Monday, June 12, 2006

True Beliefs Part IV: Faithfully Causing Harm

I did not mean for this to be a series. It’s just that, at the end of each day, I had one more item that I wanted to cover. This should be the end of it.

In Part I of this series, I explained the value of true beliefs. I used the model of a swimming pool filled with acid, that a potential swimmer thinks is filled with water, to explain why true beliefs have value. I explained the value of using our moral tools of praise and reward to promote a love of honesty, curiosity, and intellectual responsibility. This same argument explains why we should be using the tools of condemnation and punishment against those who would prevent us from acquiring true beliefs -- the deceiver, the intellectually lazy, and the intellectually reckless.

Part II of this series looked at some of the obstacles to our forming true beliefs. I imagined the diver in the above example being confronted by a preacher telling the diver, "Because my book says that the pool is filled with water, you should show that you deserve to go to heaven after death by faithfully accepting what is in the book and ignoring the scientist." Other obstacles include the politician passing legislation demanding that people act as if the pool contains water, and the CEO of Hydrochloric Acid, Inc who realizes that what people do not know about his product (or what they believe that is not true) can help his bottom line.

Part III of this series took arguments out of John Stuart Mills' "On Liberty" to argue that belief in objective facts still suggests the need to let people live their own lives as they see fit. It argues for a love of liberty to sit beside a love of truth, curiosity, and intellectual responsibility. It argues that, except in the case of those who are extremely incompetent such as children, we should use reason to dissuade people from harmful actions, not force.

Faithfully Causing Harm

In this part, I want to talk about the case of faith-based beliefs used to try to justify behavior that does harm to others.

Somebody comes after you with a knife, a gun, a belt or vehicle packed with explosives, a hijacked airplane, or a law (backed by police with guns, bombs, and the like), intent to do you harm. When asked why he seeks to inflict harm on you, he says, "God told me to." He backs up his claim by quoting passages from his book, and he can offer no other reason for his actions.

If you should even offer a peep of protest, he will condemn you for disrespecting his religious practices. The very essence of religious tolerance, he will claim, rests in not protesting, condemning, or criticizing those practices. Therefore, it means not protesting, condemning, or criticizing his attack on you. Raise your arm to block the knife as he tries to stab you says that you do not respect him or his beliefs. That is wrong, he will say. You are “attacking my religion."

He may assert that you have a right to freedom of religion, but not to freedom from (his) religion. The claim that there is no freedom from religion is a claim that one has no freedom from the knife, gun, bomb, hijacked airplane, or faith-based statute that has you hauled off to killed, wounded, or imprisoned in the name of God.

Statutes as Weapons

The criminal law is an institution of violence, backed up by guns and other instruments of violence to be used on those who disobey.

Faith-based law is faith-based violence, backed up by guns and other instruments of violence to be used on those who disobey.

It is no defense in favor of slavery, inquisitions, jihads, witch burnings, religious wars, or other acts of religious violence in the past to say that they were written into the laws and made legal. This also applies to prohibitions, such as prohibiting a woman from getting an education or prohibiting a homosexual couple from getting married. These prohibitions deep wounds into the quality of people’s lives -- as deep as any physical wound.

It is no defense in favor of any of these things that the majority of the people would have voted for them. It is no defense of slavery that a majority of whites would approve a ballot initiative to enslave blacks. It is no defense of faith-based harms generally that a majority of the people have no moral qualms against inflicting those harms.

When discussing the law, the relevant moral question becomes whether the law ought or ought not to exist. If it is wrong to inflict faith-based harm on another person, than laws that inflict faith-based harms on other people ought not to exist. The same prohibition that exists between wielding a faith-based knife applies to wielding a faith-based statute. Both equally seek to cause harm. Both do so in the name of God.

If anything, the faith-based knife wielder is less of a moral threat than the faith-based statute wielder. The knife wielder can attack many people. Faith-based statues, on the other hand, are faith-based weapons of mass destruction.

Reason vs. Faith

As the faith-based attacker comes at you with his weapons, saying that he would please his God by causing you to suffer, you cannot reason with him. Reason is the enemy of faith. Reason is the voice of the devil trying to seduce him into giving up his faith -- giving up his relationship with God.

If you are trying to reason with him, you are putting your reason up against his faith. You are hoping that reason will win, and he will put his faith (and his faith-wielded knife) aside. This cannot be understood as anything other than an attempt to use reason to turn your attacker against God. This proves your guilt. This proves that you deserve to die, in the name of God.

Limitless Faith

There is no limit to what a person can believe on the basis of faith. From the idea that the sun is a burning chariot, to the existence of a titan named Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, from flying horses to three-headed dogs guarding the entrance to hell to walking on water, from snake-haired Medusa whose gaze turns people to stone to divine retribution capable of turning a woman into a pillar of salt or a staff into a snake, from leprechauns to ghosts to flying saucers hiding in the tail of a comet, faith knows no limits.

I am more than comfortable making the assertion that, somewhere out there is a religious passage that says that you, the reader, should be put to death for something that you have said, done, or thought. Furthermore, there is a person who believes that the passage represents the literal and unquestionable truth from God.

From this it follows that if we allow faith-based belief to justify actions that are harmful to others, there is not a person alive who should not die. Every one of us violates somebody’s religion somewhere.

Have you worked on the day of the Sabbath? Have you collected interest from a loan or a savings account? Then, according to the Old Testament, you should die.

No Faith-Based Beliefs Justify Harm

The only way to avoid a catastrophic conclusion is to say that faith-based belief does not justify harm to others.

We have no reason to protest faith-based beliefs that inspire people to help others. We might question whether the person who contributes to charity only because he thinks of it as a down-payment for a ticket to heaven. However, we have no reason to protest – unless he thinks he can also purchase his ticket to heaven by doing harm in some cases.

If faith-based beliefs have no effect on the lives of others, such as beliefs about what to eat and when to pray, these also give us no reason to interfere. As I wrote yesterday, there are powerful arguments against interfering with the liberty of others when they do no harm.

However, when a person attacks others and uses faith-based beliefs to justify it, we have a problem. If a group of people hijack an airplane and fly it into a building, faith-based beliefs can never be good enough to justify such an action. Faith-based belief fares no better when a group of people take over a government and use it to do just as much or more harm to others.


I started this series of postings investigating the idea of being concerned about what another person believes.

I argued that we all need true beliefs in order to make intelligent and informed decisions. Because of this, we have reason to use praise and reward to promote a love of honesty, curiosity, and intellectual responsibility. We have reason to use condemnation and punishment against deceivers and those who are intellectually reckless -- particularly when they harm others. I have shown how this love of truth and aversion to deception and intellectual recklessness gives people reason to condemn practices that promote fiction over fact.

I also argued in defense of liberty. Human fallibility and the fact that each person acts to fulfill his own desires given his beliefs, imply that each individual should be in charge of running his own life as much as possible. They imply that there should be a presumption (like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty) in favor of each person being the ruler of his own life.

This presumption of liberty applies to any who would use faith-based beliefs to justify helping others, or for doing actions that do not affect others. However, this presumption is defeated when a person seeks to harm others and he has nothing but faith-based beliefs to justify it.

Saying that I should not be concerned about others' faith-based reason for doing harm says that I should stand and do nothing while others inflict harm on me, my nieces and nephews, my friends, my co-workers, or my neighbors.

Why interfere with those who do harm in God's name? It is because I care about my nieces and nephews, my friends, my co-workers, or my neighbors. I have no interest in watching them become victims of those who inflict harm on others in the name of God.


Anonymous said...

"If you are trying to reason with him, you are putting your reason up against his faith, hoping that reason will win, and he will put his faith aside. This cannot be understood as anything other than an attempt to use reason to turn your attacker against God. This proves your guilt, and you deserve to die, in the name of God."

The really scary thing is that you have to become just as violent as a crusader or mujahedin, since their immunity to your non violent self defense (reasoning) gives you no other option.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


No, I do not think anything I have written justifies the conclusion that one should become just as violent as a mujahedin.

You will need courts and prisons to deal with those who use faith-based beliefs as a basis for doing harm to others.

However, all of the arguments that I have given in favor of a presumption of liberty, a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, due process, civil institutions that work hard to sort the innocent from the guilty, to punish only the guilty (rather than dropping bombs on those presumed guilty and the innocent alike), and such still stand.

If you can get enough people to side with you to use real-world reasons, then violence is unnecessary. If you cannot, then violence is pointless.

Anonymous said...

I did not read your article as a call to violence, nor did I intend my comment to be a call to violence. That would be a downward spiral into hell.

I was merely stating my sadness over the fact that when faced with a person that backs his/her violence with irrational beliefs one must resort to *legitimate* violence in the form of police, incarceration and military interventions in extreme cases.

Civilians were killed in Afghanistan as a side effect of a legitimate, UN sanctioned action to capture the terrorists and destroy their cells.

(That is without mentioning Guntanamo, Abu Garib and similar incidents which were semi-legitimate yet completely immoral)

One attack on civilians led to other attacks on civilians. Though these were not intended, they did take place.

"They say what you want
Will surely overtake you,
And you'll become a monster
So the monster would not break you."