“World-views” and secular education

imagesFourth-year medical students at a local university were yesterday witness to a panel discussion on various world-views, with the intention of familiarising them with some of the different points of view that their patients might one day hold. I was invited to participate in this panel, which I gladly did, seeing as these sorts of public interventions are one of the values we can easily, and cheaply, give to “the cause”, as it were.

Joining me on the panel were an Imam, an Anglican priest, a Hindu doctor and the daughter of an African traditional healer (who was also a student in the class). The point of the panel wasn’t to debate who was right and who was wrong, but more to sensitise the students to the differences, and to prompt them to how they might approach sensitive topics of conversation with these various sorts of world-views.

It was an interesting experience, partly because it again brought to the fore just how normal, and just how abnormal, a largely materialist, or naturalist, point of view was – even in a room of about 200 people trained in the scientific method. The student who arranged to have me invited to participate reported that around 70% of his classmates were religious, and after yesterday, I fear that might be an under-estimate. One horror-story he told me is of a group of students training in psychiatry who decided to pray over someone that was clearly experiencing some sort of mental episode, rather than getting her to somewhere she could be diagnosed and treated.

But it’s not only the uncommonness of a naturalistic outlook that struck me – it’s also how alien it seemed to be to the audience. The tenor of some of the questions seemed to regard me as some sort of curiosity, or exhibit – a rare creature from a strange and distant land. Over and over, for example, I had to repeat the point that they should think of me as representing the “secular” world view, because religious folk can be secular too. Secular doesn’t mean lacking in belief, it means leaving your (metaphysical) beliefs at home when you go to work, especially in the public sector.

Then, the usual questions also came up: how can love just be in the brain (well, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less special); where do you get your morals from (the same place as you, the same place as the apes, etc.); what is your purpose in life (that question loads the dice – I reject the need for an “ultimate” purpose).

So, when I sat at the end of the panel to talk to the local atheist and agnostic society about how to grow their society and build capacity, I stressed something they could do, that I fear many smaller, community-based groups forget: education. Take your core membership, and have them learn about the history of skepticism/secularism/humanism/etc. – and not simply learn to recite cutting lines from Hitchens, or the names of a bunch of logical fallacies.

We need people to go out there are dispell myths and misconceptions, and that requires the knowledge to do so. If you’ve got some of it, and also have access to a younger group of people wanting to promote the secular, scientific, humanist world view, help them to learn how to educate others about what we believe and don’t, but more importantly, why we believe and disbelieve. Even when you don’t persuade, the conversations will nevertheless be far more interesting as a result.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.