Psychology in My Life ~ Critical Thinking. (aka, My Journey to Atheism and Skepticism)

For an assignment at college, I am writing on some aspects of psychology and how they pertain to my own life.  I welcome your comments and thoughts.  I will do my best to answer any questions honestly.

And yes, I am aware this is a long post.  It’s been a longer journey.

As a child, I was prone to belief in more or less anything my parents believed in. Much like any child. In many ways however, I was lucky. My father, while he did not really follow the idea of critical thinking and scepticism himself, liked to think he did, and would preach it, even if he didn’t live it. My mother, having missed out on a full education herself, was eager to push me toward anything I showed an interest in, and that was science.

The heavy interest in what I viewed as science; museums, texts, and even, when I got there, science class in school. This gave me a voracious appetite for facts.  What I was missing at the time, and did not know I was missing, was the process. My mother did not know this was something that could be missed, or something that was important. My father had little to no interest in the process. A real interest in the process would question most of his world-view and this was something that was way to uncomfortable for him.

As a child adopting parental beliefs, I bought into UFO conspiracies, Mythical monster conspiracies, governmental conspiracies, you name it, I have been led into it. I started to seriously question this eventually, as my father marched headlong into the church of scientology, even though at the time I did not know it as a church or cult, it started as yet another interest in alternative medicine. The nonsense my father started to spill conflicted in varying degrees to things that I had been learning at school or from my own readings and amateurish research.

This lead to what I now know as cognitive dissonance, that I struggled with for some time. Overall I was inclined to side with my own research. The final nail in that coffin so to speak, was my university education in combination with more information about scientology becoming public knowledge.

I had questioned some strange beliefs all my life. For all my primary school I spent no more than 5 minutes in a religious education class because I would question things that would get me kicked out. Like the catch phrase of the Canadian live sceptical radio show, “Skeptically Speaking” that says ‘Question Everything.’. This actually touches on a number of the listed, formalised, principals of sceptical thinking in the following ways:-

#1 – asking questions and being willing to wonder – this is fairly obvious.

#3 – examining the evidence – in the informal way this is done by questioning things, not just accepting what is said but questioning why, how, when and the like.

#4 – analyze assumptions and biases – informally, this once again comes under the questioning everything, questioning your own assumptions and views or biases.

#5 – avoid emotional reasoning – on the informal basis this is touched in in a similar way to #4, questioning your biases and viewpoints. Questioning ones own emotional response to things is part of that.

#7 – consider other interpretations – Still questioning everything people, questioning the end result of your research.

I learned that the most effective way of making decisions in life was what is known as evidence based.

So let’s take a look at some examples of critical thinking in my daily life.

The most obvious example is religion. This was my first introduction into critical thinking. Even if I did not know it as such at the time.   For me, the dominoes began to topple with religion, when I was in primary school.

We lived at the time in a small rural country town in Queensland. The state that has made a name for itself in Australian society as going backward and proud of it. Enrolment in a state school (public school system) in Queensland at the time meant that you had a mandatory weekly Religious Education (RE) later called Religious Instruction (RI) to dodge claims of discrimination. The only religion ever taught or discussed was christian. The single concession to multiculturalism was that most forms of christianity were accepted and discussed. Although some of the more extreme ones like jehova’s witnesses, mormons and the religions that refuse to use anything more technologically advanced than the wheel were ignored.

Initially, I thought, much like all the other kids, that this was a wag off class that would be easy and not involve anything.

But then the teacher did something, something that started a bit of a cascade of both good and bad things. I suspect he just asked out of habit, but I took the bait. He asked if anyone had any questions.  Now as the city kid who’s just moved to a small hick town. I was not welcomed by the local kids, and the only thing I had was my academics. So I asked a question about something that didn’t make any sense to me. I don’t remember the question any more, but I remember the result. I know that it cannot have been too deep and thoughtful, I was 6 at the time, and I was not expecting the opportunity.

“We know it was this way because that is what it says in the bible.”

“So?”

“The bible is the word of god, so it cannot be wrong.”

I remember the answer because I have heard the same one so many times. At the time, I was, like many of my peers, heavily into dinosaurs and paleontology.

“But the bible says the world was made only a few thousand years ago, and we know there were animals here millions of years ago, so the bible cannot always be right.”

That did it. The room erupted. I was quickly evicted from the classroom to sit in the hall and think about my indiscretion.  Three times during the remainder of the class the teacher came out and asked me if I could tell him what I did wrong.  I answered honestly each time that I couldn’t.  He never bothered asking me again.

On my way home I borrowed a copy of the bible from the school library. It had never been checked out. Before next RE class I read it, cover to cover. I arrived at class armed with questions and contradictions I genuinely wanted answers to.

I was quickly kicked out of class that day too.

And the next class.

And the one following that.

Soon I was not just evicted from class, but was sent to the principal’s office. The first few times I just sat there for an hour or so till he had time to see me, then I was admitted by the secretary who told him why I had been sent (disrupting class) and he would reprimand me and tell me not to disrupt class. And I would go to my next class.

Eventually he saw that I was there weekly. He asked me if I knew why I was there.

“Yes sir, because I asked questions.” I replied – after all, that was what happened before I got evicted every time.

“You are here because you disrupt the class.”

I shook my head immediately knowing he was wrong. I had done nothing to disrupt the class, I listened to the teacher avidly and tried hard to engage the material.

“No sir, I just ask questions. It’s everyone else that yells and laughs.”

The next week the principal watched, unseen from the hall. Sure enough something came up that I questioned and when the teacher wouldn’t or couldn’t answer it, the class went wild, and I was again evicted. The headmaster, having seen both the events and the nature of my questions first hand, figured I should never go back to RE as it was starting other kids questioning. He put me in an empty classroom during that class, with a teacher come by from time to time to check that I wasn’t burning the place down. In time, a few other students were put in with me, I can only assume they too asked questions that were unwelcome.

Not understanding why I was being punished I sought out priests of a few denominations to get my answers. The answers I got were at best circuitous and illogical, sometimes they were simply entirely nonsensical. The only constant is that I was told these things really shouldn’t be questioned. When it became obvious I was not going to get any real answers I stopped asking. I was no expert on social mores, but it had become apparent to me that people hated having their church questioned. Especially by someone who was not officially a member of their particular club.

So I avoided the church altogether. And when my parents put me into church run youth groups, I would make myself so anti-social as to not be welcomed back.

It was many years later, when I finally made my way to university, and for the first time in my life had a useable internet connection that I found out I was not the only person to uncover the social fraud that the churches committed. Until that time I was completely unaware of anything other than christianity and the existence of judaism. Sure, history had told me about the ancient pantheons of Egypt, Greece and Rome – but they were thousands of years ago when humans were an uneducated and uncivilised bunch, heck even cave-man can worship a handful of spirits or gods, it takes true civilization to worship just one.

I had access to materials I never could have got my hands on in a small, heavily insular and religious town without internet access. Suddenly I had answers to many of my old questions. And a frightening number of those answers included the concept “Someone lied or made it up.”. This disturbed me greatly. An entire society built on a series of lies and half truths? These were the kind of enemies I came up with for role playing games, they were what drove the Imperials in Star Wars, the corollaries are endless. If I hadn’t had a science education to throw myself into, my world would have followed my world-view down the drain.

I kept dipping my foot in that pool, it went further than just religions for me. The truth behind the quackery and cults my father had been doing his best to invest us into became apparent.

Now this may sound like my world was falling apart, but in many ways it was the opposite. The life-long cognative dissonance that I had learned to live with suddenly resolved. My feelings of discomfort with these fantastic claims were justified. I realised I had been done a grave disservice by being punished for questioning.

Now I actively avoided any social situation where I would have to swallow my questions and be affected by this kind of cognitive dissonance.

As a natural effect, my social life dwindled and evaporated. But I thought I had done the right thing. I figured I was better off without the lies and deceit.

It took me some time, but finally I started to question that conclusion. I didn’t like what I found. But I realised I could not possibly ignore evidence without becoming that which I was trying to escape.

Now I seek to engage socially, but on my own terms.

I have also started to seek out like minded people who won’t trigger my deeply seated cognitive dissonance with their own world-views. I have learned to bite my tongue because most people don’t like having their beliefs and assumptions questioned and stripped bare in social gatherings. More than that, I cannot abide the accusations and attacks on me for my lack of belief in what is often considered the societal norm.

It’s been claimed that I just hate good things and want to poo poo things. That’s not true. I love to play imaginative role playing games, immersing myself in a fantastical world.

  • The idea of mythical creatures being real thrills and excites me.
  • The concept of an all explanatory god seems so pristine as to be naive to me, but it is a comforting thought.
  • The image of magic being a real force gets my imagination juices flowing.

But to apply them credulously to the real world is pointlessly un-necessary to me.

  • We have fantastic creatures with astonishing abilities.
  • We have theories, many with mountains of real evidence behind them as to how the world around us came to be as it is.

The idea of believing in magic and pretending things are getting fixed or done that way makes me sick to my stomach.

Do I have answers to all the questions? No.

Will I ever? Doubtful, very doubtful.

But that’s ok with me. It means there is still more to learn, more mystery to enjoy and work through, things and places that man has yet to tread, or at the very least that I have yet to tread. There is so much yet to learn, and if there is one thing that I have learned in my life, it is that I love to learn.

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~ by scawalrus on November 21, 2011.

2 Responses to “Psychology in My Life ~ Critical Thinking. (aka, My Journey to Atheism and Skepticism)”

  1. It’s very unsuprising, but sad that you were punished for critical thinking others were unwilling or unable to do on such a major societal cornerstone for humanity, regardless where you live religion is involved in your society.

    I think you should pride yourself with not giving up and giving into the status quo. I also think it’s really interesting how the net was so intergal in proving your gut right after so many years.

    More people should question what they hear and learn! While I too don’t have all the answers, I do enjoy our discussions and debates on such things as religion and societal values and outlooks.

  2. I came ascross this article and it kinda drew some parallels to what you were talking about above. Kinda more along the creativity lines … Hope you enjoy the read 🙂

    http://www.marcandangel.com/2011/11/27/7-deadly-sins-of-creativity/

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