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Argument for Tolerance from Harmless, Incorrect Belief
Posted: 21 March 2009 08:19 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Is it justified to criticize incorrect religious belief when tenets of the faith are harmless? Should our criticisms of religion simply be criticisms of certain propositions?

I come at these questions by way of considering a few examples. First, we have the Mormon Church, which used to be officially a racist, sexist, homophobic organization. Now, by way of a 1970s “revelation,” it is simply a sexist and homophobic organization. But the cause of its sexism and homophobia is not located in its faith in God but rather in its unjustified belief in certain biblical propositions about women and homosexuality. In fact, when one peruses the Mormon Worker—a radical left-wing anarchist publication—we see a religious belief compatible with secular ethics.

In another example, we have the Army of God based in the United States, whose soldiers have committed acts of terrorism and murders of abortion doctors on the grounds that abortion is immoral and that the scale of abortions constitutes a holocaust. Is it belief in God that is the problem, or is it the belief in these two unjustified propositions that lead us to this kind of violence?

In short, is criticism of religion misplaced? Should it be placed on certain beliefs that lead inevitably to harmful actions instead?

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Posted: 21 March 2009 09:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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You raise an interesting question.

In certain respects, I have more in common with the Catholic Workers or the Berrigan brothers than I do with libertarian or Objectivist atheists.

On the other hand, I don’t think “tenets of the faith are harmless;”  any delusion, any refusal to face reality, cannot in the end be harmless.

I think many people use religion as a metaphor;  if someone asks me on December 26, 2009 whether Santa brought me anything nice, I will assume that person is simply using a common cultural symbol, not that this is someone who believes in Santa Claus.  That’s the way I think about a lot of people who go to mainline churches.

But an actual belief in a god, or in eternal life, can never be wholly benign in my view.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 08:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Yeah, thats always been the hard part. Dissecting the elements of faith and separating the ones that are helpful/neutral to human life, and the ones that are destructive.

I just don’t particularly like living a lie, regardless of whom it may help. They need to be enlightened, we do not need to be dumbed down, or accept that as the best way to move forward.

If a drug addict kicks the habit because of a new found faith in Jeebus, that is certainly good. But wouldn’t it even more good if later he discovered that he kicked that habit himself? Credit, where credit is do. No crutch is really needed.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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If you hate blacks, gays, jews, women etc., yet believe you are a good person, magic is the shortest path to ground.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Precisely because they have chosen delusions to guide their lives, they are not entitled to intellectual respect from others, however harmless their delusions might be.

Unambiguous ridicule is something all of them deserve, on basis of their own choice.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 01:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Thank you all for your responses. I hope that you will not take offense at this pressure. I don’t see within atheism any particularly compelling reason to heap ridicule on peaceful people who believe in wrong ideas. On the other hand, I think that some wrong ideas are also harmful, or lead to catastrophically bad public policy. (This is true of atheistic and theistic beliefs alike.) I contend it is these ideas that need to be ridiculed, not belief in God as such.

teuchter - 22 March 2009 01:35 AM

In certain respects, I have more in common with the Catholic Workers or the Berrigan brothers than I do with libertarian or Objectivist atheists.

Indeed. I find most libertarians and (all) Objectivists to be very misanthropic.

teuchter - 22 March 2009 01:35 AM

On the other hand, I don’t think “tenets of the faith are harmless;”  any delusion, any refusal to face reality, cannot in the end be harmless.

But an actual belief in a god, or in eternal life, can never be wholly benign in my view.

I appreciate your thought-out response and kindness, but I am troubled by the tenor of this response. I have not mentioned specific religions, but as no less an authority than Sam Harris would note, not all religions are the same in their dubiousness. I think Jainism is his favorite example: the more dogmatic one gets as a Jain, the more nonviolent that person gets. That doesn’t make Jainism correct, and that’s not my argument. My argument is that we don’t need to heap criticism on Jains because their beliefs (as far as I know) don’t harm anyone else.

So I guess my question is “why is faith harmful ‘in the end’ to other people, and do these harms necessitate our ridicule”?

McCreason - 22 March 2009 12:33 PM

Yeah, thats always been the hard part. Dissecting the elements of faith and separating the ones that are helpful/neutral to human life, and the ones that are destructive.

On the contrary, I think it’s very easy, and I find it distressing that we have such trouble doing it.

McCreason - 22 March 2009 12:33 PM

I just don’t particularly like living a lie, regardless of whom it may help. They need to be enlightened, we do not need to be dumbed down, or accept that as the best way to move forward.

This is your preference, and I share that preference, but others may not. Why criticize people with benign religious views when they are still able to function just fine in society?

McCreason - 22 March 2009 12:33 PM

If a drug addict kicks the habit because of a new found faith in Jeebus, that is certainly good. But wouldn’t it even more good if later he discovered that he kicked that habit himself? Credit, where credit is do. No crutch is really needed.

Certainly. We don’t need to believe in magic to make our lives better. I don’t mean to give credence for a moment to this idea. But what if believing in magic doesn’t make anyone else’s lives worse? Would we have ethical grounds for criticizing this person’s faith? (And concern for that person doesn’t count.)

arildno - 22 March 2009 02:46 PM

Precisely because they have chosen delusions to guide their lives, they are not entitled to intellectual respect from others, however harmless their delusions might be.

Unambiguous ridicule is something all of them deserve, on basis of their own choice.

This, frankly, typifies for me what is inappropriate for atheists to be thinking at this moment. I will be among the first to criticize Muslims calling for censorship at the UN, but I am not going to ridicule straight-ally Unitarian Universalists marching with me at the Pride parade. It’s just stupid, and my determination to do it simply indicates my intellectual disadvantage.

[ Edited: 22 March 2009 02:17 PM by NickC]
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Posted: 22 March 2009 03:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I don’t care if some idiot keeps his or her superstitious beliefs to himself and does not use them to try to force a religious agenda on society. Unfortunately, faith is a muddy, slippery slope. At what point do you get out of the mud and step on solid ground?

The “benign” beliefs are often tied to malignant beliefs that cause real harm. Relying on faith keeps a person from maturing and learning to make complex decisions about multi-factorial problems based on evidence and reasoning. People who use ancient texts with outdated morality inevitably affect nature and society either personally or by proxy. Religion is not harmless. Religion is dangerous. It keeps people from maturing emotionally and morally. The moderates give legitimacy and safe haven to the radicals who threaten our survival.

I congratulate anyone who is marching in a parade for human rights. I can sit and have a pleasant conversation with that person. Nevertheless, I will press them to continue their personal growth and consider the implications of their belief system. If they are ready to accept people of different orientation and culture, then they are on the path of accepting reality and dropping their emotional Hover-Round. If they truly want a better world, then they should progress without the harmful devices that continue to cause undue suffering.


We can ignore the religiously deluded masses when the last radical theist is extinct.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 03:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Beam - 22 March 2009 07:21 PM

I don’t care if some idiot keeps his or her superstitious beliefs to himself and does not use them to try to force a religious agenda on society. Unfortunately, faith is a muddy, slippery slope. At what point do you get out of the mud and step on solid ground?

This claim about faith being a slippery slope is just an assertion, and in general, the slippery slope is actually considered a logical fallacy. What is it about faith that necessarily as opposed to “often” leads us down this slippery slope?

Beam - 22 March 2009 07:21 PM

The “benign” beliefs are often tied to malignant beliefs that cause real harm. Relying on faith keeps a person from maturing and learning to make complex decisions about multi-factorial problems based on evidence and reasoning. People who use ancient texts with outdated morality inevitably affect nature and society either personally or by proxy. Religion is not harmless. Religion is dangerous. It keeps people from maturing emotionally and morally. The moderates give legitimacy and safe haven to the radicals who threaten our survival.

Here, you make a strong and intentionally provocative claim. I suspect you want to make an even stronger claim. When you say that benign beliefs are “often tied” to malignant beliefs that real people are acting upon to do real harm, it’s obvious to me that what you are really saying is that because the former are “often tied” to the latter, the former “necessarily lead to” the latter. There is a good reason you don’t make this claim: it’s an indefensible claim. What I find troubling about the claim you actually make is that I don’t think you want us to take this claim at face value: you’d prefer us to make this unjustified leap without you having to make an unjustified claim. And I think this is pretty easy to sniff out.

In defense of the claim you actually make, you offer two supporting ideas:

1) Relying on faith keeps a person from maturing and learning to make complex decisions about multi-factorial problems based on evidence and reasoning.

I am not sure whether I agree with this, but I think I can grant you this claim is true, and still argue that this supporting idea in no way relates to the claim that one can have incorrect beliefs about God and still not hurt a fly or impose authoritarian ideas about race, sexuality and gender through the state apparatus. There’s just nothing that leads me from “God exists” to “Black people don’t have souls.” There are parts of the Bible that if I believed them, would lead me to the conclusion that slavery and racial apartheid are justified, but there is no reason I have to accept these parts of the scripture if I believe the unjustified proposition that God exists.

Can you understand why I have difficulty with this idea of universal ridicule?

2) People who use ancient texts with outdated morality inevitably affect nature and society either personally or by proxy.

Now, I absolutely know this is true. But again, this supporting idea has no relation to the claim that that faith causes people to have dangerous beliefs. Unitarian Universalism, Jainism, and certain kinds of liberation theology are very non-dangerous. I have yet to see any convincing argument that says faith as such leads to harmful beliefs and actions.

I’m not arguing that religion should be immune from criticism. What I am arguing is that the target of criticism should not be “religions” but specific religious beliefs held by actual people. I think it does wonders for our credibility when we can recognize an anarchist Mormon as an ally rather than an “enabler of religious extremism.”

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Posted: 22 March 2009 04:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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NickC - 22 March 2009 05:59 PM

Thank you all for your responses. I hope that you will not take offense at this pressure. I don’t see within atheism any particularly compelling reason to heap ridicule on peaceful people who believe in wrong ideas. On the other hand, I think that some wrong ideas are also harmful, or lead to catastrophically bad public policy. (This is true of atheistic and theistic beliefs alike.) I contend it is these ideas that need to be ridiculed, not belief in God as such.

[portion deleted by Teuchter]

I will be among the first to criticize Muslims calling for censorship at the UN, but I am not going to ridicule straight-ally Unitarian Universalists marching with me at the Pride parade. It’s just stupid, and my determination to do it simply indicates my intellectual disadvantage.

These two paragraphs raise two separate issues.  In the first paragraph, you raise the question of whether there is a harmless belief in a god;  in the second paragraph, you implicitly raise the question whether all persons who believe in god should be verbally attacked and ridiculed without regard to the circumstances.

The second question is obviously the easiest to answer;  I have raised the issue of the Catholic Worker’s Organization, which works on many progressive issues that I care about, and you brought up the Unitarian Universalists, who have marched in many anti-war protests in which I have participated.  Clearly, if someone is an ally in a coalition agitating for something I want, I am not going to attack them on a point unrelated to the purpose of the coalition;  that’s the whole point of a coalition.  Likewise, if I’m a guest at someone’s house for dinner, and someone else makes a passing reference to his or her church attendance, I’m not going to cross-examine that person to ferret out any incorrect ideation about supernatural beings.  (God help them if they ask me if I am right with jesus, however, whereever and whoever they are)

It the first question, which formed the basis for this thread, that is more complicated.  You assume, from the title of this thread, that it is harmless to believe in a god so long as that belief doesn’t carry with some obligation to wage jihad or a crusade.

Many of us don’t see it that way.  First of all, belief in a god is a gateway delusion.  Once someone genuinely adopts a belief in a non-existent entity with the power to intervene in human life, that person has taken a serious step away from reality.

The reason that it is illegal to drive while impaired by alcohol is NOT that everyone who does so plows into innocent people and hurts them;  it is that the impaired driver can no longer be counted on to use good judgment in operating the vehicle, and therefore there is a greatly enhanced possibility of an accident.

The same thing is true of the religiously afflicted.  It is not that everyone who believes in a god is going to try to ban cartoons or insist on governing a woman’s reproductive choices;  it is that, once there is a real belief in a god, that person has demonstrated an enormous flaw in his or her judgment, and we don’t know when god will tell that person to adopt a harmful belief.

NickC - 22 March 2009 12:19 AM

Is it justified to criticize incorrect religious belief when tenets of the faith are harmless?

The tenets of faith may be harmless today, but since the tenets are based on a wholly irrational belief, we have lost confidence that the tenets will remain harmless.

NickC - 22 March 2009 07:57 PM
Beam - 22 March 2009 07:21 PM

I don’t care if some idiot keeps his or her superstitious beliefs to himself and does not use them to try to force a religious agenda on society. Unfortunately, faith is a muddy, slippery slope. At what point do you get out of the mud and step on solid ground?

This claim about faith being a slippery slope is just an assertion, and in general, the slippery slope is actually considered a logical fallacy. What is it about faith that necessarily as opposed to “often” leads us down this slippery slope?

No, actually “slippery slope” is a metaphor.
And, as I pointed out in the discussion of driving under the influence of alcohol, faith need not “necessarily” lead to a certain result, it need only significantly increase the possibility of that result, to be condemned per se.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 04:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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I am glad we have a convergence on most of these issues. However, I am still interested in the link between “God exists” and these other beliefs which we all agree are harmful and have actually been acted on by religious people. So far, I have argued that the probabilistic link is invalid because of the diversity of religious beliefs. (However, I will concede readily the vacuity of religious belief, given that you can justify anything with it.)

teuchter - 22 March 2009 08:09 PM

It the first question, which formed the basis for this thread, that is more complicated.  You assume, from the title of this thread, that it is harmless to believe in a god so long as that belief doesn’t carry with some obligation to wage jihad or a crusade.

Many of us don’t see it that way.  First of all, belief in a god is a gateway delusion.  Once someone genuinely adopts a belief in a non-existent entity with the power to intervene in human life, that person has taken a serious step away from reality.

I disagree. Consider an individual who believes in the propositions “some conscious force created the universe” and “whatever conscious force created the universe doesn’t intervene right now,” and “Newton’s Laws still hold at low energy levels regardless of my beliefs about the universe.” This strikes me as the thinking of a person well in touch with reality, because the person is able to separate beliefs about some creator consciousness with the unchanging realities of the universe. I’d argue that as long as individuals can operate with an understanding of the world that’s grounded in empiricism, we shouldn’t have quarrel with people who believe these sorts of things.

teuchter - 22 March 2009 08:09 PM

The reason that it is illegal to drive while impaired by alcohol is NOT that everyone who does so plows into innocent people and hurts them;  it is that the impaired driver can no longer be counted on to use good judgment in operating the vehicle, and therefore there is a greatly enhanced possibility of an accident.

The same thing is true of the religiously afflicted.  It is not that everyone who believes in a god is going to try to ban cartoons or insist on governing a woman’s reproductive choices;  it is that, once there is a real belief in a god, that person has demonstrated an enormous flaw in his or her judgment, and we don’t know when god will tell that person to adopt a harmful belief.

This is a powerful analogy that gives me pause, because it relates a prohibition based on a probabilistic claim to this discussion on religious faith. However, I’m not sure that this account gets at what’s going on for most religious people. Happily for us, most people really don’t believe everything their holy book says. Further, a lot of people don’t say “you know, the Bible doesn’t say anything about gravity, or microbiology, so I don’t think gravity or bacteria exist.” Everybody is pretty well convinced of it, even though we can’t explain what causes gravity at the moment (though, I hear we are on the cusp of being able to do so). These people, are in important ways still quite connected with reality.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 05:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I agree with Teuchter. The problem is not what somebody’s actual beliefs are, but on what authority they accept them. I know many catholics who see reality in much the same way as I do, most of the time. Yet they go to church on Sundays. Why? Why should they want to hear a sermon by someone who probably knows far less about the real world than they do? Why do they confess their sins to someone who might, for all they know, be their moral inferior? This is intrinsically irrational behaviour; not only that, but it has the undeniably harmful effect of conferring respectability to an institution that has proven itself noxious.

A deistic belief in an intelligent creator is not really faith: by the same token, we could regard the belief that the universe originated with an uncaused event an act of faith. In fact, neither the scientific nor the deistic view are in any sense faith. They are merely different ways of saying “I don’t know”, and picking the unsopported answer that best fits your psychological make-up.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 11:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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arildno - 22 March 2009 02:46 PM

Precisely because they have chosen delusions to guide their lives, they are not entitled to intellectual respect from others, however harmless their delusions might be.

Unambiguous ridicule is something all of them deserve, on basis of their own choice.

But you, too, have chosen delusion.  Just different delusions.  So of course you are not worthy of intellectual respect either.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 11:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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One of the practices in Stoicism was to learn to distinguish true (catalyptic) impressions from false impression and only “giving assent” to the true.  Letting even a small false impression sneak in threatened to corrupt ones soul in ways that couldn’t be easily determined.  In line with the skeptics, everything that was not accepted as a true impression, or recognized as false, was held in a state of suspended judgment.  Following that advice, every religious person needs to understand that their beliefs are a matter of choice in a situation of uncertainty, and take responsibility for the implications of that choice.  The same is true, of course, for atheists….

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Posted: 23 March 2009 04:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Most Christians and Muslims are decent, honest people who will never intentionally harm anyone. Nearly all of my coworkers and family are good, caring people who believe that they don’t need to conserve energy because god will soon be lifting them into the air and preparing to fry my apostate ass.

As far as I know, I am the only openly atheistic adult in my town. It is likely that there are others who doubt the existence of some magical ghost who gets pissed off and turns people into salt for being curious. Why do you suppose that so few people are willing to admit their skepticism? I’m sure you already know the answer unless you are fortunate enough to live in a more tolerant environment than West Texas.

I have an atheist brother who lives about 400 miles from me and posts on this site. Otherwise, my wife and children and I have been socially excommunicated for my unwillingness to pretend that I tow the religious line. It probably doesn’t help that I’m also a socialist. People are afraid of being socially isolated if they question religious dogma. The only reason I am tolerated is because there are no trained, qualified applicants wanting my job.

I don’t know of any Jains or Unitarian Universalists in my town. If I hear of them, I’ll invite them over for a drink. If they don’t bring it up, I won’t make fun of their willingness to drop empiricism when they want a warm, fuzzy feeling to chase away their existential angst. If they bring it up, I’ll politely ask them how they decide when to use empiricism and when to choose magic. I’ll ask the Mormon and Christian why their magic book is any more relevant than any other historic text if one has to cherry pick the pearls and dismiss the bizarre and the atrocities. Admittedly, the Mormon would be the most fun to debate.  I would probably agree with the Mormon Worker on most nonreligious issues. How do these people not see the glaring cognitive dissonance that is required to hold such incongruent beliefs?

You doubt that any harm comes from moderate religionists? The fact that 85% of citizen’s in the states are religious leads to the election of deluded morons like G. W. Bush. It leads to the serious possibility of someone like Palin becoming the person who could launch a nuclear attack. (Don’t worry. She’s keeping an eye on Russia.) A politician who claims to be a Jain or an atheist could not be elected to anything other than a few local offices in SF or Maine. The problem is not with the individual theists. The problem is that the vast majority of those moderate religionists are NOT at the anti-war rallies. Very few of them are willing to speak out against the fundamentalists. I don’t see 85% of Americans expressing concern for gay rights or homelessness. Most of them want an openly religious leader who hates queers and drinks beers. Praise the lord and turn on NASCAR, Bubba. We can do what suits us. We’ll get it all forgiven at church.

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Posted: 23 March 2009 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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NickC - 22 March 2009 12:19 AM

Is it justified to criticize incorrect religious belief when tenets of the faith are harmless? Should our criticisms of religion simply be criticisms of certain propositions?


If you’re interested in what’s real and true then harm or appeal or distaste (how reality effects us) are completely non-sequitur to what actually real and true (if we’re not happy about getting cancer it obviously doesn’t mean we don’t have it). If you’re not really interested in what’s real and true, but rather what works for you, that’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways, and that’s always the actual problem with believers with whom this issue arises, and religious apologists, with whom this issue is central. That and all the many many cases on any (and every) given day for which this disconnection from reality poses all sorts of problems that religious faith makes irreconcilable.

Byron

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Posted: 23 March 2009 08:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Devout religious people are absolute. They are absoutely certain. They know absolute truth.

Thus it is their duty to spread what they believe is absolute truth to those that do not hold the same views. I have never had a religious person not try and talk to me about their belief system. They simply cannot keep it individual and confidential. They are in fact taught exactly not to do that, as we all know.

They cannot separate it from other realities in life. They do not want to.

Thus it becomes harmful to society eventually.

We could leave religion and faith alone if people could and would keep it a private and individual matter. But that just does not happen.

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