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.