When “Knowing Better” Isn’t

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We were all told as children that we “knew better than that” if we persisted in acting upon a belief that ran contrary to reality.  Children learn about gravity and know better than to try to fly by jumping off the roof.  Children learn that monsters aren’t real, and they should know better than to be afraid of what might be under the bed. Many keep using the phrase as a way to explain how much they think they know about the world, often with a derisive connotation.  Indeed, some who do not profess the Christian faith use this language when describing why they do not believe in Jesus; they “know better” than to think a man born in the Middle East two thousand years ago is actually God. While there is something to “knowing better than [a false belief]” it is too often used to dismiss truth claims out of hand without seriously considering them.  If one believes that matter is all there is, it is easy to say that one knows better than to believe in things like miracles and angels; knowing better, in these cases, just means the belief cannot be considered because of materialistic presuppositions.

In Torrey Academy, one of our first goals is to guide students to aporia, or the state of knowing that they don’t know.  We get them there by asking them questions about their beliefs, until they realize, more often than not, that their beliefs are unjustified in that they have not investigated them enough to even know whether or not they are true.  The goal, though, isn’t to help them think they “know better” than to believe what they previously held.  Rather, we have the opposite goal of helping students to discover truth and be able to articulate and defend it logically. We do not want them to dismiss beliefs out-of-hand simply because they think they “know better.” Instead, we want them to better know why they believe what they believe.

A common scenario is when a student realizes that a well-meaning but misinformed person or book (maybe a Sunday School teacher or a devotional book they read) got some details about the world incorrect.  When a student discovers this, it is sometimes tempting to then mistrust all similar sources and to say he “knows better” than to continue to believe in his childhood faith.  While it is good and right to know the truth, this student mustn’t think he knows better than to believe anything his Sunday School teacher taught him simply because he discovers a mistake.

Another iteration of this is when mythic or metaphorical language is used to convey a truth, and the student mistakenly takes it literally.  Longfellow embellished his story of Paul Revere’s ride a great deal, but perhaps it tells something true about the bravery of the early Americans. A student can sometimes discover that a story has been mythologized and then disbelieve what it is trying to say.  It is good to know the facts of the American Revolution, but a student ought not to reject anything resembling patriotism simply because the mythology isn’t strictly historical.  Fiction can tell us true things about human nature or God, if we understand it as fiction.

An educated person isn’t someone who has discovered that their previously held beliefs were unfounded and thus “knows better” than to believe in them.  A good education instead helps students to know, better; students should know truths, and better know why they should believe them.  Sometimes this means abandoning beliefs that were false.  But often, it means a richer understanding and more meaningful acceptance of previously held beliefs.  As Lewis says, “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. […] If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is not the same as to see.”1


  1. Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, 1944. See page 81.