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Mar 18 2012

Belief as pickpocket

I’m amicably disagreeing with Ron Lindsay at his CFI blog, where he is amicably disagreeing with Vic Stenger and PZ Myers about something both of them said at the Sunday morning panel in Orlando two weeks ago. (I was on the same panel.)

Both Stenger and Myers made various recommendations about objectives on which secularists should concentrate, but they both agreed on one point: they both asserted we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief…

As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, our primary objective as secularists should be to bring about a secular society, that is, one in which public policy is free of religious influence and discussions and decisions about public policy are based entirely on secular considerations. This is an achievable goal, at least in the developed world. Furthermore, it’s a goal that does not require us to convert all or even most of the religious. We only have to ensure that a critical mass of people support the concept of a secular society, whether they are religious or not.

If religion were truly a private matter—well, then, it would be a private matter. I don’t think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs or engaging in practices that are not rationally grounded, if in fact those beliefs or practices do not result in conduct harmful to others.

It’s that last bit that I amicably disagree about. I do think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs that are not rationally grounded, if the beliefs are of a certain kind. Beliefs in fairies, ghosts, astrology? Well, maybe not that much, but some. Beliefs in an omni god with moral claims on us? That much and more.

But even beliefs in fairies or astrology – some of us, at least, are and should be that concerned even about those: teachers, for instance; journalists, for another instance. We do care about beliefs about the world that are not rationally grounded and that there are good reasons to think are mistaken, because we think people in general should have access to reliable knowledge about the world.

Ron makes a comparison to team fandom, which is also not rationally grounded. Yes but - a commitment is not the same kind of thing as a truth claim. Religion tends to blend the two, of course, but then what Ron cites PZ and Stenger as saying is that “we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief” – not commitment, but belief. Team fandom is independent of belief. I’ve recently discovered that I actually like watching football (soccer football), and I watch it here, and the result is that I want the Sounders to win – I have a little bit of team fandom. It’s got nothing to do with any belief though, it’s just that they’re the home team where I watch. I don’t need my preference to be rationally grounded. But religious beliefs aren’t detachable in that way.

Ron concluded with:

As should be clear, I’m not advocating an “accommodationist” position. I’m not suggesting we should tone down our criticisms of religious beliefs. Integrity demands we be candid in our criticism of religion whenever the occasion for such criticism arises. Instead, I’m merely suggesting that we be clear about our goals. To paraphrase Jefferson, it doesn’t pick my pocket if a person believes in one god or twenty gods, so beliefs by themselves shouldn’t concern us. Religious beliefs should concern us only to the extent that they cause harm, in particular, the extent to which they prevent achievement of a secular society. What efforts we expend on disabusing people of their religious beliefs is a pragmatic question, to be answered by determining what is necessary to obtain a secular society—for that should be our primary objective.

The trouble with Jefferson’s quip is that it isn’t just about my pocket. It’s about education for everyone. The ability to see when beliefs – not commitments, but beliefs – are not rationally grounded, is a useful one, which shouldn’t be confined to an elite. Religious beliefs do cause harm to people’s intellectual functioning, and that by itself is a good reason to want them to erode.

I think actually Ron and I don’t really disagree about this, but are talking about slightly different things. I could be wrong though!

Go Sounders.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Roger

    Apart from whether it is achievable, there is the further problem that some of the people who would like to “eliminate or eradicate religious belief” are just as irrational, intolerant and murderous as the worst religious believers. As a private hope, it is worthwhile; as a public ambition it means we atheists and sceptics are allying with some very unpleasant people who often behave as badly or worse than the worst of believers.

  2. 2
    JSC_ltd

    some of the people who would like to “eliminate or eradicate religious belief” are just as irrational, intolerant and murderous as the worst religious believers.

    Citation needed.

  3. 3
    Didaktylos

    I wouldn’t do anything to actively eradicate religious belief – but neither will I contribute anything to keeping in repair the greenhouse that it needs in order to survive.

  4. 4
    karmakin

    What JSC said. I’m actually someone who tends to agree with Ron on this, in that I don’t believe that irrationality is as desensitizing to irrationality as a lot of people seem to think (although I fully admit I could be wrong), but even then, I still don’t see at all people as being really intolerant and especially murderous. I mean really. Hyperbole much?

  5. 5
    Roger

    “Citation needed.”

    The people I was particularly thinking of were Messrs. Stalin and Mao. There are peole whose hatred of religion and believers is as strong as believers beliefs. I don’t know how many, but they can be as obsessive in their nonbelief as believers can be in their beliefs
    People do become obsessive and irrational in their hatred of obsessions and irrationality and often assume that because their opponents are irrational they themselves must be reasonable. People can believe whatever they please. They can sout about it in public. They can tell their children it is true, in their own time and at their own expense. What they cannot do is expect other people to do what they believe god wants them to do or pretend that their beliefs are of any interest or importance as bases for public policy.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Well I didn’t make this clear enough in the post, because I’d said it in comments on Ron’s post, but I don’t think PZ and Stenger mean “eradication” in that sense; I think they mean gradually erode via education and argument and the like.

    Even without making it clear in the post, I would think that ought to be obvious.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    And I wish we could move on from repeating the obvious while ignoring the important.

    Yes of course people can believe what they like etc etc etc. I don’t need to be told that. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or self-evidently harmless or a good thing or something no one should pay any attention to.

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    Roger #5

    The people I was particularly thinking of were Messrs. Stalin and Mao. There are peole whose hatred of religion and believers is as strong as believers beliefs. I don’t know how many, but they can be as obsessive in their nonbelief as believers can be in their beliefs

    There is a school of thought that Stalin and Mao weren’t anti-religious but rather had established their own religions. Stalin regarded Orthodox Christianity as a competitor to his cult of personality. Mao was equally as strong a believer in his own cult. We see this in particularly well in North Korea, where Kim Il Sung, who’s been dead for 18 years, is still officially the President of the country and has had miracles attributed to him.

  9. 9
    Stacy

    Isn’t “promoting the elimination of religious belief” putting the conclusion before the reasoning used to get to it?

    We should focus on promoting critical thinking and naturalism (philosophical and methodological). That, and achieving a truly secular society, would defang if not eradicate religion. The way I see it, we’re engaged in a clash of epistemologies.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes but that’s basically what I’ve been arguing on Ron’s post – I take that to be what PZ and Stenger have in mind.

    (I say “Stenger” because I never actually met him. I spoke to him twice – once shortly after we were on that panel – but he just looked at me and didn’t answer. It was rather disconcerting.)

  11. 11
    MartinM

    I don’t think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs or engaging in practices that are not rationally grounded, if in fact those beliefs or practices do not result in conduct harmful to others.

    That sort of assumes that holding beliefs which aren’t rationally grounded does nothing to increase the risk of those beliefs resulting in conduct harmful to others, doesn’t it?

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes I think it does, and that’s part of what I’m amicably disputing.

  13. 13
    Stacy

    I spoke to him twice – once shortly after we were on that panel – but he just looked at me and didn’t answer. It was rather disconcerting.

    FWIW, I met him once at CFI-LA, and he was quite nice, but seemed honestly baffled and a bit put out when I told him his discussion of quantum mechanics in one of his books was over my head. I could see him thinking “but I dumbed it down as much as I could!”

    Stereotypical scientist, perhaps :)

  14. 14
    JSC_ltd

    Roger #1:

    A bunch of BS

    Me:

    Citation needed.

    Roger #5:

    A bunch more unsupported BS

    Persuasion: you’re doing it wrong.

  15. 15
    C. Mason Taylor

    People can believe whatever they please. They can sout about it in public. They can tell their children it is true, in their own time and at their own expense. What they cannot do is expect other people to do what they believe god wants them to do or pretend that their beliefs are of any interest or importance as bases for public policy.

    Here’s the thing: so many belief systems demand that their believers try to influence change and public policy based on their beliefs.

    That being said, given our desire to see the public square free of people attempting to push policies based on their religious beliefs, we essentially have two goal options, so to speak. Either we: 1. Try to convince people that their beliefs are wrong in the first place or 2. Try to convince people to keep their beliefs but violate the principles those beliefs imply.

    I think it’s an assumption on the part of a lot of people on the “accomodationist” side, as well as people like Ron Lindsay and apparently Roger that 2 is easier than 1. I do not think this is the case.

  16. 16
    C. Mason Taylor

    Whoops, messed up the quote tags on my post. The finally three paragraphs should’ve been sans-quotation.

  17. 17
    Roger

    ‘Tis Himself, OM, yes, Stalin and Mao came up with something very like religions, as have many others. It’s one of the reasons I think getting rid of religion or superstition or other kinds of irrational thinking may not be possible as the causes- reaching big conclusions on inadequate or nonexistent evidence- are probably an integral part of human thinking.
    Religion causes bad thinking, but religious belief and religious thinking are consequences of the way we think and that is much harder to discourage. Even if people are sure their beliefs are rationally grounded, they often aren’t, and even if their beliefs are rationally grounded, the way they believe themand the behaviour they cause may not be. Messrs. Mao and Stalin and their policies are evidence that when people are sure they are rational they can behave in completely irrational and murderous ways.

    So, JSC_ltd, is it only the way Messrs Mao and Stalin and their followers treated religious believers you don’t think BS, or do you go along with all of their ambitions and methods?

  18. 18
    Roger

    C. Mason Taylor: do people follow principles based on their beliefs or do they adopt those beliefs because they fulfil some of their principles? The fact that someone’s principles not rationally based does not mean they cannot be rationally justified. I think it is easier to persuade people to accept they can impose their beliefs on themselves but not others than it is to persuade them to abandon them completely.

  19. 19
    Francis Boyle

    C. Mason Taylor: But here’s the thing -(don’t tell anyone) religious beliefs are bullshit. Not just false but incoherent, impossible, absurd, did I mention bullshit. “God is Love” says nothing. “God hates fags” on the the hand couldn’t be clearer. So deprive the religious of their ability to to impose their “principles” on others and those principles evaporate. The proscription on homosexuality in Leviticus becomes no more interesting than the proscription on shellfish.

    Now if you’re in the US, with Gilead apparently lurking just around the corner, it might be hard to believe it but that’s why secularism is on our side. And the religious understand it only too well – hence their current desperate privelege-mongering.

  20. 20
    Nathair

    The blind spot I keep seeing in such suggestions is this notion of religion as a private belief… into which people almost universally indoctrinate their defenseless children as a matter of course.

  21. 21
    Matt Penfold

    A difference between team fandom and religious belief is that most fans would I suspect after maybe a little introspection admit that their fandom is irrational. I am not sure many religious believers would admit as much.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    # 15 is a key point, and one I half intended to make later. It’s really not all that simple to tell people to go ahead and believe whatever they like provided they don’t act on the bad beliefs.

  23. 23
    Roger

    “The blind spot I keep seeing in such suggestions is this notion of religion as a private belief… into which people almost universally indoctrinate their defenseless children as a matter of course.”

    What do you propose, Nathair? That people should be forcibly prevented from indoctrinating their children with what they believe? That they should not mention their beliefs in front of children? That children should be reared collectively by sceptical carers to avoid these possibilities?

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Roger why do you keep repeating this canard? Can you not grasp the idea that force is not the only way to change people’s minds? If you really think force is the only way to change people’s minds, I wonder why you waste any time commenting on a blog.

  25. 25
    Roger

    What canard? Nathair says: ‘The blind spot I keep seeing in such suggestions is this notion of religion as a private belief… into which people almost universally indoctrinate their defenseless children as a matter of course.’
    I genuinely would like to know just how they think people could be made not to indoctrinate their children in their beliefs or what they would do when people indoctrinate their children, especially in absurd or wicked beliefs, and who would decide what are absurd or wicked beliefs- not only in the case of religious beliefs, but with all beliefs. I think that Nathair didn’t think about the implications and consequences of what they said, which does imply the use of force to change peoples’ minds.
    My own opinion is that it is easy to change peoples’ minds and behaviour and that the ethos of the society they live in will outweigh upbringing and family background in many ways. That is one reason why I think religion and religious education should be private matters.

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