• Posted: Feb 28, 2012 17:58:42
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Myth, superstition, and religion have been richly explored within both the humanities and social sciences. However, it also seems evolutionary biology and developmental psychology may have something interesting to add.
Anthropology tells us culture encodes the collective wisdom of a group: which foods are safe to eat, how to tell if water is safe to drink, best practices for building and hunting and farming, etc., etc. Within culture, myth and superstition set up boundaries, boundaries that warn us there are limits to our understanding, places we should not go, expectations we should not entertain, truths we dare not question. Experience teaches. But, art, story, and song convey that experience to others, adding to their confidence, saving them from peril and risk. Myth and superstition almost always figure prominently in such renditions. Religion then selects from those stories and organizes them into coherent narratives intended to help coordinate the workings of entire societies.
One concept within the realm of myth, superstition, and religion marks a peculiar boundary for most humans. It marks the point at which we must choose between following the suggestions of our emotions or holding back, questioning their wisdom, and instead trusting in the cautioning second-hand wisdom of story, art, and song. It's a choice that most vividly comes upon us at puberty, during our teenage years. And few societies have struck a healthy balance between complete letting go and ever more strident warnings and proscriptions. But, is there? Is there a productive midpoint somewhere between those extremes that both preserves the viability of our species, yet does not stifle the potential of our newest generations?
The answer, of course, is yes. Liberalizing, thought provoking, evidence based education and discussion can and does prepare young people to responsibly assume a societal role that allows for personal growth, yet tends to the viability of our species. It does that by cultivating parts of our brain that moderate the connections between sense and action. Instead of sniff food, thill at the thought of eating it, then go for it, the process becomes sniff food, thrill at the thought of eating it, but also consider costs, safety, nutritional value, need for more calories, the social context, time available, what other possibilities for sustenance might lie around the corner, then possibly go for it. Liberalizing education helps establish thought processes that temper the behavior our emotions urge upon us and allows us to question the insight and appropriateness of culturally accumulated religiously organized wisdom for any given instance. Good judgment and evidence based testing may, in fact, yield better, healthier, more satisfying, more socially responsible outcomes, outcomes that could, in the end, provide basis for an improved set of guiding stories.
Not all societies, or even generations, are willing to trust that liberalizing education, research, and discussion are a good direction for humans to take. Youth of the 50's and 60's rejected the cultivation of a tempering moderating addition to their thought processes and sought to bypass temperance and reconnect with their more primitive sensual/emotional foundations with the assistance of alcohol, marijuana, drugs, and suggestive music. The result? Misplaced priorities that in many many instances inspired untempered behaviors that undermined individual health and produced lasting societal alienation and dysfunction. Meanwhile, religious conservatives, completely misreading the facts, have blamed liberalizing education as the source of such rejection of wise and thoughtful temperance, insisting instead on a return to religious dogma and religious based home schooling as the one and only answer. So sad., so tragic, and quite scary.
The historical facts are that independent thinking and experimentation have produced basis for the only progress human society has ever experienced. We'd still be huddling in caves afraid of fire, offering sacrifices to gods and spirits in hope of personal salvation if that were not the case. Evolutionary biology tells us that innovative thinking, willingness to test boundaries, and respect for evidence has enabled humans to successfully adapt to ever changing societal and environmental conditions. We stifle and hobble such thinking and practices at great peril to the viability of our species.
The gift of life is the gift of opportunity to question, experiment, learn, share, and discuss what is true and useful. May you never be tempted or forced to doubt, take for granted, or abandon that gift.
Tuesday, February 14th, 2012