In a continuing discussion of atheists standing up for their beliefs, I would like to address another obstacle to discussion and debate - a false dichotomy.
“Either you are an ally in our fight to rid the world of faith, or you share responsibility for all of the religiously motivated terrorism and violence that we see in the world today.”
“Either you are for us, or you are for the terrorists.”
It is a simple-minded way of looking at the world suitable for people who cannot handle more complex realities.
Where do I stand on the issue of tolerance for religion?
Well, imagine that you are with a group of people who have crash-landed on an island. Let us assume a rather mild climate. What is your first order of business: (a) resolve the issue of whether or not a god exists, or (b) find a source of clean drinking water?
I would vote for (b).
The first option can wait. It’s not important.
Now, let’s look to the question of finding water. Let’s say we have two people in the group. One is a geologist. He looks at the rock formations and points to a place where he thinks there is a good chance of finding water. Another member of the group says that he has a magical method of finding water, or a method whereby if he prays hard enough then God will plant knowledge on where to find water in his head.
Now, I ask the geologist, “When you point to a place to find water, how often to people actually find water?” The answer (as determined by a history of empirical observation) is “Fifty percent.”
I ask the magician and the theist, “When you point to a place to find water, how often to people actually find water?” Based from a long history of empirical observation, let’s assume that the odds are no more than chance, about five percent.
On this matter, all I need to know is that 50% is better than 5%. We need water. We go with the option that gives us the best chance of finding water. That’s all that matters.
Now, let’s say that the magician and the theist say that I am not giving their beliefs sufficient respect. In order to show respect for their beliefs, I should give their methods equal consideration along side the methods of the geologists.
If I do not pretend that their method is as good as the geologist's, then I am being told that I am worthy of condemnation. After all, they say, there is nothing special about the scientific method. It is just another way of doing things.
In other words, respecting their belief means pretending that 5% = 50%.
Sorry, but that is not going to happen.
If the advocates of magic and prayer can find a method of success that exceeds or at least equals that of the geologiest in finding water, then they will be given a level of respect that exceeds or at least equals that of the scientist. Without a proven record of success, pretending that they are successful is foolish. It puts the lives, health, and well-being of those of us who are living on this island at risk.
Now, planet earth is an island in space. About 6.5 billion of us are crash-landed on this island. Today, we do not have enough clean water to go around. This is only one threat we have to the life, health, and well-being of the people who are living here. We need real-world solutions to real-world problems. As I see it, we can discuss the existence of God at another time. In the mean time, we need to pay attention to methods of dealing with real-world problems that have a demonstrable real-world effect.
It’s simply a matter of respecting the numbers, and respecting anything that shows a disposition to improving those numbers. Numbers do not lie, and they do not have any tolerance for human prejudice. Reality itself has no respect for our different beliefs. Reality does not care if you believe that a certain magical spell will cure a disease, or if you believe that a prayer can alter the course of a hurricane. If we want to protect ourselves from diseases and hurricanes we need to look at what has real-world effects on how they behave. If magic and prayer have a real-world effect, it will show up in the numbers. If it doesn't show up in the numbers, then they are of no use. Saving lives means paying attention to what does show up in the numbers.
I believe that the proposition that a god exists is almost certainly false. Even if a god exists, it is extremely unlikely that we know anything about what that god wants that would be useful. We have no good reason to assume that what we may think it wants is a reliable indication of what it wants as a matter of fact. The huge numbers of different stories that people have believed, and even the huge varieties of the stories that people believe today, means that for any particular story is almost certainly false.
What I do know is that when people started to actually compare different ways of doing things – comparing their chances of success – the methods that have actually shown constantly improving success rates have not needed to make any mention of a god. There is no god element in their formulas, and adding a god element does not do any good.
It would be quite nice if we could compare religions the way we compare drugs and new forms of crops. “When people pray to god X, we see a 35% chance of survival, but when they pray to god Y, we see a 50% chance of survival, so this suggests that we are better off praying to god X than god Y. This goes in support of the followers of god Y.”
But we see nothing like this. We have absolutely no empirical evidence showing us that, “Employing prayer type P1 to god G increases the chance that rain will fall by an inexplicable 5%” or “By passing law L outlawing sin S reduces hurricane frequencies by 20%.”
There have been plenty of opportunities to discover that prayer or some sort of religious observance prevents drought, helps needy people win at games of chance, cures disease, prevents accidents, alters the course of hurricanes, reduces the frequencies of hurricanes, and the like. So far . . . nothing.
Do you want me to respect your beliefs? Show me that you have a more reliable method of finding clean drinking water, curing disease, preventing the destruction of hurricanes, curing cancer, treating diabetes, determining the consequences of putting particular chemicals in our food, air, and water, and you have shown me that I have a reason to listen to what you have to say. Other than that . . . I go with what actually does provide benefits in these areas.
One area in which people make claims about the benefit of religion is that it reduces crime rates. Religion, it is said, has an effect on the possibility that you will be murdered, raped, robbed, or suffer some other form of violence that we have real-world reasons to want to avoid.
Show me the empirical evidence for this. And show me the different effects of different beliefs so that I can see which beliefs we really need to promote if we are going to see the greatest benefit in our crime rates.
One study that I know of compares the rates of various social ills with religiosity of the population suggests that people have lower chances of suffering these ill effects in a secular non-religious society. Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.
This study looked at homicides, suicides (15 to 24 year olds), early childhood deaths (under five years old), life expectancy, gonorrhea infections (all ages and 15-19 year olds), syphilis infections (all ages and 15-19 year olds), abortions, and teen pregnancies (15 – 17 year olds), and found that the more highly religious America actually scored worse than more secular countries.
Of course, there are some important caveats that are necessary to prevent misinterpreting the data. The findings need to be replicated and one must rule out coincidence. However, at the very least, these data tell us that we have no good reason to suspect that religion is necessary to protect us from social ills. Those people who believe otherwise are not driven to that belief by the data. They have no data. They are driven to their conclusions by another force, by a desire to hate, that causes them to feel a special attraction to ideas that give their hate a confortable home. Throughout history, one of the most common comforts for the bigot is the unfounded idea that those they hate are simply incapable of acting morally for one make-belief reason or another. That is how many religious people treat secular philosophies - with maliciously false accusations of horrible consequences.
So, ultimately, I am interested in priorities. There are certain necessities that all of us should be able to agree that we need. We need to find clean water, enough food to eat, and shelter. We need security from diseases and natural disasters. Deciding that we need to resolve questions about whether a god exists before we put our efforts into solving common problems is absurd. However, in solving these problems, it is absurd not to put our efforts into projects that have a demonstrable record of success. And we need to get people out of the habit of inventing make-believe failures so that their hatred of some group or another can find a comfortable home.
That is how I would propose we make the real world a better place.