November 26, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


We are born believing. A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.

R.W. Emerson, 1860

Eric Hoffer wrote a fascinating book, The True Believer(1951) in which he discussed fanaticism. While it shed a good deal of light on the behavior of fanatics, it said virtually nothing about the genesis of a fanatic.

Fanatics do not necessarily come from a fundamentalist culture. Steve Allen's son became a fanatical Christian, while his father might be considered as a free-thinker. The same thing happened to the militant atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Her son became a born-again Christian. O'Hair's position was quite different from Allen's, since she was militant and was as fanatical in her own way as a fundamentalist Christian is in his.

In other words, fanatical parents do not necessarily create fanatical adults, nor do independent thinking parents create independent-thinking adults.

Every small child is a fanatic. He believes everything that his parents tell him. I remember that, as a child, a little friend of mine enlightening me about what act my father and mother performed in order to make me. I called him a liar. When a child goes to school, he usually transfers that unquestioning belief to his teachers. Sometimes there is a conflict between what his teacher says and what his parents says. At that point he has to decide whom he will believe.

Later on in his childhood, he may decide to transfer his allegiance to one or more of his peers. Sometimes his beliefs may be determined by the written word, which seems to have more credibility than the spoken one. As an adult he may transfer his allegiance to another adult: a guru.

As he continues to grow, his ability to think more-or-less independently may also grow. He may not grow in this way at all, or may grow in a very superficial way.

I was specifically encouraged by my father to "think for yourself." Perhaps this was one of the things that led me along the path to science. That is not to say that being an independent thinker is necessary to be a scientist, but it is a decided asset. In other fields it can cause you a good deal of trouble. Not many people like being questioned, particularly about things that they are supposed to know and actually don't.

Many of the best scientists have been independent thinkers. However, it is not necessary. Some very successful scientists, some of whom won the Nobel prize, have just been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. The Nobel Prize is usually awarded for a discovery, rather than the profundity of the discoverer. As a consequence, some Nobel laureates have made a single discovery and then done nothing with the rest of their lives, and a few have made asses of themselves.

Some of the great scientists of the past, such as Gregor Mendel and Copernicus, have also been priests. They managed to keep their priestly behavior and rhetoric totally orthodox, while being free-thinkers in science. It is not uncommon for people to be fanatical in one aspect of their lives, and independent thinkers in others.

I wish that I knew what made fanatics and independent thinkers. Then I could tell those of my readers who have young children how to rear them. Now, after having fathered 8 children, I still don't know.

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