If you want to be free, you have to have an understanding of the choices. Conservatives who push book bans and rage against pluralistic education are fighting against their own stated goal.

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[Previous: No one has the right to starve a child’s mind]

Imagine you find yourself in a room, facing two doors.

One door is rough, weathered wood. The other is made of boards polished smooth.

There’s carved writing on both, but it’s in a language you don’t read, in characters you’ve never seen. There are chains of intricate symbols inlaid into the frames in gold and silver, but they’re utterly meaningless to you.

There’s just one thing you know. One door is the entry into a golden existence: a long life of peace, ease and good health, full of friends and love. The other opens onto a dark and gloomy road: a hard life of unhappiness, suffering, misery, loneliness, and early death.

Knowing that your fate is riding on the choice, which door would you pick?

The cosmic shell game

The correct answer—assuming you’re a rational skeptic—is that this isn’t a choice at all.

Making a choice implies reasons for doing one thing rather than another. You have to have some background knowledge, some way to evaluate which of the options before you is better. If you could read the language carved on the doors, or if you recognized any of the symbols, you might be able to make a better-than-chance judgment about the correct one. Without this knowledge, picking either door would be a blind guess. You might as well flip a coin.

Of course, in real life, we’re in an even worse place than this pared-down hypothetical. In the real world, there are more than just two doors. There are thousands, each one densely covered with their own writing and their own symbols (notwithstanding the evangelists who think there are only two choices: “My Religion” and “Everything Else”). In addition to that, each door is surrounded by a dense crowd of people yelling that their door is the one true way to happiness and all the others are pretenders.

Making a choice implies reasons for doing one thing rather than another.

Longtime readers may remember this as the scenario in my essay “The Cosmic Shell Game“. It’s a potent reason to distrust the truth claims of religious believers. No one can investigate all these options, and very few people even try. Instead, most people choose the faith they belong to because of an accident of birth. Their decision is effectively random, no more trustworthy than flipping a coin.

This argument doesn’t just apply to religions. It works equally well as a metaphor for philosophies, nationalities, political ideologies, and every other major life decision where making one choice forecloses others. How can anyone make any trustworthy or informed choices about anything, when the space of possibility is so large as to be unnavigable?

The lay of the land

It’s impossible to study every religion, philosophy and ideology in the universe to make a definitive ranking. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying. We’ll never have perfect knowledge, but we can always gain more knowledge. And the more knowledge we have, the better the choices we can make. It’s like trying to hike across uncharted territory. Even if you don’t have a complete map, the more you know about the lay of the land, the better able you are to find a safe path.

This goes for every field of inquiry. The more you know about history, the more you can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The more you know about science, the less likely you are to hold a belief that was already tested and disproven. The more you know about culture, the more capable you are of judging what is or isn’t natural for humans.

The more you know about culture, the more capable you are of judging what is or isn’t natural for humans.

For best results, this knowledge should be a broad cross-section of humanity, not limited to one gender or one race or one religion or one country. It’s the same reason why diverse groups make better decisions: it’s less likely that everyone has the same blind spots, so one person will see what another overlooks. You can achieve the same effect as an individual by stocking your mind with the widest possible selection of human thought and knowledge.

That’s why pluralism is so important in education. It’s the answer to conservatives who think it’s an underhanded liberal ploy—a way to instill leftist values to the exclusion of all others. Actually, it’s just an acknowledgment of a basic fact of reality: it’s really complicated, and figuring stuff out is hard!

Knowledge sets you free

Conservatives say that freedom is their number one value, the thing they care about above all else. Fair enough. Here’s what I say to that: Freedom is only truly possible for an educated person—and the more education you have, the more free you are.

Anyone can be “free” in the wild-animal sense of pursuing immediate desires without constraint. But the truest, most uniquely human kind of freedom is the ability to make decisions that steer the course of your life. Just as in the two-doors analogy, that kind of freedom is only possible when you have the knowledge to make responsible choices. Otherwise, it’s just random guessing or blindly following the path presented by birth or society.

It’s knowledge that sets you free: both self-knowledge, and knowledge about the world.

If you had a kitchen cabinet full of cans, some of which were nutritious and some were poison—but you had no way of knowing which is which—would you boast about your “freedom” to pick any one you felt like? Of course not, because no one values the freedom of ignorance or the freedom to plunge blindly into danger. The only kind of freedom anyone wants is the freedom to choose right—whatever you believe the right choice to be.

It’s knowledge that sets you free: both self-knowledge, and knowledge about the world. It’s knowledge that gives you the power to shake off indoctrination, recognize fallacies for what they are, and choose the worldview whose claims are borne out by evidence.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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