In an article that I read today, Should Science Speak to Faith in Scientific American, Richard Dawkins and Laurence Kraus discussed how scientists should approach the issue of faith. Kraus wrote about the value of reaching out to people of faith to get them interested in science, while Dawkins saw faith and science to be substantially incompatible and contradictory.
One view that Kraus defended was that religious belief is inevitable, so that we must learn to live with it.
Rejecting the Inevitable
I want to get rid of the notion that simply because something is an inevitable part of our society does not mean that we need to put it in the category of ‘morally permissible’. I sincerely doubt that we are going to get rid of rape or racism. Barring any type of extremely intrusive intervention that currently exists only in the realm of science fiction, there will be people who will rape others; and there will be people who will denigrate others on account of race.
However, nobody would take seriously the claim that since rape and racial bigotry will always be a part of our society that, therefore, we must learn to tolerate rape and racial bigotry. No argument that it is ‘within our nature’ to rape and to judge others on the basis of race will make it morally permissible to do so.
By the way, desire utilitarianism takes account of this. The purpose of morality is to use the tools of praise and condemnation to create or promote good desires and to weaken and eliminate bad desires. The question to be asked in desire utilitarian terms is not whether rape or bigotry is a part of our nature. The question to ask is whether we can, and whether we have reason to, weaken this part of our nature or cover it up through social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It appears quite reasonable to believe that the desires that lead to rape and bigotry will be stronger and more widely spread in a culture that tolerates these attitudes, compared to a society that condemns them.
In short, some 'false belief' may be inevitable, but that does not mean that we lack the ability to influence its degree, even if we cannot eliminate it entirely.
I suspect that somebody might object to the section above by claiming, “How dare you compare religion to rape and bigotry!”
As a matter of fact, I did compare religion to rape and bigotry. What I did was reduce the argument, “X is something that we can never be rid of; therefore, we should learn to live with X and tolerate those who engage in X,” to an absurdity. I introduced the two obvious cases of X that meet the criterion of being something that we cannot be rid of in order to show that it does not follow that we should accept and learn to live with those who do X.
The question still remains as to whether religious belief falls into the same category as these other items. That is the issue that I turn to next.
Intellectual Integrity and Responsibility
Before addressing Kraus’ specific claim, I want to look at the more general moral obligation to intellectual integrity and responsibility.
There is a duty that is particularly strong where the well-being of others is at stake for a person to accept a certain measure of responsibility for his beliefs. Particularly when his beliefs drive him to do actions that are harmful to others, a moral appreciation for the fact that one is considering doing harm means that a person of good moral character will take that harm seriously and avoid it unless the facts leave him no other choice. He will not hold beliefs that would drive him to do harm to others recklessly.
The whole branch of morality known as ‘due process’ is built on this foundation. The obligation to do no harm unless the need for harm has been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, for the accused to have the opportunity to argue in his own defense and to present witnesses that he is not, in fact, deserving of this harm. Those who do not accept these principles are people who are too casual about the harms they inflict for civil society. Those who accept an argument for doing harm to others too casually are, by this fact, showing that they are evil. They lack qualities that we have reason to promote in others.
This obligation is built upon a premise that good people would be averse to causing harm to others. This aversion will cause a good person to stop, to think twice, and to say at times, “I do not know, and the benefit of the doubt rests with those that I would have otherwise harmed.”
One unquestionable fact is that we will always have to deal with false beliefs. As long as humans are alive, at least one will believe that a proposition is true. False beliefs would fit Kraus’s category of something that will always exist.
However, in spite of this fact, we have reason to reduce the overall incidence of false belief. People seek to create states of affairs that fulfill their desires. However, they act so as to create states of affairs given their beliefs. If all of their beliefs were true and complete, all of their actions would be successful. However, ignorance gets in the way of success, preventing people from realizing states that they desire to realize, and often hurting others in the process.
So, rational people have reason to set up institutions that promote morally responsible behavior when it comes to examining beliefs and that encourage people to reject beliefs that lead to harm to others unless the evidence in favor is overwhelming. Those who refuse to do so remain a threat to others, promoting false belief and intellectual irresponsibility that leads to harm.
So, we can accept this modified version of Kraus’s statement – false beliefs will always be among us, with accepting his conclusion that we must accept false beliefs and deny that there is any moral transgression involved in forming false beliefs.
The Criteria of Harm and Efficiency
At this point, it is important to note that I have built this argument on a concept of harm. Moral responsibility requires that agents review those beliefs that would make the agent a threat to the well-being of others if they were to be adopted. It is extremely difficult to make a similar argument when the false beliefs are relatively harmless. If a belief is a belief that poses no threat to others, then what reason to others have for being concerned with whether or not the agent adopts that belief?
This, then, argues in favor of a sort of belief-triage. Reason (rationality, ‘the wise thing to do’) suggests looking at the range of false beliefs that people have and tackling those that (1) do a great deal of harm, and (2) can be efficiently battled. Focusing on these beliefs means preventing the most harm with the least amount of input (saving input to be applied against other evils. This means ignoring those false beliefs that are too strongly seated to be removed, and ignoring those false beliefs that are trivial in that those who hold them are in no way a threat to others. It means dealing with these beliefs as a side effect of dealing with the easily changed roots of the most harmful actions.
Ultimately, this was the position Kraus was arguing for - focusing on the worst of religion the most effective way possible, and dealing with the rest of it later to the degree necessary to secure our future safety and happiness.
Disagreement in Detail
Of course, people will disagree about which patients can be saved (which false beliefs can be easily eliminated) and how much effort it will take to save them (by eliminating those false beliefs). There will be instances where one triage expert will count a patient as ‘beyond savoing’ that another will think can be easily saved.
Yet, this argument does give us a set of criteria for looking at those disputes, and a checklist for looking at which arguments and which data are relevant. What we are looking for in these cases is evidence for and against the propositions, (1) belief X causes people to behave in ways that make them a threat to others, and (2) belief X can be relatively easily changed at least to the point of making measurable progress against this harm.
Please note that these are empirical claims. People may have to rely on their feelings to determine if these propositions are true or false in a particular case, as long as nothing else comes along, but there are data to be sought after for people involved in such a dispute.
It would be quite interesting, I think, if the scientific-minded people in this dispute were to actually call forth their expertise to look for the evidence for and against their various positions and examine that evidence critically, just as they would do so for a paper written in their chosen professions.