Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Joseph Erwin, Ph.D., Research Professor of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and Independent Consulting Primatologist.

Learning to be rational and to solve real-world problems by taking appropriate and effective action is difficult enough under the best of circumstances; but living and learning in environments that promote learned helplessness, diminish the value of developing personal competence and self-reliance, emphasize magical thinking, and encourage compliance with authoritarian dogma, all work against growing into mature, mentally healthy, effective, self-actualizing human beings. As someone who was educated in SDA schools, and even taught in one, I have come to wonder about, and question, the value of some aspects of SDA education.

All educational systems have strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps no system is either entirely ideal or devoid of merit. Some students are mentally and emotionally equipped to glean the best from whatever educational exposure they experience. Others? Not so much. Students who are susceptible to the intellectual impact of immersion in belief systems in which an invisible spirit realm is accorded as much (or more) credence than tangible, evidence-based, objective reality, are vulnerable to thought and mood disorders and persistent psychological damage from the kind of indoctrination in illusions that is fostered in some religions through their schools.

The concept that something is true because I believe it, or because the wise people of my religious tradition claimed it was true, does not stand up to empirical experience in the real world. Objective, tangible, reality exists, and some truth can be known from available evidence. While we can imagine alternatives to reality, including intangible physical (or even “spiritual”) phenomena, treating what is imaginary as if it were real can become problematic if one loses the ability to distinguish between the actual and the unreal. In fact, “splitting away from reality” is the most salient diagnostic feature of the devastating mental disorder, schizophrenia.

Systems of indoctrination, as commonly practiced within religious and political systems, involve attempts to restrict the availability of evidence that is contrary to their perspective on reality. A kind of cognitive framework or template is built up that filters information in ways that support a rigid perspective and rejects evidence to the contrary. The world is full of people who have been indoctrinated within one tradition or another, with some holding much more tightly to their traditional perspective than others.
Indoctrination enables control by a few over many adherents and their resources. Being a member of a group of like-minded individuals can also provide a sense of belonging and even a kind of predictability and social control. Unfortunately, groups with differing perspectives can collide in conflict and competition that leads to war. Becoming excessively bound to a group with a specific rigid perspective places one at risk of being enlisted as a combatant against those from differing traditions.
In extreme form, rigid patterns of thinking are recognized as a “paranoid process,” in which bizarre and unreasonable explanations are readily accepted or invented that are contrary to evidence. Paranoid thinkers thrive within, and are sustained and valued by, some communities. Even so, some people progress into paranoid schizophrenia—which commonly includes among its array of hallucinations and delusions, religious themes and struggles. While schizophrenia clearly has biochemical and genetic roots, exposure of vulnerable people to thought systems that emphasize irrational alternatives to reality testing might drive them right over the edge. I’m thinking SDAs and their educational systems need a serious and substantial dose of reality, including an emphasis on evidence-based critical thinking.


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