Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Range of Bad Beliefs

Two days ago I criticized an aspect of Sam Harris’ speech before the Atheist Alliance International conference as being naïve – the idea that atheists can decide how society will refer to us. However, Harris made another set of claims that are not only defensible but important.

Much of Harris’ speech was directed against the idea that all religious claims are equally bad and equally deserving of our attention. As a matter of fact, some religious beliefs are worse than others and that a person who favors reason should see that it is more prudent to spend the greatest effort going after the worse of those beliefs.

Harris gave two main reasons for acknowledging the differences in religious beliefs. One was the fact that pointing this out brought to the surface the fact that religious beliefs are contingent and arbitrary. The second, however, is the focus of this post.

The second reason to be attentive to the differences among the world's religions is that these differences are actually a matter of life and death. There are very few of us who lie awake at night worrying about the Amish. This is not an accident. While I have no doubt that the Amish are mistreating their children, by not educating them adequately, they are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings.

In short, some religious beliefs are worse than other.

I have argued in this blog that belief in the proposition, “At least one god exists,” is a harmless proposition because it does not carry with it any moral implications. It has no implications at all about how one should act. Those implications come from the other false beliefs that some people add to the belief, “At least one god exists.”

For example, you cannot get directly from, “At least one god exists” to “homosexual acts shall be punishable by death.” You can’t get here without adding additional claims – claims that some people who believe, “At least one god exists” can consistently and coherently deny.

On the other hand, the belief that people who lived 2,000 years ago lived in a system of perfect moral and scientific knowledge, and that everything in modern society can be evaluated by what those primitive and ignorant tribesmen would say about it is not only wrong, it is gets innocent people killed and destroys the quality of life for countless others. We are wallowing in misery and raising one generation after another who are devoting their energies to doing real-world harm to real-world people because of these particular false beliefs.

As a matter of fact, we have limited resources. As a matter of prudence, when you have limited resources, you should devote your energies to those activities that promise to produce the greatest effect with the least effort. This means devoting more energies to those beliefs that do the greatest harm (belief in the perfect knowledge of primitive and ignorant tribesmen), and less energy to those beliefs that are harmless (at least one God exists).

One objection to this is that it advocates tolerance and acceptance of those beliefs that one does not challenge. This nonsense – and a particularly obnoxious and brutal piece of nonsense.

Imagine that you are a police officer. You are about to pull over somebody that you suspect of driving drunk. Then, a call comes over the radio that somebody is going down the hall of a nearby school shooting everybody he sees. You decide that devoting time and energy to the shooter is more important than stopping this drunk driver. You call in the suspected drunk driver, while you turn around and rush to the school.

Then some nut comes along and says that, by your actions, you have effectively claimed that drunk driving is not and ought not to be a crime, that drunk driving should be tolerated and drunk drivers should not be prosecuted for their actions. You are condemned as somebody who is ‘soft’ on drunk driving and ignoring the real-world harm that drunk drivers are doing to people.

As I said, this line of reasoning is not only fallacious, it is maliciously false. The decision to devote one’s energy the most serious problems is not a statement that the less serious problems are not important. It is a statement that the less serious problems are, in fact, less serious problems – likely to inflict much less real-world harm on real-world people than the problems that one has decided to tackle.

Does this imply that no person should spend time refuting the proposition that at least one God exists – at least until the more serious problems are taken care of?

Of course not. One should recognize that refuting this proposition in itself is not the most productive use of one’s time. However, it is hard to defend the proposition that we should spend every waking moment in the most productive use of one’s time. Refuting the existence of a god might well be something that somebody does for entertainment value. As such, it is certainly a better use of time than watching sports or sitcoms on television or playing computer games. Yet, it is not wrong to spend at least some of one’s time watching sports or sitcoms on television or playing computer games - in addition to spending some time dealing with situations that are getting innocent people maimed and killed.

You can refute the claim that scripture is literally true without refuting the proposition that at least one god exists. In fact, if you take any given scripture, only a small fraction of the population believes that the scripture in question is literally true and even they cannot agree on what it says. It takes very little effort to take somebody who believes that scripture is literally true and start quoting scripture at him, asking at each breaking point, “That is literally true?” The person who finally breaks and says, “No,” does not need to draw the conclusion that no god exists (though, ultimately, it would be better if he would do so).

Please recall, two days ago I objected to Harris’ claim that we should do this while ‘under the radar’ – that is, while we hide our atheism. Instead, I wrote a post much earlier where I advocated that we should go after the range of wrongs (grounded on false beliefs) in the world while, at the same time, very obviously wearing our atheism, as I do in writing this blog. We should tell those suffering of spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease (and their family members) that they suffer as a result of religiously-grounded ignorance. We should tell homosexuals that religious myth is responsible for their suffering. We should point to charts and graphs that reveal the spread of disease – the death and the suffering – and not be at all afraid to point out (where it is true) that those deaths and those suffering are attributable at least in part to those religious beliefs, and condemn the beliefs as a way of preventing death and suffering.

Contrary to Harris, I argue that atheists should state loudly, “There is no god. We live in a universe that is indifferent to our well-being and even our survival, so we must take care of these issues ourselves. Furthermore, we must deal with them rationally and intelligently. Solutions grounded on myth and superstition are not only likely to make things worse rather than better – they have historically done so.”

There is a corollary to this idea that not all religious beliefs are equally bad, and that is the proposition that not all bad beliefs are religious. Harris alluded to this in the statement, “Religion has its share of bad ideas.” Religion’s “share of bad ideas” does not imply a monopoly. One possible area of concern is the problem of fixation where, while our attention is fixed on religion as a source of evil, we are outflanked and overrun by non-religious evils.

Please keep in mind that two of the deadliest and most destructive campaigns in America did not come from religious institutions – they came from business. Industries spending money to promote false beliefs about the safety of tobacco and to get people addicted to this product, and a campaign of misinformation on global warming, have already killed more people and destroyed more property than terrorists, and they were religious campaigns. As much of a threat as fundamentalist religion is to the quality of human life, it may not be the most significant threat by a long shot.

These are the principles that I have written this blog under for over two years. Though I include the name ‘atheist’ in the title, I have devoted only one posting to the question of God’s existence. This is not the first time that I have pointed out that the proposition, “There exists a god,” has absolutely no moral implications or implications on how to behave, so it is not worth time discussing in a blog that is concerned with ethics )or ‘what should be done’) The target of concern is not whether a proposition is religious or not, but whether a proposition makes an individual a threat to the life, health, and well-being of hisneighbors, and that a dangerous non-religious belief is more of a concern than a harmless religious belief.

The goal is to protect the quality of human life, and even human survival (individually and collectively. The goal is to combat the bad ideas that threaten these things. Some of these bad ideas are religious, others are not. Among religious ideas, some are worst than others, and some are more deserving of our attention than others. These are all real-world facts. If anything, atheists should have a particularly keen respect for the importance of real-world facts


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your blog. You're definitely one of the more rational members of the blogosphere.

Oh, by the way... I'm disseminating my meme on you. Sorry for the mess.

Unknown said...

Great post and an interesting angle on the issue. I find it ironic that Harris finds theism a serious threat to humanity given our capacity for nuclear destruction, but he questions the value of organizing against it under a common banner.

Anonymous said...

I am a conservative Christian, but I do find your blog very informative. Because I believe that God is the source of all truth, I can appreciate truth wherever I find it. I may disagree with your position, but it is always worth the time to read.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. To believe: (The goal is to protect the quality of human life, and even human survival... ) you need to provide a basis for that moral position. All the reasoning, matter, and energy in the world can't reason somebody from an is to an ought. If Alonzo Fyfe #2 came along and concluded from the same line of reasoning as yours that ANY action he does that benefits him is "right", and murder or theft just so happened to benefit him emotionally or materially, then what basis have you for saying anything different? Only an Arbitrary belief derived from an Axiom can solve this. It's the axiom(starting assumption) that ultimately determines the Arbitrary belief that then determines the action (assuming the person is consistent of course). This position you're trying to argue seems to me to be the fallacy of non-sequitur since your conclusion can't be reasoned from you atheistic premises. If you think the world would be better under an atheistic religion then get a time machine and try it out. Oh wait, that's impossible therefore your Atheism-is-the-soltion-to-all-the-worlds-problems belief is unfalsifiable, just like the theism your arguing against.

Eneasz said...

Anon - you are mistaken. Alonzo has never said atheism is the solution to anything. In fact he's repeatedly said that atheism implies as much for morality as heliocentricism does: nothing. All that atheism does is remove a false belief. As for how one can discover what morality actually exists, please see Luke's FAQ on DU in the side-bar, near the top.