Thursday, 27 September 2012

Faith is the tool of a child

In a child, faith in a teacher makes learning easier and means very complex ideas and actions can be taught at a very young age. In an adult, however, blind faith is not a virtue and serves no purpose but the perpetuation of ideas and practices that fail any critical evaluation.

A few years back I saw a particular research study on comparative intelligence in human children and young chimps.

Both groups were shown a puzzle box, and both groups were taught a sequence of actions tapping the box and pocking at it with a stick, pushing and pulling rods etc, all resulting in opening a draw and finding a treat.

Nothing terribly interesting so far, both groups learn the sequence without difficulty and sit at the box repeating it to get treat after treat.

The difference occurs when the box is made transparent and its internal working can be seen.

It turns out that most if not all of the actions do nothing.

Chimps immediately notice this and abandon all the irrelevant steps while human children still imitate the original pattern (you can find the original scientific article in pdf here.)

Whats the difference?

The children are acting on faith, continuing to do things they don't have any true empirical evidence to support and that appear irrelevant because that's the way they were shown it.

The children are expecting to be taught so they accept things without understanding them. This allows humans to communicate complex ideas without explaining all the granular details of them. basically it makes it possible to say to a child "Do it this way now, you'll understand why later".

This study made perfect sense to me the first time I heard of it. As humans our ability to take things on faith makes it easier for adults to teach children, but as adults we gain the ability to choose when and how often to suspend our critical faculties.

So when someone shows us how to prepare a particular type of meal or fix a particular mechanical device we follow their actions in detail the first few times, and when we are more comfortable that we understand the mechanisms and implications involved we can experiment with modifying the procedure.

As one of my teachers used to say: "You have to really understand the rules before you can break them..."

Popular religions don't work like that. You start by being told to take it all on faith but you never get to graduate up to the point when your critical faculties get to come into play.

Faith might be a great tool for a child learning about the world who follows what they are told because they assume the teacher has some knowledge still to be imparted, but for an adult to follow on faith alone especially when the one leading them lacks any more knowledge or understanding than they do themselves is simply an example of intellectual retardation.

Religionists often feel insulted when atheists make direct comparisons between elements of faith like God and elements of fable like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. However they are all examples of an idea taken on faith until we mature enough to no longer need the idea.

Few children continue to believe in the Tooth fairy until the last of their baby teeth are gone, long before that they realise that a missing tooth means a new and better tooth is on the way so they no longer need the fantasy and bribe.

Why is it then, that many religionists never stop to think that people are mature enough to think for themselves - to establish and understand a self determined morality rather than an artificially imposed one.

If people followed a code of morality they chose and understood perhaps they would not need the promise of reward or punishment that so many religions seem to rely on.

Heaven or Hell
Candy or Coal
The carrot or the stick

Even the bible recognises there is a time for maturity to take over. A time for adults to make, and understand their own choices:
1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

How much longer will childish faith hold sway over so many intelligent adults?

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