Preliminary Research Questions
The Foundation has identified several preliminary research questions prompted by well-established facts that we present as potential initial subjects for study.
We stress, furthermore, that the members of the Foundation team stating these things do not necessarily have any formal credentials in the disciplines of mental health, neurology, neurological science or ethics. Many are ordinary people with a modest amount of education in the biological sciences and other disciplines, who understand and respect the scientific method, are reasonably well-read in the areas of interest we have identified, who may be familiar, though personal exposure as children and/or adults, to the influences we have describes and who, we believe, are capable of making reasonable inferences and proposing these preliminary questions which may, in turn, lead to development of hypotheses to be tested by credentialed professionals in appropriate disciplines. They are starting points intended to provoke thought and generate interest in the issues we have raised; we make no claims that they anything more substantive that that.
A key initial objective of the Foundation is to solicit the advice of such credentialed professionals on both the issues addressed in this section as well as on the scope, focus and approach of Foundation overall. The advice of those professionals will almost certainly result in revision and refinement of the material presented below. Again, this material, while we hope it reflects some valid insights, is only intended as a starting point.
The Ethical Question
Is it ethical to teach children, with reinforcement though long-term exposure and frequent repetitions, claims of fact that are not supported by verifiable evidence and under the influence of respected adult authority figures before they have developed the capacity to question and, if necessary, to challenge the credibility of such claims?
What We Know
Worldwide, billions of children regularly attend Sunday Schools, religion instruction and "faith formation" classes, Islamic madrassas and other faith-based programs that instill in them beliefs, among others, that:
Some god exists as a real being, usually omnipotent and omniscient, who actually listens to their supplications and (sometimes) grants their requests,
That they possess "souls" independent of their physical bodies that live on after their bodies have perished,
That an afterlife exists that includes, if they follow the code established by their god and his surrogates, admittance into a blissful celestial paradise,
That "faith" (suspension of the minds' capacity for considering assertion of fact and requiring that such assertions are reasonable and supported by evidence) is a valid, desirable and virtuous means of perceive reality,
That many, if not most or all of the stories that appear in their holy books are historically accurate,
That "miracles" really occur.
These programs reinforce such beliefs and strengthen their retention through repetition and the powerful influence of respected authority figures in their lives, even though those adults may do so with sincerity and the best of intentions, often throughout childhood and into adolescence.
Human beings retain information, including beliefs, in the form of neural connections (synapses) between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain and pathways among those cells.
Our brains possess a property called neuroplasticity, which is their ability to form these neural connections, making them sensitive, responsive and receptive to experiences and new information. The neurons in a child's brain have about 15,000 synapses each (which begin to diminish in adolescence to about half that number through a process called "pruning"), making children particularly adept at learning. But that capacity does not differentiate between learning information which is factual and that which is fallacious, making them particularly vulnerable to acceptance of unsupportable claims of fact.
Mental Health and Neurological Questions
1. Are There Potential Consequences of Teaching Children to Accept "Faith" As a Means of Perceiving Reality?
Are there any mental health consequences of teaching children to accept as fact and through the lens of "faith" claims unsupported by objective evidence before those children have developed the capacity to evaluate and question such claims? Does learning to accept "faith" as a valid way of perceiving some aspects of reality affect their ability to rationally perceive and manage other aspects of their lives? In other words, are there "crossover effects" from faith-based perceptions that may intrude into and adversely affect the rationality of non-faith-based perception?
What We Know
(See the Established Facts under The Ethical Question)
A number of programs exist that appear to be effective in developing critical thinking skills, including the ability to question unfounded claims of fact, at a much earlier age than they would without such encouragement of their development of those skills.
2. Are There Potential Mental Health Consequences Resulting from Suppression of the Ability to Critically Evaluate Assertions of Fact?
Are there any mental health consequences that result from the suppression of one's ability to critically and rationally evaluate claims that, for example...
Certain phenomena actually occur, that beings with specific characteristics and exhibiting certain behaviors and powers actually exist,
There is a real part of every human being that exists that is connected to but is not part of their physical selves ( a "soul"),
There a celestial paradise where the master being resides and that an afterlife where deserving human "souls" are welcomed,
That humans can address their supplications to the master being who listens to them, occasionally responds favorably to them,
...and so on.
Would a human being not experiencing such suppression (assuming it occurs), induced by whatever means, of his or her ability to evaluate any assertions of fact be able to consider such claims to be credible? If not -- if a human being is capable of such suppression, can it in any way affect his or her ability to perceive reality critically and accurately in non-"spiritual" matters? Can it, in any way, impair his or her judgment in other areas? In other words, are their any "crossover effects" between faith-filtered perceptions and perception of aspects of physical reality? How might this dichotomy manifest itself psychologically? We are curious whether what we are tentatively (pending discovery of a term in more common use by mental health professionals) calling "cognitive partitioning" occurs in the minds of individuals who may able to suppress their cognitive skills when presented with certain types of assertions but not for others. We are also curious whether such suppression and "cognitive partitioning" (if it occurs) has neurological implications as well (see below).
What We Know
The claims of fact listed above are presented to people of faith, often as children, with repetition and reinforcement, by adult authority figures, and often with the best of intentions. These claims are generally accepted as truth, neurologically established and robustly retained, and often persist into adulthood. Otherwise rational and intelligent adults often continue to maintain their acceptance of the veracity of these claims, which can become core existential factors in their lives. Challenges of the veracity or reasonability of these claims can, in some, provoke reactions of fear, perceived threat, anger and even rage.