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Jun 21 2010

Why can’t you just leave them be?

I watched a mini-drama unfold on a thread that was linked to my Deepak Chopra post a couple weeks ago. Some of the massage professionals on the site did not take kindly to the idea of skeptics telling people that they were wrong.The ‘arrogance’ card was pulled out (although I think telling people you have special insight into the supernatural, with no evidence to back that up, is far more arrogant than mentioning the lack of evidence), and my buddy Brian decided to go on the forum and explain some things from the skeptic position. He was particularly ill-received by a gentleman named Emmanuel Bistas, who derided both Brian and the originator of the thread for elitism and arrogance, and suggested they focus on things that were more important than Deepak Chopra. The precursor post to our activity in Vancouver spells out very clearly why we care about Dr. Chopra’s line of bull, and why it’s important to speak up about it.

And then I ran into the same plaintive cry that all people whose beliefs are supported by no evidence retreat to when someone challenges them:

“I am not saying I would not do all in my means natural and medicinal to care for my children but that is my decision and it is not up to me to make another feel or believe as I do it is up to each and every individual to find the path that is right for them.”

Ah yes, the “let people believe what they want to believe” card, also known as the “why can’t you just leave people alone?” card. The argument is that people are entitled to believe as they like, and we have no right to tell people their beliefs are wrong. I’ve heard the argument most frequently when it comes to discussions of religion. After successfully pointing out the fact that there is no rational case for belief in God, that the practice of religion often leads to horrible abuse, and that there are much better alternatives to belief in the supernatural, I inevitably hear something along the lines of “if it makes people happy, why take it away from them? Why can’t you just let people believe what they want?”

As I’ve said many times before about arguments like this, on the surface of things this seems like a reasonable response. If belief in the afterlife or a loving deity who answers prayers or a middle-eastern priest who cures lepers makes people happy, then there’s no harm in letting them continue to believe. In other words, why can’t you just leave people alone?

There’s a good answer to this question, and it’s a little glib:

They don’t leave me alone

Apologists for religious belief (and when I say religious, I mean any belief system that is based on faith in a supernatural being, not merely organized religious entities) like to paint this picture of poor beleaguered faithful people who just want to be left alone to practice their religion in the privacy of their own home. They are perfectly happy to let others believe what they want; why can’t I extend them the same courtesy?

The answer is that, just like the cake, the picture is a lie. The only way you could possibly believe that religious groups aren’t attempting to (and succeeding at) seize political power to enforce a faith-based agenda on everyone is if you’re not paying attention to anything happening in the world. Part of the reason I started this blog was to highlight specific incidences where religious groups have hijacked political systems to pass laws based on a Biblical/Qu’ranic justification of some issue or another. By my count, I have no fewer than 15 posts with specific examples (keep in mind this blog is only 4 months old), and I invite you to go back through the archives if you still think religious groups are content to leave well enough alone.

The fact is that while we have been wrapped in the blanket of complacency, soothing ourselves with meaningless jibberish like “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” and “who are we to say what is right and wrong“, religious groups have been taking the exact opposite position, forcing your laws to abide by their opinions and deciding for you what is right and wrong. This will not change unless someone speaks up in opposition and says “you do not speak for me, and I want to see the justification for your position.”

“But Crommunist,” you may be saying “most people aren’t religious fundamentalists. They aren’t trying to pass laws, they just want to live their own lives.” This is true, and most of my friends who are “religious” are that way very quietly, in name only. They don’t buy things like literal Biblical interpretation, or scripture-based laws, some probably even doubt the divinity of Jesus. I know this, because I was in the exact same position not too long ago. While I have sympathy for those friends who just want to be left alone, failing to speak up against those who want to relig-ify our country in the name of appeasement gives political cover to the hard-liners. Lack of dissent is assent – if you don’t speak up, you’re implicitly agreeing with them. If you do agree, then say so; if you don’t, you have a responsibility to say so too.

But this type of excuse doesn’t confine itself to religion. The people on the massage forum weren’t explicitly talking about religion, they were talking about medicine – specifically, energy medicine. A modality for which there is no evidence, which has been tested and found not to work, but is still practiced anyway. It’s all well and good to talk about “leaving people alone”, but when you are in a position of trust (as you are if you are a medical practitioner), and you abuse that position to “treat” people with modalities that are completely ineffective, you are violating that trust. It is wildly unethical to mislead someone into thinking they are receiving treatment when all you are doing is giving them a placebo (remember: if you have to believe in it in order for it to work, it’s a placebo). Informed consent is the cornerstone of the ethical practice of any profession, but particularly one in which the recipient is in such a compromised position. Lying to people, and a lie of omission is still a lie, is not “leaving them alone”, it’s deceit.

We have a duty to each other to be honest and forthright in all of our dealings. Part of that process is to look at reality to see if our beliefs are supported by fact. If there is no fact for or against, then we have to go by logic and reason. Once logic and reason have exhausted their usefulness, then I suppose all opinions are equally valid. However, that’s not the case for quack medicine, and it’s certainly not the case for religion. I refuse to stand by with my thumb in my ass while people spout absolute lies and fabrications that don’t hold up to the evidence, especially when they’re getting rich while doing so. If you still think that it’s the inherent right of people to believe what they want even when it’s contradicted by evidence, ask yourself if you think it’s the inherent right of people to be able to defraud each other for profit.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    collinmerenoff

    This has always been a dilemma for me. I disagree with practically everything religious authorities say, and yet for various ill-defined reasons I still believe in an ill-defined God. More importantly, I believe that God disapproves of the way religious authorities lie and obfuscate. So what do I say? (Note: These are generalizations of what I would analyze myself as meaning, not how I would actually say it. I am generally far more verbose, and I try to be far more polite.)

    Do I say “You’re wrong; there is no God”? From a personal standpoint, that would feel just like a lie.

    Do I say “Your God doesn’t exist”? That would be inexcusable pride and prejudice, since they’re almost all Christians and I’m Jewish.

    Do I say “Your lies, and the deaths they cause, are a mortal sin”? That would make me just as much of a preacher as they are.

    So what do I say?

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    You were pretty close with #3, until you invoked the idea of ‘sin’. The lies cause harm – causing others harm either through negligence or intentional fraud is unethical by any standard. If you care about being ethical, then you shouldn’t do that. If you don’t care about being ethical then you’re a sociopath, and your opinions on matters pertaining to society are therefore null and void.

    You could also say “how do you know that the God that you believe in is the true one? We believe in different gods – how do you know I’m wrong?”

    You could also point out the Woes of the Pharisees, in which Jesus of Nazareth inveighs against hypocrisy. Christians hate it when Jesus disapproves of them.

  3. 3
    The Other Point-of-View

    As you can see I’m late to the party. Y’know, I pretty much disagree with every view point you have. But damned if I don’t love the way you present your rationale.

    I am a practicing Christian (I’ll admit a pretty crap one). I think there are many ways to…suggest… Christianity is a perfectly reasonable idea, but of course, there are so many base suppositions we can’t agree on, it’s pointless to argue. (i.e. the fact that different species of birds developing unique traits in relation to the environment somehow means some blob from the ocean became human beings. Yeah, okay, sure.)

    But I stand completely with you on the point that TOO many Christians are a bunch of inbred hypocrites with small dicks and they make me ashamed to even be counted with them.

    And you know what Crom, if I have to stand with you to defeat THEM, then so be it.

  4. 4
    Nick Gotts

    the fact that different species of birds developing unique traits in relation to the environment somehow means some blob from the ocean became human beings. Yeah, okay, sure. – Idiot

    Well done! You showed in a single sentence how amazingly ignorant you are about the overwhelming evidence that all life on Earth is indeed descended from a single ancestral organism.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    Heh. I was planning on letting that one go.

  6. 6
    Other Point-of-View

    Um, from the way that was written, it seemed I was calling someone an idiot. I didn’t.

    If it was directed at me…ah, well.

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