Do you remember asking your mother or father "But why?" and they replied "Because I said so." You could hear they were annoyed. Maybe you were even trying to annoy them. "Because I said so" meant that your line of questioning had come to an end.
As children we are trusting. Grown-ups tell us a lot of things. And we believe grown-ups who seem to know what they are talking about, like our parents, and our teachers. As teenagers we question some of that authority, but not always, and not all of it. Some of the things we were told Just Make Sense, even to a teenager, and some of the things are so normal that we don't challenge them because we don't even notice them. For generations, and for centuries, things passed down by authority have gone unquestioned.
In the 19th century Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis realised that if obstetricians washed their hands with disinfectant before delivering babies, the incidence of fatal "childbed fever" among mothers dropped from anywhere between 10 and 35%, to below 1%. Doctors at Vienna General Hospital, where Dr. Semmelweis worked, immediately adopted the new practice -- actually, no, not at all! They retrenched him, and went back to not washing their hands. Evidence was not enough for them. Semmelweis suffered severe depression. He was committed to an asylum and two weeks later he died of a wound sustained from being beaten by guards. He was 47.
Years later, after Louis Pasteur confirmed germ theory, Dr. Semmelweis's former colleagues realised they had been infecting mothers with germs picked up from, among other sources, corpses when doing autopsies. We know of one doctor who committed suicide after realising what he had done.
Ignoring evidence is one thing. Believing something on a lack of evidence is another. Again, doctors. This time, clinical trials in the twenty-first century. Clinical trials are not a new idea. The concept is explained in the Bible; Daniel 1:12-15:
Daniel said to the guard, “Please give us this test for ten days: Don’t give us anything but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then after ten days compare us with the other young men who eat the king’s food. See for yourself who looks healthier. Then you judge for yourself how you want to treat us, your servants.”
So the guard agreed to test them for ten days. After ten days they looked very healthy. They looked better than all of the young men who ate the king’s food.
Cochrane is an organisation dedicated to establishing evidence. They review clinical trials. They counter the beliefs of doctors, and patients, and policy makers, who have been trusting what they learned in medical school, or were told by a rep from a pharmaceutical company, or simply read up about when googling their symptoms. It's better to know when you don't know, than to think that you do know. Especially when lives depend on it.
What does this have to do with Christian parents?
Recently I came across this quote: "I am engaged in a kind of war, fighting a most dangerous enemy. It’s an idea. The idea of truth by authority." Lee Burvine, The Kafir Project.
For many of us who grew up in the twentieth century, it seems obvious that the way we know whether something is true is evidence. If we don't have enough evidence, then it might be true, but it might not be; we don't know. And a lot of us are OK with not knowing.
But most of us are not OK with not knowing. Most of us would rather fall back on "because I told you so", and believe whomever we consider to be an authority who tells us so. Maybe that's our mom, or our pastor, or our president. OK, maybe we don't believe our president. But our pastor? Come on! They're pastors! If you can't trust a pastor, who can you trust?
My point isn't that pastors are lying. They genuinely believe what they're saying, just like the professors at medical schools 50 years ago. The problem, just like with the professors, is that pastors don't have enough evidence to support their beliefs.
And that's what no Christian parent is able to teach their children. Because no Christian parent is willing to accept it. Every well-meaning mom and dad out there, who loves their kids more than anything, cannot teach them to value evidence and disregard authority, because they cannot bring themselves to do the same thing. They are no different from the doctors at Vienna General Hospital in 1848.
And just like with those doctors, lives do depend on it. There is more to that quote by Lee Burvine:
I am engaged in a kind of war, fighting a most dangerous enemy. It’s an idea. The idea of truth by authority. The arrogant notion that some revered book or prophet or head of state represents the final word on what is or isn’t so. Throughout history no single concept has generated more human misery.