Leaving fundamentalism: an interview with Jonny Scaramanga

 

 

In a previous post I pointed out the harmfulness of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), an international fundamentalist “educational” system aiming at producing “godly” children.

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Here I had the immense opportunity to interview Jonny Scaramanga who is campaigning against this abusive and harmful system.

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Accelerated Christian Education in a nutshell

Lotharson: Hello Jonny, thank you very much for being with us!
Could you please tell a bit about your background for the benefit of my readers?
Jonny Scaramanga: Sure.
I was born into a family that was majorly into the Charismatic Movement and also the Word of Faith “prosperity gospel” of preachers like Kenneth Copeland.
I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t believe in God. The truth of the Biblical creation story was just one of the facts of my childhood, as true as the colour of the sky.
I was praying in tongues by the time I was 6 or 7.
I went to a creationist pre-school when I was 3, which used the ACE system, because some of my parents’ friends had started an ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) school.
My parents decided to send me to an ordinary primary school, though, so I got a proper education until I was 11.
Then part way through my final year of junior school, I went back to the ACE school, and was there until just before I turned 15.
Is that enough background?

That’s a good beginning, thanks 🙂 What happened next in the ACE you attended?

Well, I loved it to begin with. It’s completely unlike any other school you’ve ever seen.
Each student has their own desk, and it’s separated from the other desks by two dividers, so you can’t see or interact with your classmates during work time.
That suited me fine. I hated teamwork anyway.
So I really enjoyed having a private desk with my own possessions and just getting on with my work. The room didn’t have a teacher – the staff member was called a supervisor. If we needed help, we raised a flag to get her attention, but otherwise we were teaching ourselves from these books…
Packets of Accelerated Christian Education (PACEs)
which incorporate Bible lessons into every subject.
And I thought this was heaven. I felt so lucky to be surrounded only by good Christians, away from the evil and the temptations of the world. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘lucky’ at the time, because I was taught ‘luck’ came from the root word ‘Lucifer’, as in Satan.
There was quiet music playing in the background, and I was where God wanted me to be. Everyone was so polite and so friendly. I find it sinister now, because I think it was unreal, but it seemed wonderful to me then. And I felt so lucky to be learning the truth about Creation…
…because everyone else in the world was being taught these ridiculous lies about evolution, and I was one of a fortunate few who was hearing the truth about how God made the world.

It seems that many people really appreciate the absence of peer pressure and other positive aspects so that they don’t immediately realize all the crappy things being taught.

Well, there was peer pressure. I just thought of it as positive peer pressure. It was pressure to be the right kind of Christian, not to be worldly.

How did this “godly” peer pressure play out?

Well, for me it was a big thing to be the first to the door at break times so I could hold the door for everyone on the way out…
… to show what a good servant I was.
In the last year I was there, we had morning prayer meetings for the older students, and because the church was very Charismatic (even though ACE isn’t at all), it was a big thing to show how spiritual I was by praying in tongues ecstatically and delivering prophecies.
I was very judgemental of a girl in the school who was curious about the occult. She was just doing typical teenage stuff, reading Interview with the Vampire and trying to learn how to read minds, and I told her she was in league with Satan.
On days where we didn’t have to wear uniform to school, some of the girls came in wearing very short skirts, and by break time the staff had made them change into tracksuits, so there was a lot of shaming of girls, shaming of women’s bodies.
I was conflicted because I liked seeing girls in short skirts but I also judged them for being ungodly.
So I was misogynistic from both angles!

 

Sexism and creationism

Some fundamentalists such as Calvinist preacher John McArthur go as far as teaching that it is a sin for a woman to have a professional job.
Can we find the same kind of extreme sexism within ACE?

Compared to some fundamentalists, ACE is relatively progressive about women. I mean, they have a female president, although that only happened because the founder’s wife divorced him, and she had obviously been planning this for a long time, because she managed to gain majority control of the company, and then divorce and fire her husband.
Some of the Social Studies PACEs have a picture on the cover of what appears to be a woman working as a vet! Amazing – an actual woman doing an actual job!
So by fundamentalist standards, that’s quite progressive. By my standards now, I consider it very misogynistic.
There are cartoons emphasising how girls have to be ‘pure’ by not exposing skin when they dress, and in the PACEs about career choices, there’s a massive section on being a ‘homemaker’, and that’s the only time in the whole curriculum they use ‘her’ and ‘she’ to refer to a nonspecific person. The rest of the time it’s always ‘he’.
In Norway, the gender equality ombudsman found ACE to be in violation of the Gender Equality Act
because the students were having to underline the correct verb in sentences like “A wife will be happy when (he, she, it) obeys the husband.”
Among other things.
The sexism is a big problem. I haven’t written enough about it. It’s next on my agenda.
Is creation science taught there a bigger issue?
The creation science permeates everything. People don’t think about this. It doesn’t just affect biology. It’s in chemistry and physics too, because they reject the findings of cosmologists, and they have their own creationist interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics.
It affects history, because they take the Bible as literally true, and because they believe humans didn’t exist 7,000 years ago…
So 200,000 years of early human history has to be compressed into a few years before and after Noah’s Flood.
They talk about the Flood in Geography and History. Their English literature course has anti-evolution books on it, and their general English course includes learning about William Jennings Bryan’s speech, which I think is called “Evolution vs God”.

Could you please give us the sentences you find the most laughable?

Ha! Good one. OK, bear with me on this. We might need to keep talking about some other stuff while I think.

 

Escape from hell

 

How did you escape this crazy “school”?
Well, I told you I loved it at first, but about 18 months into my stay there, that flipped and I began to hate it.
I felt that I had no friends in the world, and going to this tiny school (at its biggest there were 70 students, aged 3-18) where I mostly worked in silence was limiting my social opportunities.
I felt that there was such a thing as a good education, and although I had no idea what that was, I knew that this wasn’t it.
Bear in mind at this point I was still a creationist and a right-wing Christian, so my complaints had nothing to do with that.
I just thought the system was academically awful. I was reading books with titles like “When Science Fails” instead of real literature, and everything was fill-in-the-blank. The form of Christianity was making me miserable, but I had no words to articulate that because the language in the PACEs was so loaded I had no way to express those thoughts.
I just had this vague sense that everything was terrible.
I spent a summer locked in my room feeling suicidal.
When I went back to school that September, I snapped one day. I had this major freakout, and I couldn’t see for a couple of seconds. Next thing I knew I was shouting at everyone in the room.
So at that point my parents thought it best to remove me, and I was free!

It must have been an extremely liberating experience, a feeling almost indescribable by words.

For a week or two I was euphoric. I went to a normal school and started studying Shakespeare, and getting to use science labs instead of just reading about science in a (mostly incorrect) book, and we studied history by looking at primary and secondary sources and learning to evaluate them,
so it was a total revolution. But soon I was depressed again. I really struggled to make friends because I had no idea how to relate to anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian.
I didn’t have the cultural reference points. I didn’t watch the same TV or listen to the same music. I refused to swear, and I was a total prude. Since all teenage boys ever think about is sex, this was a massive problem. They all had posters of glamour models on their desks, and I was trying to find anywhere else to look, because I thought it was a sin for me to see pictures of women… not even naked women. Just women being sexy.
Then I told them they were going to hell, which didn’t help.
OK, I’ve found the most laughable section of a PACE.
I’m trying to figure out how to condense it down to a couple of sentences for you.
You kind of need to see the whole thing.

I’ll do 🙂

They’re trying to show that all modern people are descended from Noah’s three sons…
and the way they’re doing it is to find very old people (possibly legendary) with similar-sounding names
and go “YOU SEE! THAT’S NOAH’S SON!”
So, for example:
“Japheth and his seven sons may clearly be seen as the progenitors of the Indo- European limb of the human tree. Japheth himself may be identified with 1) lapetos (the legendary forebear of the Greek tribes) and (2) lyapeti (supposed ancestor of the Aryans of India).
End quote

But this is truly an amazing coincidence! This proves God’s Word beyond any reasonable doubt! 🙂

There’s loads of this. It goes on for PAGES.
And now they have an entire book called After the Flood, which you can find on line…
It’s by Bill Cooper BA (hons).
He’s very keen that you include the BA (hons) part.
He wants everyone to know he managed to get an undergraduate degree.
Anyway, it makes the same argument, but over a whole book. And it also claims that stories of dragons (including Beowulf) are real, and that’s proof that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, which proves the Bible is true.

There is a mighty creationist INDUSTRY feeding such books and teaching materials.

It’s mind-blowing.
People ask me now if I’m angry, but I’ve never really felt angry about being taught creationism for myself, because I discovered it was bullshit very gradually, over a period of years, and it didn’t seem to matter. It makes me angry that they’re teaching it to kids now though, because most of them won’t get as lucky as me, and escape to a good education.
The thing about creationism is that it tells you evolution is *impossible* and that science *proves* the creation account true. And that means that when you’re in a situation like I was, where your faith is making you miserable, you don’t have any options.
Because if creationism is true, according to their dogma, which I didn’t have the critical thinking skills to reject, then all of it is true. And if it’s true, you can’t leave, because you’ll be rejecting God and, like it or not, walking into Satan’s arms.

 

Eternal torments and child abuse

You know, I take folks such as Dawkins et al. to task for asserting that ALL religious educations are child abuses, because there are clear examples of progressive and liberal religious movements where it is not the case.
However I consider it as extremely abusive to teach to small children that all people dying as non-Christians will be eternally tortured.
I think that the harm inflicted on young minds is far greater than that stemming from creationist non-senses.
Would you agree?

I find it hard to separate the two, in this instance. It’s all part of Biblical Inerrancy (which is really MY DOGMA IS INERRANT) and that’s a club used to beat people with.
As well as also endorsing beating children with clubs, by coincidence.
And the thing about creationism is that it is built entirely on logical fallacies, so to teach creationism, you have to teach people AT BEST not to think critically in this particular area. In ACE’s case, it wasn’t compartmentalised like that. There was no critical thinking anywhere.
And that meant I didn’t have the tools to think about the harmful stuff. I was indoctrinated into believing in hell, and not given the mental skills to question that.
How did you finally leave fundamentalism?
I think it was because of listening to secular music. Some girls came to the ACE school who had attended a secular secondary school for a year or two previously, and they brought a tiny bit of that culture with them.
I mean, they were still hardcore Christians by most standards. But to me they seemed very worldly.
And I think partly because of them and partly because of an older boy who listened to the radio, secular songs started to impinge on my consciousness, and I began listening to the radio.
Then one day the supervisor gave a massive lecture to the whole school. She said singing secular songs was the same as rubbing dog dirt on your friends’ faces.
She used that specific phrase. “Dog dirt”.
And that was so ridiculous that I think I listened to the radio MORE after that.
Also, a Christian band called Sixpence None the Richer had a big hit with a song called “Kiss Me”. So I was listening to the radio to hear their song, and of course hearing all the other devil’s music at the same time.
And enjoying it.
Eventually I figured if it was OK to listen to it on the radio, it was OK to buy it. So I started buying secular CDs. And I discovered a few things.
One was that this music was a *lot* better than Christian rock.

Yes 🙂

And a lot of Christian rock was blatantly plagiarised from secular songs.
So there went my theory that the bands were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I also discovered that this music made me feel AWESOME. I felt incredible listening to these secular bands, full of joy. It was like the ecstatic worship services I’d experienced, but better.
I’d always been taught that secular music was inferior because it was the devil’s counterfeit…
but here, clearly, was not just something that was a counterfeit. It was the real thing.

Or maybe Evangelical rock itself is the devil’s counterfeit 🙂

Ha! That sounds about right.
And finally, I think it was listening to secular music that opened the door to reading secular books. When I was 17 I began reading philosophy.
I would never have done that just a few years before.
I would have thought even considering those ideas was exposing myself to the devil.
Now I think that after I’d been listening to Steven Tyler for a few years, I realised that there was no danger in considering other ideas. They weren’t going to control me. I could still decide what to accept and what to reject.
I figured that the truth would stand up for itself.
That was it, ultimately.
The reason I was angry at ACE was that they wouldn’t let me consider alternative ideas or beliefs.
I still agreed with them about religion, politics, and “science” at that point.
But I thought that if something was true, it would stand up to scrutiny. So I thought they should have given me an education where I got a chance to decide for myself.
And they had done the opposite.
So secular music was the wedge that allowed me to consider other ideas.
That and eventually making friends with my non-Christian schoolmates
and discovering that non-Christians weren’t demon possessed drug taking gangbangers.

Yeah 🙂 And how did your worldview evolve after that?

Deconversion and atheism

Well, I read philosophy books and – oh, I’d forgotten this, I didn’t intend to read philosophy of religion. I intended to read philosophy of mind, but the religion section came first in the book I bought, and I felt duty bound to read it in order.
So the devil tricked me!

Or God 🙂

And I found the arguments against religion uncomfortably persuasive. A lot of people don’t like Dawkins’ essay “Viruses of the Mind”, but it is a very effective description of fundamentalist religion, if not all religion.
It applied exactly to my beliefs.
That scared me. So I read the pro-religion essays to try to comfort myself, and I found myself inwardly arguing against them.

I think that all hateful and irrational ideologies can be viewed as “virus of the mind”. This concept has a huge explanatory power.

Right, exactly.
So I couldn’t handle it at all, I just buried those thoughts and started living as… I guess a functional atheist.
I tried not to think about it.
Occasionally I felt guilty and wondered if I was going to hell.
Sometimes I’d feel an urge to pray, but I felt that I couldn’t because I would need to repent first, and I didn’t want to repent.
This dragged on over a period of years. I’m writing a book about it.
I bought the God Delusion when it came out. I was like “Well, Dawkins started all my doubts, maybe he can finish them!” But I found the God Delusion put me on the defensive. I found myself sticking up for God as I read it.
I haven’t read it since. I don’t know what I’d think now.
At this point, my beliefs were essentially superstition. I was just terrified that God might exist. I was persuaded by Dawkins’ argument that the God of the Old Testament was evil, but not by his argument that this God didn’t exist.
So I’m just wondering around afraid of what’s going to happen when I die.
And I think that’s all pretty clearly a product of just poor thinking skills on my part.
Which I relate partly to an education and upbringing which discouraged thinking.

My memory’s a bit blurry after that. I’m not exactly sure how I got from there to atheism, which is where I am now.

A fundamentalist universe is an absurd and gruesome farce, given that billions of humans are going to suffer forever.
Would you say you feel rather convinced that the ultimate reality (whatever it is) is impersonal?

I don’t really think about that; I don’t find it a useful concept. I would say I have little grounds for speculation about the ultimate reality.

Historically, you would have been called an agnostic in France and Germany
where most people hold such a view
Einstein said that our human mind is so small than we cannot fathom the ultimate mystery beyond the universe

The harmfulness of Biblical inerrancy

Yeah. I didn’t mean to turn this into a conversation about atheism!
But here’s one thing I think your Christian readers can get on board with:
I never really considered other forms of Christianity, because I’d just been brought up to think they were absurd.
I was always told my options were fundamentalism or atheism.
Looking back, in my late teens and early 20s, they were the only paths I considered.
I’ve considered other things since then, but at the time it was all or nothing.
I was told you have to believe every word of the Bible or none of it.
And that’s a recipe for producing atheists.

Fundamentalism is destroying Christianity, this is why moderate Christians CANNOT stay indifferent
If people care about the future of Christianity, they’ve got to stop teaching children Biblical inerrancy is the only option.
Because Biblical inerrancy is completely untenable.

Absolutely 🙂

Legal actions against fundamentalist brain-washing

But now I have a more practical question
Many people tell that in an open society we ought to tolerate ACE
What is your response to such an assertion?

Well, I haven’t finished making up my mind about that yet. There’s an excellent book called Religious Schools vs Children’s Rights by James Dwyer, and I’m still thinking about his argument.
He thinks there is a case for state regulation in cases like ACE. I want to agree with him, but I’m still thinking over all the implication.
implications.
But I will say these things:
Even if we accept that ACE schools have the right to exist, we should still criticise them. I believe that racist groups and neo-Nazi political parties have the right to exist, but I will still oppose them in any way I can.

Second, even if ACE schools have the right to exist, school inspection bodies should take an uncompromising stand on pointing out where they are failing children from an educational point of view.

You know Jonny, I really admire your careful thinking and moderation. Giving your background it is truly fantastic 🙂

Thanks. You’re very kind.

What are the main evidence clearly showing that ACE is harmful for the well-being of kids?

Well, there isn’t any, really. That’s why I’m doing a PhD looking at ex-students, because no one’s ever undertaken that kind of research.
I can say, however, that ACE’s vision of education goes against everything that psychologists and educators currently think about what makes for effective schooling.
So it’s profoundly unlikely that it’s helpful.

Have you been accused of being too biased for carrying out such a research?

Yeah, of course. I think about that a lot. The truth is that nobody is neutral, though. And also, in some cases ACE schools have actually abused children very seriously.
And to be neutral in cases of abuse is a moral failure, in my view.
I would never want to be accused of being neutral about that.

Absolutely!

But still, I accept that it’s important to carry out research which is rigorous
So what I do is I always think “What would prove me wrong? What evidence would weaken my argument?”
Then I go looking for that evidence.

This is the scientific method at its very best 🙂

So in the case of ACE, I’m looking for people who say it has benefitted them. Most of them don’t want to speak to me, because I’ve campaigned against ACE so much, but I’m trying.
If I can’t speak to them, I still think I can make some useful points. I mean, I am in touch with more than 100 people who say they were abused by ACE. Now, even if those are the only 100 people in the world who feel that way (and I know they aren’t), those people still matter.
It makes me angry how dismissive ACE and the schools have been about the people who feel wronged by the system.
It’s so unchristian of them.

Precisely.

I am a teacher.
If someone came to me and told me they had been harmed by my teaching, I would bend over backwards to listen to them and try to put it right.
So when my old teachers won’t even agree to meet me or reply to my letters (and I’m thinking of one in particular here), that strikes me as cowardice.

Well said!
Do you believe that ACE can be improved in such a way that the harmful elements are removed? Or is it beyond any hope of redemption and should cease to exist altogether?

I see it as pretty much without redeeming features.
The individual study thing seems to work for some students, but I think even those students need a greater breadth of educational activities.
Under ACE, the majority of your academic life is spent studying alone, in silence, from books which contain all the answers.
I think students need to be trained to do more group activities, teamwork, and research.

I am very thankful for all the time you have accorded to us. What final thoughts would you like to convey to my progressive Christian readers?

Thanks for caring. Thanks for not preaching at me and the ex-ACE people who have heard enough sermons for two lifetimes. Please speak out against creationism. A lot of people won’t listen to me because I call myself an atheist. A lot of those same people won’t listen to progressive Christians either, because they say you’re not True Christians. But there’s a chance they’ll listen to you, and it’s a much bigger chance than I have.
I guess that’s it! Thank you for having me; I appreciate this opportunity.

It has been a true delight. I am looking forward to reading your upcoming book and PhD dissertation!
Thanks! I’ll try to finish them sometime this decade!
Have a good night 🙂
Thanks! And you.

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Accelerated fundamentalist education

 

The harmfulness of ACE

Jonny Scaramanga, a former British Christian fundamentalist, called my attention to the abusive nature of a particular form of conservative Protestant education called “Accelerated Christian Education” or ACE in short.

Jonny’s blog should really be viewed as an example of how Christians and atheists ought to interact with each other.
Despite all the traumatic experiences he went through, he remains extremely respectful and kind, and I highly advise Christians to visit his blog and Youtube channel in order for them to realize the real ordeal a fundamentalist upbringing can be.

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ACE aims at furnishing an individual Biblical education adapted to the abilities of every child. In comparison to high schools which are supposed to produce illiterate teenagers, ACE presumably leads kids to develop a Christ-like personality.
Of course, most Christians should view this promise as deceitful since it is obvious that children have always the choice to decide themselves against the Good and lead a selfish lifestyle.
I strongly doubt that statistically speaking, there is a real difference between children raised in a good Christian home and children raised by loving godless parents having a commitment for humanitarian causes.

In another video, it is pointed out that God has created every kid with his or her unique features and has a wonderful plan for him. Consequently his academic needs to be “diagnosed”.

Even if it is off-topic, I cannot help but remark there is a huge irony here. Proponents of ACE emphasized the value and worth of the human individual but fail to tell us that, according to their theology, a huge number of the wonderful babies they show us are going to end up in hell where they will be tormented forever.

Jonny criticizes both the secular (methodological) and religious aspect of ACE.

He pointed out that the ACE of fundamentalists is based on the radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner, which I find extremely ironic since Skinner was a hardcore materialist denying mental causation.
Jonny rightly exposes the unethical aspect of raising children with rewards and punishments as if they were animals to be tamed.

He also correctly notes that ACE (and fundamentalist homeschooling in general) really hinders children from developing a social life, leaving them with a big handicap as they will enter the professional world.

As for the religious aspect, he showed how ACE teaches creationism and presents many non-senses (springing out of a literal reading of the Bible) as established facts. He also explained that ACE teaches people what to think and to learn (most often fictional) facts instead of showing them how to think by themselves and critically analyze data and ideas.
He went on and pointed out the obvious truth that such a “knowledge” is of no use whatsoever since people will have forgotten all these things as adults.
Jonny summarizes very well what a good education should be: learning to evaluate truth claims instead of learning their content.

Globally I have a very positive impression of his blog which is far from websites of hateful anti-theists such as Dawkins or Jerry Coyne. He makes a real effort to understand the fundamentalist mindset and seems really willing to help persons going through the same ordeal instead of just expressing his frustration and anger (like folks at DebunkingChristanity usually do).

Finally, I want to point out that progressive Christians such as myself also constantly combat the abuses and atrocities caused by fundamentalist education and brain-washing.

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote an excellent article exposing all the flaws of the “Truth Project” which is a fundamentalist “education” for adults.

As a rule, I think that everyone ought to fight abuses and injustices wherever she finds them, especially if they are committed by individuals sharing her worldview.
There are Christian, Muslim, capitalistic , communist and antitheistic extremists and all people cherishing liberty and love should join their forces to keep them at bay and limit the psychological damages they cause.

I know that some of points are controversial and I’m looking forward to having an interesting dialog with people having other opinions.

Jesus and a dinosaur