Tuesday 18 December 2012

Embracing Ignorance and Asking Questions: Raising our Collective IQ

by David Ince

It's all about asking questions. That's what being an atheist, skeptic, or freethinker is all about. It's something that people of faith, as much as they protest to the contrary, seem to have missing from their armoury.

Yes, theists are generally good at stating their positions, telling you what they believe and what you need to do, but they almost never get into interrogatories. This lack of questioning is unfortunate, not only for the believer who loses out on a chance to understand more about the atheist perspective,  but also for the atheist who misses the chance to hone his/ her argument and improve upon it. Iron sharpens iron is what they say, but that only happens when there are questions providing the friction.

When I look back at my education in the Caribbean, I see suppression of an inquiring culture rather than promotion of it. This stems not just from a religious background that says something is true because “I say so,” but from a lack of confidence in our people, an underlying fear of being seen as unintelligent just because you don't know the answer. I know this was at play when I was at school. A teacher in Maths, History, or Science would stand before us and expound on a subject. At the end of the class would be the inevitable, “Everybody understands? Anyone have any questions?”  

Nine times out of ten every hand would stay down and we would nod and indicate we followed everything fully. I guess to some extent we weren't lying. We understood the words, the teacher was speaking English, we understood English. But as I have come to know now, understanding something is far more than just comprehending words. Still, in our minds at that time, words were all that mattered, most times we just sat and wrote out the exact phrases that emanated from the teacher's lips. We could, if called upon, stand up and repeat what Mr. Brown said and that was good enough.

Putting your hand up just was not an option. No, that would be a sign of weakness. It would be perceived that you were a bit of a “slow” child. Twenty-nine children nodding away confidently and you are the only backward one that doesn't get it? If you wanted to not be taunted for being stupid the thing to do was to keep quiet, don't open your mouth and show your ignorance, that's how we were trained in the Caribbean and to a large extent that's how many of us have remained in adulthood.

I have asked myself many times, how to change that mindset. How do we reverse what we learnt in school and convince people that it is the smart kid not the idiot that is the one who asks the questions? The answer to me seems to be education. I can say for my part, the further I have gone in my education, the less concerned I have become of displaying ignorance. It has often been said that the more you know the more you realise you don't know. The more knowledge you have the more comfortable you are with your lack of knowledge. Comfortable not from the perspective that you are happy to stay in that state forever, but comfortable to admit that you just don't know the answer to some things. You are willing to defer to an expert when you find yourself out of your depth in an area, taking your ignorance not as a badge of honour, but as a fuel to drive you towards greater knowledge on highways that were completely free of traffic before.

They say that ignorance is bliss, but I find ignorance exciting, a potential for enlightenment and discovery, and there are few things more thrilling than that. I think the embracing of ignorance needs to be a key part of what we promote in the secular movement  It is something I am enjoying doing myself on the  podcast 'Freethinking Island' which I am co-hosting weekly. It is easy when you put a podcast out to look at it as an instrument to get your message out, get your voice out there to the world. It is great to be able to add your voice out there, but I am quickly realising that the true value is in listening to what others have to say. These last two weeks we've had Seon Lewis and Jonathan Bellot, both of whom took us on their journey from faith meanwhile teaching us so much in the areas where they have their expertise. Here the beauty of the shows is not in how much you can say but in how much you can ask, what more can you find out about the person on the other side of the microphone or computer screen. 

However, what we in the skeptic community find when we take our questioning  habits back to those in belief is an attitude a bit like back in those school days.  Sometimes they think we are deliberately being cheeky, like the class clown, who asks the biology teacher if she was alive with the australopithecines.  Other times they may believe that we are just trying to catch them out with a “gotcha” question. What I find though, is that more often than not they think we are just a little bit behind. Slow learners in the subject of Spirituality. We have to be kept in detention, write “lines” or go to their extra classes until we get it right.  When we consistently say we don't understand them they are flabbergasted, because for them the concept is simple: God sent his son Jesus to die for our sins so that believing in him we can be saved. 

What's so difficult to understand about that? They are right, it is easy to understand, at least the words. We can repeat them just as easily as they can, but we need the follow up. Do the words make sense? Is there logic there? Does it mesh with what we observe or understand in other areas of the universe which we experience? If only our Christian friends could come to understand that we really do follow the words and that's why we just can't understand why they follow the words. 

I don't know about other atheists, but often when I speak to theists it is to just clarify what they are thinking, what they believe and how they see the world. In finding this out, it allows me to learn more about them and I can appreciate why they may have certain attitudes even if I don't endorse their views. What happens often is that they get stuck even in trying to clarify their own positions. What do they mean by words like God, spirit, faith, transcendence, immaterial, omnipotence, sanctification, transubstantiation? Often they can't tell you, because they have never asked these questions of themselves. They are like the nodding students just repeating the words of the teacher. Parroting words that have that veneer of intellectualism, but no intelligible meaning. Why do they find themselves in this position? It's down to their embarrassment with ignorance. They hear these concepts spoken about by the eloquent orators in their midst. They don't understand, but they are ashamed. Ashamed to say that it all sounds like gobbledygook to them. Their lack of self-belief makes them think that the confusion is on their side, that if they had a little more education, the speaker's words would all make sense.  They don't want to let anyone else around them know that they are confused so they listen and nod knowingly, hoping that their apparent comprehension of these highfalutin concepts will win the admiration of those sitting around. 

Many people in the faith community are well aware of the ignorance phobia in their ranks and they milk it for all it is worth. This is how you end up with people like Deepak Chopra, William Lane Craig, and others in the “baffle them with bullshit” brigade. These peddlers know full well that their audiences have a number of people of average education but who want to be perceived by their peers as erudite scholars. Such members of the audience are prime candidates for lapping up all on the pseudo-intellectual menu. They dance in delight when they get to hear a talk that includes realms of paradigms of infinite regresses on quantum levels of degenerating orbiting electromagnetic layers of amplifying magnitudes. Now they can bring out this vocabulary on demand to make themselves sound impressive. Sad to say, but phrases like that often work like a charm on Caribbean people. In our islands, big words are often the measure of brilliance. He who uses the most rises to the top of the pile in the minds of the masses. Once you have a reputation to go along with the verbiage, you are set. The more the talk is out there unchallenged, the more  people in the community will pick  it up and use the ideas as if they are their own, then their lesser informed friends will join in the smiling and nodding, hoping to show that they too are sufficiently informed to understand the babble. Oil is scarce in the Caribbean, but every day more and more of these “nodding donkeys” pop up. 

It's a hard road, but we have to encourage people to be honest about their ignorance. If you don't understand, say you don't understand. Admitting you don't know may make you feel small for the moment, but you will leave as a larger person because your knowledge is greater. I recognise that this is easier said than done. If you have a doctorate, you can be pretty sure that being shown to be ignorant about one obscure fact or concept is not going to make people think you are an idiot. You know you will have more than enough opportunity to come back later and show your superior understanding in the area where you have your expertise. However, it's a different thing when you are among people and you know your level of education is low in comparison, when you know that failure to understand something simple could make you be perceived as a simpleton. That's why I say that education is the key to curing ignorance-phobia. The greater the percentage of our populations that have a sound education, the less likely that persons will feel intimidated about displaying or demonstrating what they don't know.  

Yes, in this new era of critical thinking in the Caribbean, we need to stand up and be confident enough to say we don't know. Ignorance followed by questions, that's the key to critical thinking. We don't know, but we'll try to find out. If we don't have pride in admitting ignorance, people will continue to try to hide it and there is no better place to hide it than under the rock of religion—the place where “I don't know” is somehow covered over by the idea that a God whose mind we can never know, knows everything. 


  1. I always felt like Chopra was talking BS... I just thought it was only me that felt this way... Thanks for reassuring my ignorance.... now i feel smarter than him.... lol

  2. I thought so too @ Neptune. David you are right because as a Caribbean person I had embraced Afrocentrism, for instance, only to realize that some of these things sound intelligently sound but were pure bull. "Snake-oil salesman". Many of the ideas are pseudoscience peddled under the label of real science, and they are rampant in the Caribbean.

  3. @ Peter, glad I could reassure you, lol. Chopra is good at making some people think he is smarter than everybody else. Once you can create that impression, you have it made because anyone who doesn't understand will assume that it is because of their ineptitude in understanding not your BS. So lots of people don't understand Chopra but they don't think he is talking BS because they assume he is higher than them. It's just like God, people have no idea why God would say, do or allow certain things but they accept them because they convince themselves that 'his ways are higher.'

    @ Seon, yes afrocentrism has learnt this technique too. In Barbados we have a comedy show called 'Bajan Bus Stop' one of the characters is called 'Brother Daddy' and he just speaks using big heavy sounding words all the time to say very simple everyday things. People in Barbados love him and he is always a hit on stage. I think because the type of character he represents is so close to reality.