Last night, when I couldn’t sleep and needed some entertainment, I listened to Steve Mirsky from the Scientific American Podcast talk to Stephen Asma. Dr Asma works at Columbia College’s Department of Liberal Education and recently published an article about his visit to the creationist museum in Kentucky (no, there will be no link to the museum. Find it yourself. But the link to the article is here).
While I am not going to recap all the hilarious stories that young earth evolutionists want you to believe, I was reminded of a talk that I heard two years ago at the New Zealand Conference of Psychiatrists in 2005 about the fine line between delusion and ‘firm belief’. In the U.S. of this century, having the firm belief that aliens are abducting people and that there is a zionist world conspiracy will probably not even get a raised eyebrow in certain parts of Montana, while in Europe people would move away from you rapidly. Believing devoutly that a man, born by a virgin was able to raise the dead and did so himself on easter, is a completely acceptable concept for billions of Christians, though Richard Dawkins and other sceptics would scoff at that story.
So, there is a fine line between ‘firm beliefs’ and delusions. That of course makes a psychiatrist’s job not particularly easy, but it also raises the question about how to behave in the presence of a young earth creationists. Let’s say you meet a nice young couple at a party: they’re friendly, well educated, have a delightful family, a nice sense of humour and a steady job, and then tell you that earth is 5800 years old, made by a super intelligent, benevolent entity and that Noah fitted a pair of every species into the ark to save them from a giant flood (btw, I think I remember the last species count was around 1.5 million. And what about the amoebae? And Gardnerella?). What do you do? In my personal view, there are three strategies.
- You smile and mention that you’re not religious at all and try to move away from the topic because, apart from the creationist thing, they’re really nice.
- You smile and say goodbye, citing bladder problems.
- You laugh your head off and leave.
- You stay and argue.
These strategies all have inheritant flaws and will potentially upset a perfectly nice couple. But then, should you really care? Dealing with our fellow humans who have ‘firm beliefs’ tests us everyday: it challenges our tolerance, our argumentation skills and our own beliefs.
I hold the firm belief that Matt Bianco is the best band ever, but if I mention this on parties, people start rolling their eyes and start inching away from me. That makes me feel like an atheist on a prayer meeting but then I at least don’t try to convince everybody from my absolute correctness in this matter (ok, so I send the odd cd around, but nobody gets hurt, do they?).
That of course puts Matt Bianco dangerously close to evangelical christianity. I don’t think that was the intended outcome of this entry.