the danger of secondary sources
When I was a Christian, I relied on secondary and even tertiary sources to inform much of my approach to understanding what life is about. I relied on the writings of people from 2000 years ago who purported to have met and spent time with a man who claimed to be a god. Worse still, I relied on men who had been trained in centuries-old traditions of interpreting these texts and extrapolating the key messages for dissemination to the ‘uneducated’ public. I was a fool.
As I matured into adulthood and began to scrutinise these texts in the context of real life, doubts began flooding my mind. I appealed directly to the primary source, the good and loving god I still believed existed, for clarification. I received a few answers that kept my doubts at bay, in the same way as we can see Elvis in the clouds or male genitalia in an oddly shaped potato. Serendipity and coincidence, or just the obvious variations in the pattern of life, do wonders to bring ‘messages’ to those desperate enough to imagine them.
When I realised my primary source didn’t actually exist, I began to look more closely at the secondary sources, with fresh eyes. Could I be any more amazed that I once believed all the species of animals in the world were squeezed in a boat, or that all-powerful gods would ever want animals slaughtered to appease their anger, or that a loving deity could ever have torture and torment as a centrepiece for their sentient creation?
Since then, I have been incredibly suspicious of secondary sources.
Take atheism. My understanding of this existence without gods has never been informed by a textbook on atheism. While I recognise that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have probably helped move society away from superstition and religion, I don’t need to swallow and regurgitate their books to understand what’s wrong with religion. My primary source is life itself – the wealth of history we have available in primary sources tells us everything we need to know about the development of organised religions; and observing human interaction patterns tells us all we need to know about the motivation to create these religions.
Take feminism. My understanding that women receive poorer treatment than men was actually kickstarted by a textbook on feminism – courtesy of Germaine Greer. But as well as helping me see society from a whole new angle, I disagreed with a lot of the conclusions she came to. My primary source is life itself – the experiences I’ve been through, and the experiences I see other people go through.
For me, relying on the theories or summaries of other people, the secondary sources, is as dangerous as swallowing the teaching of any religion. While secondary sources are certainly useful, we should never use them to fully inform our understanding of any aspect of life, or indeed any situation. Swallowing textbooks on the opinions of other people tells us nothing about real life. We should be questioning anything we don’t see with our own eyes, and cautiously balancing information from primary sources with what we know from life around us.
Totally agree. Apologetics is a great example of secondary sources who intentionally muddy the waters and misrepresent the primary sources. It’s not until I actually looked into the reliability of the bible texts as well as the historical validity of the stories contained in the bible that we realized how poorly the christian story was founded
If the Christian religion were true, surely Jesus and the god God would be the only potential primary sources. Everyone else is writing allegedly inspired by them or having heard Jesus talk. But yes, we see even these secondary sources being contorted beyond recognition by Christians down through the ages. Still waiting for the Christians to sell their possessions and start a commune …
The only book of Darwkins I’ve ever read was The Selfish Gene, and that was at uni, long, long before I even knew who he was. An astonish work, blew my mind.
Ooops, help me Edit Fairy… *Dawkins
Nice slip! Perhaps it’ll make my reading list one day. I think I’ve been put off these men by some of the incredibly sexist things they’ve said. I feel dismayed that atheist figureheads aren’t more enlightened generally.
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I think you’re confusing atheism with humanism here… but that does remind me of a fabulous sandwich joke… 😉
Don’t think so. Just assuming rational thinking can extend across a variety of issues. Apparently not. For men, anyway. 🙂
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Oh look, a tortoise!
I get much of my Scottish history from the four volume Edinburgh History of Scotland, published around 1980. It has been superseded, but is good enough for me. On feminism, I use lots of widely varying ideas to inform my own, and will not take a position until I need to.
So, secondary sources and a cop out. No wonder you’re a Christian. 😀
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Indeed. I read a lot of research literature about history – secondary, tertiary and so forth – sources. I have noticed even in scientific research a tendency to circulate unverified material.
For example, there is this meme, that medieval armour was so heavy a man could not get up while wearing it. This appears from book to book, from decade to decade, and has been around already for centuries. It has no correlation with anything in reality. We have several dozens of full suits of armour surviving and their weight is between 20 and 30 kg. Not much different from what the modern soldier carries hanging mostly from his hip and shoulders. The weight of the armour is distributed along the entire body and we know the warriors who wore them were strong professional soldiers and athletes. The armour as represented in art and as in all suriviving examples is skilfully articularted to ease mobility. Yet, it is often repeated, that such a man could be “… incapacitated by the weight of his own armour.” (Wikipedia says this of Charles, Duke of Orleans and is citated to be taken from McLeod, Enid. Charles of Orleans: Prince and Poet. Viking Press, 1971 p. 129.) It is nonsensical to make such a claim, but it is being almost systematically taken at face value…
The problem about sources in scientific literature is changing, though at a very slow pace. The scientific method is a self reparing process. It demands we go back onto the original sources. There is new research, that with the scientific method, has achieved reliable information about this issue as well…
Religions in much the same way try to relate back to the original sources. Because that is what you have to do, if you want to find out about the truth of the matter. Fundamentalists often view themselves as repairing their respective religions in returning to the orginal sources. But they do not really see their gods as the original sources as such. The gods are unreachable, hence they view the so called revelations as the primary sources. The “revelations” are often tribalistic barbarian expressions of primitive human desires and fears. On the other hand they also often are in contrast to that, in that they have been influenced not only by tribal moralists, but by people who have had a wider and more humane approach to humanity and morals. People can relate to all of these aspects as they talk about the deep and difficult issues of being human.
In religions the problem of the primary source not being achievable in any way, or actually not having even ever existed, becomes both the solution and a mind trap. As there is no god to refer to as the primary source, the primary source is actually the dude who wrote the book, or told the story, that was later written into a book. People tell all sorts of tall tales. More or less verifiable stories. Some people can see through that and become atheists. Some become fundies and cherry pick from the “revelation” what they would want their particular gods to represent. Frightfully often it is the moralism and fear, though they paint in colours of love, but love between the true believers and their god, dismissing other people to hell and whatnot inhumane fates. Most people though, neglect to pay any attention, or even to seek the truth in this matter and merely become indoctrinated to take the stories more or less at face value. I myself do not belong to any of these groups, as I have never been a member of any religion. I am left outside to wonder what are people actually even talking about…
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Hi Raut, that’s really funny about the armour! Yes, it seems to be the case that the allegedly still functioning primary sources make direct contact with their faithful flock by finding them parking spaces or jobs or just cheap appliances (depending on the blog you read).
I’m hoping you’ll pop over to my latest post and give a good dose of your common sense to the discussion about refugees. In fact, I don’t doubt your ability to have a suggestion that can bring peace to the entire region. 🙂
Thank you for the compliment and for the invitation, but I doubt wether if I can really help. You see, I have no clue as to what is wrong with people, who find it perfectly acceptable, that the alledgedly all-mighty god helps them to find jobs, parking spaces, or even cures their cancer, while at the same time this entity seems totally unable, or worse, unwilling to help people in refugee camps, warzones, or in natural catastrophies. It is very hard to apply any common sense to such utter selfishness.
It is even more difficult to bring anything even remotely resembling peace to the hearts of people who are so xenophobically scared, that they are even willing to negotiate their own core beliefs about what their gods expect of them in respect to people in need and the secondary sources about the alledged revelations of their god, that they themselves have repeatedly admonished as absolutely truthfull – exept when, it seems, these cross their comfort zones. I mean what could I possibly say, when they are not willing to believe what they believe to be true about the words of even their own gods?
You are far more better at putting these things into words, than I am. I just rant. You tried to remind people of what might it be, that the Jesus character actually is reported to have said on the matter and what you have recieved as a response is a bunch of desperate attempts of denial. Sad. It is like the Christians were simply demonstrating how they are the very images of the “broken” nature of mankind, they believe is what their god created us to be…