I once noticed after reading an interview with Jerry Seinfeld that he and I share an uncanny number of similarities. One of them is that we regard systems of religious or philosophical beliefs and practices as supermarkets. When you go into a supermarket, you don't buy everything. You just pick up what you need. As Jerry put it, "I've always had the skill of extracting the essence of any subject I study, be it meditation, yoga, Scientology, Judaism, Zen. Whatever it is, I go in to get what I need. To me, these are supermarkets. I go in to get my supplies, then I leave" (Playboy interview with Jerry Seinfeld, October, 1993).

Students choosing food in cafeteria


People who consider themselves to be True Believers of any sort of ism of course frown on this practice of selective shopping. The expression "cafeteria Catholic" is meant as a term of derision for self-professed Catholics who pick and choose aspects of Catholic doctrine that suit them but reject aspects considered by those who consider themselves to be genuine Catholics as indisputable doctrine. Such derision is understandable, given the cognitive dissonance a person must feel when someone claims to be a member of your group yet rejects what you see as an absolute requirement for group membership. As we all know, when personal beliefs and practices differ too much within a group, schisms develop. From the early forms of all of the major religions, numerous new denominations and sects have arisen throughout the course of human history.

Personally, I never need to worry about being accused of cafeteria anything-ism because I don't claim to belong to any isms of the world. Like Jerry, I am happy to shop for what I need in any store and then leave that store. I have no interest in becoming a "member" of any particular store by swearing to buy everything in that store and to never shop elsewhere. I feel sorry for people who would like to consider themselves members of the shopper's club for a particular store but are chastised by the store's loyal members and management for being cafeteria shoppers and occasionally picking up another store's product.

In my opinion, deriding members of your group as "cafeteria" members is hypocritical, because all members of any ism are cafeteria shoppers to some degree. Each human being has an absolutely unique personality that colors his or her perceptions and interpretations of the world. People from the same congregation can read the same bit of scripture or listen to the same edict from the same authority and come away with different views of how those words should be applied as guides for living. But, hey, I suppose it isn't really my business how stores determine who are the True Believers and who are the cafeteria members. After all, I do not own a shopper's card for any store.

Well, maybe one. I do hold stock in the store of science. I have a degree in biology and advanced degrees in psychology. Science does not have a lot of membership requirements, and I heartily agree with the rules it does have. Your thoughts must be logically coherent and consistent with empirical evidence. Your knowledge claims must be tentative rather than dogmatic. You must allow your ideas to be criticized and tested. Your ideas should be consistent with what is regarded as established scientific knowledge. And, above all, you should strive for the truth about the way things really are, not just the way you would like them to be. To me, these are the central attitudes that define science, even more so than any particular methodology. This set of attitudes might be called scientism, although that term has been used in a number of ways, many of them pejorative.

Although science allows you to shop in other stores, scientists do get nervous about certain stores that sell thought products that are inconsistent with science's naturalistic world view. Scientists tend to be skeptical of anything paranormal. Nonetheless, science will not automatically cancel your shopper's card for looking around in other stores, even stores of ill-repute. In my previous post, I went shopping in a New Thought store to examine a video called The Secret, which on the surface seemed to be full of pseudoscience that was inconsistent with accepted science. But, on close examination, I found many ideas in the video that would be considered to be valid by mainstream science. In a future post, I plan to examine what some have called "Ancient Toltec Wisdom" (and others, New Age nonsense) to see if there is anything worth buying there.


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