A friend of mine once visited a faith-healer, one of the religious variety from the United States who periodically come to New Zealand to swell their bank balances. She attended the meeting because of a persistent pain in her elbow. Despite my suggestions that it was only tennis elbow, she was worried and thought perhaps the pain was serious. She had an aisle seat near the front and during the proceedings the “healer” approached her and asked about the pain in her arm. Apparently she hadn’t told anyone why she was there. She was impressed.
“How did Pastor S. know that I had a pain in my elbow?” my friend asked. “I hadn’t told him? He knew exactly what was wrong with me. He told me, well, all of us,” she said, “that pain is caused by evil spirits moving around the bloodstream. When they stop, they manifest themselves in the form of pain. Mine had stopped in my arm. He could tell. He had the gift.”
“Oh, come on.” I replied, “You used to teach biology. You know that pain is not caused by evil spirits. What about when you break a bone?”
(I should perhaps explain here that my friend had given up teaching biology because she felt the whole syllabus, including the classification of plants and animals, was based on evolutionary principles, and this contradicted her strong belief in creationism.)
“If you didn’t have evil spirits inside you when you broke a bone,” she responded curtly, “you would not feel the pain.”
She was deaf to my suggestions that perhaps the spirits were not all bad, since without pain indicating that something was wrong we might not attend to our hurts.
“All pain is bad.” she insisted.
“What else happened at the meeting?” I asked.
“I had to go and stand at the front, with other people who had pain or sickness. Pastor S. laid his hands on my arm and demanded, in the name of God, that the evil spirits leave my body. He drove them out.” Her eyes shone as she brought back the memories.
“How does the arm feel now?” I asked.
“Oh, much better, thanks,” she smiled, “Pastor S. said the pain would go quickly now, but I could help by resting it.”
Of course the pain did lessen. Tennis elbow is susceptible to rest. Despite my protestations, my friend insisted it was due to Pastor S., driving out evil spirits. The devastating part of the whole story for me is that though she has been scientifically trained, has a university degree in fact, she is content to go through life holding two mutually exclusive beliefs — one based on common sense and rational thought, where it applies to everyday events and can’t possibly undermine long-held views, and another resting on superstition and religious arguments for its authority. All credit to her, though, that she finds it possible to remain friends with a “sinner” such as myself.
Having taught for many years, in four schools and one university, I have met quite a number of science teachers. Being insatiably curious (many would say intrusive) I take every appropriate opportunity to talk to them about their beliefs. Despite their education, the holding of two mutually exclusive belief systems by science teachers is common.
In an informal survey I considered some of the science teachers I have known well enough to discuss matters of belief over the last few years. There have been 21, whom I categorise as follows;
- 7 “Standard” Christians, who attend a mainstream church on a regular basis at least a few times a year. One in fact is an ordained Anglican minister
- 4 “Fundamentalist” Christians, who meet in religious gatherings at least once a week
- 5 Theists, who hang on to belief in a god but do not attend any religious meetings
- 1 New Ager, who, surprisingly, believes in such things as aromatherapy, homeopathy, and the like
- 1 into Transcendental Meditation
- 1 Anthroposophist
- 1 Theosophist
- 1 Atheist, with strongly-held views
At least 14 of these, I suggest, hold mutually exclusive belief systems. For example, the majority of them believe that miracles have occurred at some time or other, despite this contradicting scientific laws they promulgate every day in the classroom.
Most avoid providing explanations for miracles, but some believe that God has the ability to suspend scientific laws to accommodate them. More logically perhaps, some suggest that scientific knowledge at present is not profound enough to provide adequate explanations for miracles. I have included under the heading of miracles, virgin birth and resurrection.
So, where does that leave us? All of us, I think, expect the natural laws of science and logic to apply to everyday events, but many of us subscribe to an additional belief system that transcends common sense. This second system allows the unthinkable to happen. It can be important to us, especially when we are apprehensive about the future. In such cases we can “cross our fingers and hope for the best”, even for a miracle to occur.