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The Power of Ideas

by John UpChurch on February 11, 2008

What does a math test tell us about the power of materialistic beliefs to impact behavior? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

The test itself was typical: a college math exam. But this particular math test was not constructed to find out how well these students had mastered calculus; it was designed to measure the power that ideas and beliefs have on behavior.

How do differential equations measure the power of beliefs? The simple answer is that they don’t. In fact, this research, conducted by psychologists at the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia, had very little to do with studying numerical aptitude. The researchers, instead, had framed the test with a complex system to measure the students’ ethical decision making.

Prior to the test, they took some of the students aside and taught them that “science” had proven that all our actions are simply the result of “the brain’s biochemistry” (i.e., there is no soul and nothing metaphysical or spiritual). On the other hand, some of the students received no such “indoctrination” (as the press release puts it—we couldn’t agree more). During the test, both groups of students were told that, due to a computer glitch, the answers would appear on the screen if they did not press the spacebar as soon as each problem appeared.

The results shouldn’t surprise anyone who is a regular visitor to this website. The students who were taught that the brain is all there is (materialism) were much more likely to cheat by using the answers that popped up on the screen than those who had not received the prior “coaching.”

The End Results

But let’s take these results a step farther. Let’s say, for instance, that we were to raise generation after generation of school children to believe that science had “proven” that they are nothing more than the result of non-teleological mutations and natural selection. Let’s say that we were to teach them that nature itself is built upon time and death. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we taught these children that there is no absolute truth and that they are not ultimately accountable for their actions.

If we were to test these children after indoctrinating them as such, what would we expect from them? How do we think they would perform in the “test” of life? Obviously, we could expect at least some of them to act out the beliefs that we had taught them (as did those in the math test). They might, for instance, decide that this non-teleological natural selection could use some help—or that they themselves were agents of natural selection (for just such an example, see Finland School Shootings: The Sad Evolution Connection). After all, they would have no reason to think that they were accountable—in fact, they would simply be acting out the time-and-death scenario that they had been taught.

Of course, the authority figures who taught these children such a message in the first place would likely say that such actions are not how anyone should view non-teleology (a non-designed universe), and that the students who acted as such were perverting their instruction. But to weigh the accuracy of such a claim, let’s take a moment to return to the math test.

Obviously, the researchers who designed the math test did not know exactly how the test would turn out, but they did suspect that teaching the students that they were nothing more than a collection of physio-chemical processes would impact how the students performed. If they hadn’t suspected as much, they never would have taken some of the students aside for special instruction. These researchers knew that ideas and beliefs are powerful—that they can shape behavior. In the same way, when evolutionists teach children that humans are nothing more than a speck in a meaningless universe, they have to expect such indoctrination to have an impact.

Evolutionists, in fact, can’t have it both ways: they can’t say that religious beliefs are corrupting and can impact behavior negatively (e.g., atrocities committed in the name of religion), as some would say, and yet deny that teaching evolutionism would lead to unwanted behaviors. Beliefs are beliefs—whether “scientific” or not—and will impact the way a person behaves. If I believe that God commanded me to “do good unto all” (Galatians 6:10), that will impact the way I think and act (even though I may fail to do so all the time). Likewise, if a child is raised to believe that what is seen is all there is, then we should not be surprised if he or she feels life is meaningless and not worth living. In fact, in many ways, a society that raises a child as such is promoting despair, depression, and senseless destruction.

Choosing the Fruit

What’s central to this issue is that “science” class is not just a self-contained room with four walls, a floor, and some test tubes. What students learn in class (or from TV or books, or, sadly, some churches) impacts their beliefs and ultimately their behavior. We are fooling ourselves if we think that teaching the evolutionized history of the earth is simply about teaching the “facts” of the past. Besides the biblical, logical, and scientific problems with evolution and millions of years, the even more evident issue is that such ideas are not confined simply to textbooks and coursework. As the math test demonstrated, information and beliefs (including evolutionism) are not contained inside a bubble (they are not a separate “magisteria”); they do affect behavior.

To be sure, evolutionism is not the root of the problem (sin is), but Darwin’s legacy does legitimize for some that any action is justifiable. When our society only allows students to hear that there is no accountability and censors all contrary evidence, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—some students naturally act out what they’ve been taught to believe. The ideas that evolutionists beat into their students’ heads take root and produce the kind of fruit you would expect (Galatians 5:19–21). Many will act in accord with the materialistic philosophy that has been ingrained into them, beginning with “me first” attitudes, pride, and greed, and, sadly, worse things for some. Ideas are not simply self-contained sparks in the synapses; they can just as easily become raging fires.

If, on the other hand, we teach our children that there is a purpose to life, that there is a Creator, that everyone is created in His image, that we are accountable to Him, and that we have the offer of spending eternity with Him, not only are we teaching them to walk in the truth, we also can expect the fruits of those who have received the gift of eternal life to have a life marked by “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22), and preferring others over themselves (Philippians 2:3), albeit imperfectly. That’s what transforming the mind and heart is all about.


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