Guest post: Beliefs matter

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on The problem was dogma.

The problem with this whole discussion as I see it is that beliefs are just taken as a given rather than the outcome of some cognitive process in their own right, even if it’s just accepting what you’ve always been told. My main problem with faith-based religion (and its secular equivalents) was always the part about leaving the most important questions in life – questions with real-world consequences and implications for the way we treat others – up to blind faith in the first place. I don’t think it’s any kind of excuse or mitigating circumstance to be doing the right thing as we see it if the way we see it is based on unjustified beliefs, we never made any honest effort to find out what’s objectively true (rationalizing a fixed, pre-determined conclusion doesn’t count as an “honest effort”), and were unwilling to even consider the possibility that our beliefs were wrong. “I am going to think and act as if this were true no matter what and let others pay the price for my unjustified beliefs. And if that means hating others, treating them as lesser beings, even subjecting them to violence, then so be it. That’s their problem! Not only am I willing to bet their rights, their dignity, even their lives on the correctness of propositions I have no real reason to believe, but I’m unwilling to refrain from doing so, and no amount of logic or evidence is ever going to prevent me!”

William K. Clifford’s classic article on “The Ethics of Belief” is, of course, essential reading in this regard.

In my militant atheist days I often made myself unpopular (among accomodationist types) for a somewhat different reason than Sastra. I was repeatedly told that the specific contents of specific beliefs don’t matter, because (A or B):

A. Nobody actually believes any of that stuff anyway (“That’s just an excuse for what people would be doing anyway. Without the religion they would invent some other excuse” etc.).

B. People aren’t motivated by what they sincerely belive to be true about God or the afterlife. (“Nobody actually cares if they face an eternity of bliss or an eternity of torture after death, because all that matters to people is getting the best deal out of secular society during the few decades they spend on earth”)

I strongly suspect A is wrong, but in the absence of telepathic powers, it’s hard to say for sure. I’m confident that B is bullshit though. And this is where I wholeheartedly agree with Sastra. While I too have issues with Sam Harris I think he hits the nail on the head on this point. The specific contents of specific beliefs do indeed matter. As Voltaire famously put it “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”, because then they can also make you believe the kind of absurdities that would make the atrocities seem perfectly justified, even the only morally defensible thing to do. The problem with faith-based religion (or dogmatic belief systems in general) as I see it is that it allows people by the millions to think and act as if such absurdities were true whether they are in fact true or not. The fact that not all religious beliefs are equally harmful in practice is irrelevant with respect to the deeper problem, i.e. the part about leaving the most important questions in life up to blind faith in the first place. Almost every problem I have with religion-like movements ultimately comes back to the part about believing things for the wrong reasons* (as you pretty much have to do to believe in God, since no other reasons are available). The same kind of wrong reasons that gave us Jainism (a religion of total pacifism, or at least so we’re told) also gave us Jihadism.

*This is were I disagree with those atheists who say things like “I have nothing against faith, I’m only against organized religion”. If I could chose between a world without unjustified beliefs and a world without churches, I would chose the former any time. If we could get people to stop believing things for bad reasons the harmful ideas of religion would die a natural death, and whatever good ideas are in the mix don’t need the bad reasons to stay alive. If people still wanted to go to church for community and support, I wouldn’t really mind. If we could have a “religion” without unjustified beliefs, it would probably rank very low on my list of concerns. And with unjustified beliefs even secular ideologies have the potential to become the stuff of nightmares.

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