into indoctrination. I remember the first time I ever heard an ex-Christian talk about how creationism had destroyed her childhood curiosity. “God did it, no need to wonder how, he just did,” she was told, and she was taught she didn’t need to learn real science or even ask anything about it because the answers were all right in her Bible. Her curiosity became dead inside her spirit till she realized that creationism wasn’t true–which made her wonder what else wasn’t true (hint: none of it was true), and she ended up deconverting. Her sense of curiosity flared up inside her like a bird and took flight, and she found herself devouring books about reality with a hunger that shocked her but also made her hugely happy. For the first time, her natural wonder was being fed. For the first time, she was asking “Why?” and getting answers that weren’t designed to shut her down.
She was only the first. Since then I’ve run into a number of other ex-Christians who talked about having a deadened sense of curiosity and wonder that only re-awakened after leaving their religion. It made me remember that in my own Christian days, I didn’t wonder about a lot of things that I should have wondered about. Remember, my church was a literalist fundamentalist denomination, though they weren’t quite as hopped-up on the juice as such churches are nowadays. I struggled hugely with the rigid gender roles my church prescribed for me, but I didn’t really ask why those roles were like that. I was very hurt that a gay friend of mine was struggling so hard with being gay, but I didn’t wonder why my church was so down on gay people. I didn’t wonder why my god had all but guaranteed people would fall in the Garden of Eden, or why he’d felt so threatened by humans that he had to engineer our “confounding” with the sabotage of the Tower of Babel. I didn’t ask where the “cities” came from that Cain wandered through, nor where he and Abel had gotten their wives and children from. I didn’t ask these questions or a number of others for a very long time. I’d been taught to turn off my curiosity.
I absorbed talking points similar to the ones in this Buzzfeed article; I learned to parrot these semi-satisfactory “gotcha” questions and answers when people asked about stuff like the many contradictions between the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels (“it’s just like the Blind Men and the Elephant!”), or about why there weren’t any records of Jesus in contemporary accounts (“it was an illiterate culture/we have more proof of Jesus’ existence than we do about Homer/Caesar/Washington”), or, more devastatingly, why prayer didn’t seem to have a supernatural effect (“yes/no/maybe are all answers”). I didn’t really argue about creationism; I didn’t believe it myself for realsies, though I of course subscribed to literalism. But that left a lot of other things to argue about that I did think were really true.
I’ve talked before about the “cruel dilemma” that I see Christians setting their children up for. When one of these Buzzfeed questioners finally realizes that his or her “question” has an answer, a good one, one that is real and true, one that totally contradicts what that questioner was taught to say, one that completely defies the Bible and the dogma-peddlers’ version of the truth, what’s going to happen?
Well, first these questioners have to get to the point where reality matters more to them than the indoctrination they’ve absorbed over the years. That’s going to be a trick, but obviously it happens; people are deconverting at huge rates, and along with those deconversions comes a natural questioning process. Many of those deconversions are happening because of extremist belief systems like creationism, which leave no room for nuance or questions and demand compliance or rejection. But these people in the Buzzfeed article have been taught that questioning creationism is questioning their very religion and god. A showdown has been set up in their minds, one they skirt away from just like I did once, just like every ex-Christian did once. They are scared of that showdown. They don’t want to approach too closely. But some of them will.
They will learn that creationism doesn’t ask questions. It tells people to shut up. It doesn’t make predictions. Rather, it baldly lies about the past. It doesn’t provoke curiosity. It slams curiosity down into the dirt and stomps on it. It doesn’t encourage questions. It offers false answers. It doesn’t even assuage doubt. It just tells believers that doubt is evil and to ignore their doubts–or will disingenuously say that doubt is wonderful… up to a point, at which point doubt is evil and must be ignored.
Then those questioners will be in a very big bind. At that point, they’re going to realize that most of what they were taught, if not all of it, is flat-out wrong. They will learn, slowly and with effort, that yes, there are ways to know stuff, and sometimes stuff we learn isn’t in the Bible or contradicts a literal reading of it. If they can bring themselves to that showdown, if they approach that precipice, at that point they will either say “Yes, but this is my faith” and walk away from it, or else they will say “oh man, what now?” like I did. A choice will have to be made. And it will be made, one way or the other.
Statistically, of these 22 people, we can expect to see a few of them at least be in a different headspace in a few years–and the younger the questioner, the more likely that is. I think it’d be interesting to visit with them again then and see where they are, if they still hold the same ideas or if they’ve learned to rediscover their curiosity.
As Phil Plait over at Slate has pointed out, Christians tend to really dig “debates” like this one. It justifies their increasing tendency to teach children debate techniques over teaching them real reality and facts. One thing that really makes me feel sad for many zealot families is the trend of homeschooling, which just places this parroted nonsense into children’s heads and convinces them it’s true. The religious-homeschooling movement seems really into teaching kids how to debate. Oh wow they do love to debate. They grow up learning how to put together a really interesting debate. I know they do it so the kids can argue more effectively against reality. Seriously, it’s just like those kids’ martial-arts “dojos” one sees near supermarkets.
But debate isn’t learning facts. Arguments do not take the place of evidence. Debate can be really useful, but it’s just learning how to speak in public and how to respond to questions–all to win an argument. Teaching a kid to be a rules lawyer doesn’t teach that kid reality. It just teaches that kid how to be a rules lawyer. Life isn’t a courtroom. It is a giant laboratory–and it is a place where questions get asked and answered.
Oh, parents, don’t waste your kids’ curiosity. More than wasting youth, wasting curiosity is a crime against nature. When you waste your youth, you’re only hurting yourself. When you waste a child’s curiosity, you hurt the whole human race, potentially. Cures for cancer, discoveries of alien worlds, a fix for the bee-colony collapse problem, breakthroughs in paleontology, new dinosaur skeletons, a new vaccine, all of it is sitting in the zealot family’s homeschooling room, and all of it is being completely squandered in the name of dogma.
You can probably imagine that after the Buzzfeed article went up, reality-accepting types gleefully leaped on these “questions” and answered them, just like we answered the Insane Clown Posse after they famously asserted in one of their songs that nobody could ever possibly figure out how magnets worked. I wonder if any of these “questioners” will see their “questions” answered, and if they’ll feel stung. I wonder if they’ll look at the very sincere answers their questions get and wonder why we seem so confident of them. I wonder if they’ll wonder how it is we know the answers to these seemingly-stumping questions.
I wonder what they’ll choose at that point, dogma or reality. I hope it’s reality.
Dogma tells us “because shut up, that’s why.”
Reality tells us “I don’t know–let’s find out together.”
And I really want us to find out together.