mercredi 30 mars 2011

A legacy from parent to child

A legacy from parent to child: teaching skepticism and the value of truth
(reprinted without permission from The Humanist:

The "need to believe" versus the "will to be skeptical"--which typically wins out?

If the sales of books on angels, after life confessions, and alien encounters are any measure, the need to believe comes up the undisputed champ in the 1990s. But, of course, such irrational beliefs are not the hallmark of this decade alone. Read any history of spiritualism, such as the recent book Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, or any good history of religion and the need to believe seems to wind its way back to the beginnings of civilization and, indeed, prehistory.

The will to be skeptical, on the other hand, seems to have a murkier past. Socrates was its champion and paid for it with his life. The Talmudic scholars who questioned, counter-questioned, and requestioned every tenet of the Jewish faith left tomes of testimony to the strength of query in the face of seeming dogma. And the Renaissance and Enlightenment cultivated the seeds of a revolutionary way of thinking: a scientific, objective, experimental way of thinking, whose heirs are today's researchers and critics in various fields.

Yet, for the "ordinary" person, who is not a researcher or critic by profession or natural bent, how can the much deeper roots of the need to believe be countered by a will to be skeptical? Let me suggest that all of the well reasoned articles in the world will not do a lot to implant the skeptical bent in most people. As is true with many of society's problems, the key, I think, is in child hood upbringing.

Take my personal example. My mother's constant mantra was "Don't be a follow-the-leader, be your own leader." And indeed, our life as we grew up was quite different from that of my friends. We were eating health food in the 1950s--lots of whole wheat bread and wheat germ, no soda or candy. (I was lucky that my mother was a great cook, so it was tasty, not torturous, to eat such fare as a kid.) We also readily mocked the commercials on television and the politicians. I think my father gave us the skeptical bent in this direction. I imbibed the attitude of the gadfly and muckraker with my daily three o'clock glass of milk, seeping into my bones and remaining with me for life.

An equally important quality that can be passed from parent to child is the love of truth. If truth, rather than defense of one's erroneous beliefs, is made the ideal, then being shown you're wrong is a joy. It is a thrill to realize that now you're in possession of the facts, whereas previously you were mistaken in what you thought was the case.

Truth-seeking has to become part and parcel of a person's identity, rather than having one's ego identified with beliefs that don't stand the test of time. It's an iconoclastic, innovative way of thinking, a dislike of being in a "rut" when the new beckons with the glow of veracity. It leads to a questing mind, a thinking mind that is ever looking for new facts and perspectives to correct current thought (which can never reach the ultimate truth but can grow closer and closer to it as knowledge and insight increase).

When critical thinking and truth seeking are absorbed as values during the formative years of childhood, they become instinctive habits of life. Adults who are used to believing blindly with out questioning are not amenable to finger wagging by the more "enlightened" Their thought patterns are al ready too ingrained. It's much easier to get a rational, factual, skeptical message across to people who have been taught as youngsters to love learning, poking holes in ideologies, and exposing shams and scams no matter what "authority" backs them.

And for those of us who are not parents, we can become skeptical role models for young people around us. We should eagerly accept new data that come our way, even when they tread uncomfortably on our decades-old assumptions. But we should also show children how to evaluate new information--not to throw overboard all of our previous beliefs because of one or two news reports but, instead, to objectively evaluate all the evidence at hand. Our natural excitement at discerning what is true and false will be obvious, and it will help to make our attitudes vibrant, plastic, growing in comprehension of ourselves and our world.

And so, in our worlds of doing, not just in our words, we can be "good skeptics"--open, aware, searching for reality and truth--and hopefully influence the children whose ways of thinking have not yet hardened into rigid categories of unquestioning conviction.

Gloria J. Leitner has published articles on health, political, and social issues in a variety of newspapers and magazines in the United States and Canada, as well as ten books of poetry.

COPYRIGHT 1997 American Humanist Association

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