Friday, October 02, 2009

Religion and the Moral Responsibility of Belief

Yesterday, I wrote that young earth creationists are responsible for a great deal of death and suffering and will be responsible for more in the future. I also added that they are poor candidates to evaluate real-world political and social policies because they do not live in the real world.

However, I denied the claim that this is true of all religious people. Here’s why.

It is simply not possible for any of us to adopt all of our beliefs by reason alone. Our first beliefs are given to us when we are too young to evaluate them. It is even possible that we acquire some beliefs as a matter of genetic fiat, because a particular belief gene gave those who have it evolutionary fitness. To say that we are somehow morally responsible for those beliefs would be absurd.

As we get older, we gain the capacity to question what people tell us and to form our own ideas about how the world works. This is when we begin to be able to hold our beliefs up to the light of reason. However, a part of holding those beliefs up to the light of reason is to evaluate their consistency with the beliefs acquired during the first stage above. When a potential new belief comes into conflict already planted, we cannot tell by this fact alone which of the two beliefs to keep and which to abandon.

By the time we are sufficiently well developed to be counted as moral agents, capable of being held responsible for our actions, we have a huge amount of baggage that we have brought with us from our younger (and irresponsible) years.

This is the time where responsible people would start to evaluate what they believe. However, they cannot start over from scratch. They cannot abandon each belief at once. They must choose thos that they will question and those that they will let slide until they have more time, if possible.

In living up to his moral obligations, the morally responsible person will look at the most dangerous ideas first. His attention should begin looking at beliefs where lives are at stake, and save the casual and irrelevant beliefs for times of rest and relaxation.

The proposition, "At least one God probably exists" has no implications on how we treat each other, so the proposition itself has no moral implications. It's the stuff that one adds to this that has the moral implications. When that stuff starts to make a difference in what we do to and for others, we have reason to put it to the forefront of beliefs that need our careful review.

If a belief added on to the proposition that a god exists is also of little or no consequence, thn we still have little reason to demand that people hold it up to the light of reason. If a belief is of good consequence, we still have little or no reason to have those who believe it hold it up to the light of reason.

However, when the added belief is tied to behavior that puts the quality of life of others at risk – if it makes a person a threat to the well-being of others – the harm that is caused by those errant beliefs touch reasons to demand that the people performing those actions give their beliefs a careful review.

Bigotry against homosexuals and atheists, claims about the age of the earth, the use of healing practices that do not heal, the diverting of resources away from activities that do real-world good and into activities that are grounded on fiction and myth, all provide examples of beliefs that agents have a moral obligation to hold up to the light of reason. They have an obligation to drop those beliefs that they cannot justify.

This is exactly the same as the obligation not to do harms that they cannot justify.

Comparable to this, there is no obligation to respect beliefs of any kind. There is a case to be made that, It is absurd for atheists to get worked up over beliefs that cannot directly be linked to harm or that are actually linked to good. In just the same way that an obligation to hold a belief up to the light of reason is determined by the risks posed by that belief, the moral condemnation of those who hold irresponsible beliefs should also be measured by the degree of risk posed by that belief.

On this measure, a belief that at least one God probably exists is not a belief that warrants a great amount of criticism.

As I argued yesterday, the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old warrants such criticism and condemnation that any person with a conscience would loathe to adopt it – for precisely the reasons that I listed in yesterday’s post.

I am not saying that we should be nice to those who hold absurd beliefs because it is politically useful. I am holding that we have reason to criticize those who hold absurd beliefs. However, that criticism should be focused first and loudest on the most dangerous beliefs – such as beliefs that threaten the right to freedom of speech, beliefs that keep atheists out of public office,

4 comments:

Kip said...

A> On this measure, a belief that at least one God probably exists is not a belief that warrants a great amount of criticism.

I would argue that any belief without evidence warrants criticism. The more people that believe it, the more criticism it deserves. I agree that that single belief does not lead to great harm, but legitimizes other beliefs that do. The person that believes in God, legitimizes the person that believes in the Christian God, who legitimizes the person who believes that the Bible is inerrant, who legitimizes the person who believes that homosexuality is a sin. It's a very slippery slope, and believing in one fairy tale, leads to easy belief in others. I'd rather criticize the root of the problem: believing in things without sufficient evidence.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

A> On this measure, a belief that at least one God probably exists is not a belief that warrants a great amount of criticism.

I would argue that any belief without evidence warrants criticism.

Then you hold an impossible moral standard. It would be impossible for me to go through all of my beliefs and determine which I have evidence for and which I do not and to evaluate the soundness of that evidence. And even if I did so, I could only evaluate those beliefs based on their relationship to other beliefs, some of which have not yet been evaluated.

Some of these beliefs I adopted merely because I was told of them by a trusted authority. I do not recollect the origin of every belief, so I do not recollect what the evidence for the belief was, let alone whether it was any good.

I think that it is a bit unfair to criticize a person for that which is clearly impossible.

The more people that believe it, the more criticism it deserves.

Nope. The more dangerous the belief is, the more criticism it deserves. We have more of a reason to criticize the belief that it is wrong to set off a weapon of mass destruction in a major city, then we have to criticize the belief that last millennium ended on January 1, 2000 regardless of the popularity of the second belief.


I agree that that single belief does not lead to great harm, but legitimizes other beliefs that do.

This is false. This is, in fact, a form of slippery slope argument that ultimately has no merit, because the slope is not all that slippery.

It is similar to arguing that a doctor must treat every hangnail because not treating the hangnail legitimizes not treating the heart attack. Or the fire squad must respond to every fire because not putting out the small campfire legitimizes not putting out the blazing appartment fire.

We have the capacity to prioritize our response, and we do a very poor job of prioritizing when we say that we must respond equally in all cases no matter how trivial. In fact, what we are doing, is wasting resources on the trivial in ways that allow the more serious conditions to get much worse.


I'd rather criticize the root of the problem: believing in things without sufficient evidence.

Then, as I argued above, your criticism is so broad that all of us are guilty. In fact, the person with the trivial unfounded belief and the significant true belief is just as guilty as the person with the trivial true belief and the significant unfounded belief.

To say that these two cases are not equal is to admit that there is something else relevant to criticism other than the fact that one has an unfounded belief.

Kip said...

A> This is, in fact, a form of slippery slope argument that ultimately has no merit, because the slope is not all that slippery.

I'm arguing that there is a correlation between not checking your beliefs in one area, and not checking them in another. If you disagree, then this is an empirical claim that needs research. From my experience, it's pretty obvious that people that believe in crazy things, tend to be easily led astray by other crazy ideas.

I maintain, therefore, despite your criticism to the contrary, that any belief without evidence warrants criticism. The amount of criticism is contingent upon 1) the amount of harm done (as you've said), and 2) the # of people that hold that belief. This is no more impossible than it is to figure out which desires tend to fulfill more and stronger desires considering all desires that exist.

faithlessgod said...

Hi guys

I agree with Kip. His is not a slippery slope argument.

I would add that it is not so much the belief that warrants criticism but the means and methods such as post hoc rationalisation and argument from consequences etc. to make such a belief acceptable that need to be focused on.

A widely held false belief remains widely held as long as the methods to encourage such mistakes are not addressed. This is what I think Alonzo was aiming at in this post but it could have been clearer (and Alonzo better than most others is usually very clear).

So a mere belief in a god does not warrant much criticism. However to the extent (and only to the extent) that the methods employed to mistakenly warrant such a belief can also be used to mistakenly warrant other and harmful beliefs (whether dependent upon a god belief or not), then it is those aspects that do deserve criticism.