Friday, January 26, 2018

The Distorting Lens of Fundamentalism

A Fundamentalist world view is a lens which distorts perception,
not least one's perception of Biblical texts

I sometimes issue the warning that if you are a religiously inclined person practice your belief by all means, but if you lack experience and confidence, beware of fundamentalists of all flavours. I'm not keen on blowing my own trumpet but let me say that I have had personal contact with and moved among Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists for 45 years. I have also had 15 years of observing fundamentalists on the Internet. It would be very wrong of me to suggest that fundamentalism per se is a mental health issue anymore than forthright atheism is a mental health issue, but among fundamentalists I have seen a tendency for some "very strange" characters to bubble to the top and assume a dominating position. For just as cut-throat commercialism can attract borderline sociopaths so fundamentalism attracts characters inclined toward extreme persuasion. Most of these are simply egotists with an overbearing personality of strong self-belief and conviction. Some, however, alongside their bombastic fellow fundamentalists, have personality and/or mental health issues.

Well, I need only mention Jones Town as evidence. In Jones Town we had a leader of huge personal presence, charisma, dominance and self conviction who was able to persuade quite ordinary and otherwise sane folk to commit mass suicide and even to kill their children. Perhaps the reader can think of other super-egotists of strong personality and/or boarder-line lunatics who have secured a religious following. I've seen more than one fundamentalist who, quite frankly, I would classify as dangerous because of their ability to sway impressionable and gullible rank and file believers toward their proprietary convictions. In one case of my acquaintance a one-time sectioned schizophrenic, on being returned to society, had succeeded in securing a small following by convincing this following that the government was using mind control and mind reading machines with the capability of projecting voices into one's head - it seems that his ego would not accept that he was still showing schizophrenic symptoms. In another case a Christian fundamentalist of my acquaintance who promulgated an array of conspiracy theories, including cancer conspiracy theories, believed that the medical establishment were suppressing natural cures for cancer. This person, on being diagnosed with cancer, refused treatment and opted for an apricot pips "remedy" which of course failed and death followed quickly.  In another case a severe paranoia sufferer put out stories that he and his church were in the grip demons. At least one sane person gave some credence to these stories. (after all, as Christians we believe in demons don't we?). This anosognosic paranoiac would never accept that (s)he had a severe psychosis and despised the advice and help of the medical profession.

I can think of others but I certainly don't want to convey the idea that persuasive fundamentalist leaders are all mentally ill. There are, however, common traits which I would like to point out; namely, a strong personality, incorrigible self belief and a planet sized ego. The epistemic conceit of these leaders often hides under the assertion that their world view is not from themselves but has God's authority because they are simply following (as opposed to proactively interpreting) the Bible; that is, their teaching is God's teaching and not man's teaching. Therefore in their eyes their opinions have divine authority, unlike anyone else's opinions! The trouble with fundamentalist culture is that it tends to attract these kinds of personality; their self confidence registers as a form of leadership to those of weaker ego, often (but not always) of weaker intellect and who are looking for direction. Consequently,  these "leaders" can succeed in passing on their distorted view of reality to others.

As an example take Ken Ham and his one time business partner John Mackay. The story of John Mackay can be found here. To be fair Ken Ham, although clearly an egotist of strong personality and conviction, doesn't as far as I know have mental health issues, but he is quite capable of passing on a distorted picture of reality. Clear evidence of this is seen in his blog post dated 16th January and titled Is it good if your child lies to you?  Below I reproduce his post almost in its entirety (My emphases):

Is it good if your child lies to you? 

A recent article in The New York Times argues that if your child is lying to you, that’s a good thing! The article even quotes one psychologist who claims that if you discover your young child lying, you “should celebrate,” and if your child “is lagging behind, don’t worry: You can speed up the process” by using games to turn “truth-tellers into liars within weeks.”

So why would you want your child to lie to you? Well, apparently, it’s a sign of intelligence and of a high verbal IQ. It’s also a sign the child can see the world through other’s eyes. But you know what else lying is? A sin and something Scripture expressly forbids over and over again.
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 12:22)
A false witness will not go unpunished,
and he who breathes out lies will perish. (Proverbs 19:9)
Do not lie to one another. (Colossians 3:9)
During yesterday’s episode of Answers News, our twice-weekly live news program streamed over Facebook Live, Dr. Georgia Purdom, Bodie Hodge, and Avery Foley of AiG discussed this news item, as well as several others. They shared that this is a clear example of what Isaiah describes—calling good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). It’s an attempt to normalize a sinful behavior and to encourage parents to help their children sin.

And remember, once a culture abandons a foundation in an absolute authority, [that is Ken's opinions!] then there’s really no such thing as “truth” or “lying,” because all is relative!

I encourage you to watch the episode to hear them discuss this item, as well as many others.

MY COMMENT. We get the impression from the foregoing that the NYT article "argues that if your child is lying to you, that’s a good thing" and should be encouraged! Ham then goes on to use the Bible, as is his wont, to accuse  the author of the article of heinous sin Viz: "calling good evil and evil good" and  "It’s an attempt to normalize a sinful behavior and to encourage parents to help their children sin.".  He also indulges in his usual practice of threatening spiritual intimidation Viz: "A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish". Yes, I agree lying to one's fellow human without conscience is an abomination, but is Ham really doing the article justice?  Let's compare Ken's view with extracts I have taken from the actual New York Times article (The article can be found here):

Professor Lewis has found that toddlers who lie about peeking at the toy have higher verbal I.Q.s than those who don’t, by as much as 10 points. (Children who don’t peek at the toy in the first place are actually the smartest of all, but they are a rarity.)

Other research has shown that the children who lie have better “executive functioning skills” (an array of faculties that enable us to control our impulses and remain focused on a task) as well as a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, a crucial indicator of cognitive development known as “theory of mind.” (Tellingly, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is characterized by weaker executive functioning, and those with spectrum disorders such as autism, which are characterized by deficits in theory of mind, have trouble with lying.) Young liars are even more socially adept and well adjusted, according to recent studies of preschoolers.

Training children in executive functioning and theory of mind using a variety of interactive games and role-playing exercises can turn truth-tellers into liars within weeks, Professor Lee has found.

MY COMMENT: This is the part of NYT article which sends Ken into a spiral of condemnation and righteous anger. But actually it's largely a piece of common sense: It stands to reason that good liars are probably pretty intelligent and socially adept operators and if your child is a good liar you can gain some consolation from the fact that it simply means (s)he is unlikely to have psychological disabilities like autism and ADHD. So there is a silver lining that objectively speaking we can't deny; Viz: We all know that lying is the (undesirable) domain of quite normal mentally healthy human beings and it's something we are all tempted by, therefore good lying is a sign of cognitive normality! As children learn their theory mind they will get better at lying; it's the downside of social acumen. As for the bit about turning truth tellers into liars within weeks, I read that as tongue-in-cheek especially in view of what follows in the rest of the article. For when taken in the context of the whole article it is manifestly clear to any reasonable person that the NYT article is certainly not advocating lying as a good thing to be encouraged, but the article is simply suggesting that it is a predictor of social adeptness (which is difficult to deny).

Let's now look at the following context taken for the NYT article. Ham makes no reference to this context for it appears not to have registered in his fundamentalist psyche (My emphases):

For parents, the findings present something of a paradox. We want our children to be clever enough to lie but morally disinclined to do so. And there are times when a child’s safety depends on getting at the truth, as in criminal cases involving maltreatment or abuse. How can we get our children to be honest?

In general, carrots work better than sticks. Harsh punishments like spanking do little to deter lying, research indicates, and if anything may be counterproductive. In one study, Professor Lee and the developmental psychologist Victoria Talwar compared the truth-telling behaviors of West African preschoolers from two schools, one that employed highly punitive measures such as corporal punishment to discipline students and another that favored more tempered methods like verbal reprimands and trips to the principal’s office. Students at the harsher school were not only more likely to lie but also far better at it.

Witnessing others being praised for honesty, meanwhile, and nonpunitive appeals for the truth — for example, “If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you” — promotes honest behavior, Professors Lee and Talwar have found.

So does a simple promise. Multiple studies have shown that children as old as 16 are less likely to lie about their misdeeds, and the misdeeds of others, after pledging to tell the truth, a result that has been replicated widely. The psychologist Angela Evans has also found that children are less likely to peek at the toy while the researcher is out of the room if they promise not to. Curiously, this works even with children who don’t know the meaning of the word “promise.” Merely securing a verbal agreement — “I will tell the truth” — does the trick. By the end of infancy, it would seem, children already grasp the significance of making a verbal commitment to another person.

As for those childhood morality tales, you might want to skip the more ominous ones. Professor Lee and others have found that reading stories to children about the perils of deceit, such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Pinocchio,” fails to discourage them from lying. Reading them the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, on the other hand, in which truthfulness is met with approval, does reduce lying, albeit to a modest degree. The key to fostering honest behavior, Professor Lee and his colleagues argue, is positive messaging — emphasizing the benefits of honesty rather than the drawbacks of deception.

You can also simply pay kids to be honest. In research involving 5- and 6-year-olds, Professor Lee and his colleagues attached a financial incentive to telling the truth about a misdeed. Lying earned children $2, while confessing won them anywhere from nothing to $8. The research question was: How much does the truth cost? When honesty paid nothing, four out of five children lied. Curiously, that number barely budged when the payout was raised to $2.

But when honesty was compensated at 1.5 times the value of lying — $3 rather than $2 — the scales tipped in favor of the truth. Honesty can be bought, in other words, but at a premium. The absolute dollar amount is irrelevant, Professor Lee has found. What matters is the relative value — the honesty-to-dishonesty exchange rate, so to speak.

“Their decision to lie is very tactical,” Professor Lee said. “Children are thinking in terms of the ratio.” Smart kids, indeed.

MY COMMENT: So the NYT article makes it clear that although we desire children of sufficient mental acumen to have the potential to lie that's certainly not to say we want them to be habitual liars. How can we get our children to be honest? asks the article and then goes on to consider possible measures that might be taken to prevent lying. The article asks what might promote honest behavior and answers as follows: The key to fostering honest behavior, Professor Lee and his colleagues argue, is positive messaging — emphasizing the benefits of honesty rather than the drawbacks of deception.

This, of course, is not the story Ham is telling: He makes an entirely false accusation; namely, that the author of the NYT article is encouraging lying in children  This is a complete misinterpretation of the article. Now, it would be wrong to equate Ham's misinterpretation as itself a form of lying; no, rather it has more to do with the way he perceives social reality, a reality which, beyond his fundamentalist sect, he believes to be in a state of total depravity; particularly depraved would be Christians like myself who contradict him! This makes him fertile ground for his skewed and paranoid version of reality (This is also the reason why fundamentalists are prey to conspiracy theorism). By rights Ham should offer an apology for slandering the author of this article, but the fundamentalist world view and moral compass is likely to block such a courtesy. For Ham only registers the part of the article which fulfills his fundamentalist expectation that outside his religious sect the world is in a state of total depravity. I have observed the Jehovah's Witness involved in similar acts of character defamation and it stems from a similar paranoid logic; namely, that those beyond the Watchtower sect are persons guilty of malign intent unless and until they submit to every Jot & tittle of Watchtower teaching. Ham's organisation, AiG, also makes exacting demands on believers.


It is difficult to have cordial relationships with the some of the more extreme fundamentalists. Their concept that the world beyond the confines of their sect is one of total depravity means that outsiders, especially "heretic" Christian outsiders like myself, are regarded with the utmost suspicion. See for example Biologos failed attempt at trying to foster friendly relations with Ken Ham. I could have told Biologos that this attempt at forming bridges would fail! In the eyes of extreme fundamentalists an outsider's behavior may be subject to the most bizarre paranoid interpretations. They will also feel justified in doing what they can to apply spiritual duress where possible. See John MacKay (ibid) and Ken Ham's cursory and frivolous treatment of one of my VNP posts and also his treatment of "heretical" Christians. But it gets a lot worse when fundamentalists start attacking one another; it is then that the irresistible force meets the immovable object!.

Westboro Baptist Church shows just how far fundamentalism can go in its distorted  perception of the outside world.

ADDENDUM 18/04/17
I have remarked before how fundamentalists, like good inquisitors, have a natural tendency to put blasphemous words and thinking into the mouths and heads of Christians they disapprove of in order to secure chargers of heresy. I caught Jason Lisle at this trick here. In a Facebook post dated 10/04/18 we find Ken Ham up to the same trick. This is what he says (My emphasis).

Christians who believe the fossil record was laid down millions of years before man are really accusing God of saying cancer and diseases are "very good" (Genesis 1:31), as many diseases have been discovered in fossil bones supposedly millions of years old! No, diseases came after sin.

Compare Christian scientist Denis Alexander's comments here about the word "good" in Genesis 1. Also, notice that Ham has overlooked the role of the Serpent in Genesis which the fundamentalist ministry Christian Ministries International (CMI) does not.  Ken all too readily sees dark motives and bad consciences in the Christians he disapproves of. 

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