Listening to the Hair Dryer: Why Nice Religion is Still Problematic, Analogy #37,476


So if some believers are good people whose religion leads them to good moral conclusions… why should atheists care about their religious beliefs?

My friend and colleague Adam Lee at the excellent Daylight Atheism blog just emailed me with a question. There was an analogy about religious faith he thought he’d seen me use, but he couldn’t remember the exact place. And alas, I can’t either. I’m pretty sure that he’s right and I have used it — but it must have been in a comment thread or a talk or something, I can’t find it anywhere. (I guess I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.)

So I’m writing about it here. (I stole this analogy from Brownian in a Pharyngula comment thread, btw. If anyone has a link to the origin, please let me know, so Adam can link to it correctly. Credit where credit is due.)

Here’s the analogy.

Let’s say Person 1 thinks their hair dryer is talking to them, and is telling them to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train.

And let’s say that Person 2 thinks their hair dryer is talking to them, and is telling them to volunteer twice a week at a homeless shelter.

Is it better to volunteer at a homeless shelter than it is to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train? Of course it is.

But you still have a basic problem — which is that you think your hair dryer is talking to you.

You are still getting your ethics from a hair dryer. You are still getting your perception of reality and your ideas about how to live your life, not from the core moral values that most human beings seem to share, not from any solid evidence about what decreases suffering and increases fairness and happiness, not from your own observations and experiences of what does and does not work to make the world a better place… but from a household appliance.

And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem for what I hope is an obvious reason: Hair dryers don’t talk to us. Thinking that they do is radically out of touch with reality. And I hope I don’t have to explain why we should care about reality, and about whether the things we believe are really true. (Actually… I don’t hope that. Sad experience has taught me that I do have to explain it. Which is why I’ve done so: here, and here, among many other places.)

But it’s also a problem because, if you think your hair dryer is a valid source of moral guidance… what do you do if it starts telling you something different? Something a little less noble than “volunteer at the homeless shelter twice a week”? Something absurd (and not in a good way); something self-destructive; something grossly immoral?

What do you do if your hair dryer starts telling you to go to your blind date wearing a wedding dress and a hat made out of a rubber chicken? What do you do if your hair dryer starts telling you, not just to volunteer at the homeless shelter twice a week, but to donate your entire paycheck to the homeless shelter, every week, to the point where you become homeless yourself? What do you do if your hair dryer starts telling you to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train?

If you don’t have a better reason for what you do than, “The hair dryer told me to do it,” you’re in trouble. You have no reality check on your perceptions or ideas or decisions.

And if you do have a better reason for what you do than, “The hair dryer told me to do it”… then why do you need the hair dryer?

So yes. If you’re volunteering at a homeless shelter twice a week, you’re doing better than the person who shoots every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train.

But if you’re getting your ideas about reality and morality from a household appliance… then you’ve got a problem.

And if you’re getting your ideas about reality and morality from an invisible being who nobody can agree about and who you have no good reason to think even exists… then you’ve got a problem.

Faith without evidence is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea to believe things you have no good reason to think are true. Even if it sometimes leads to good conclusions… it’s still a bad idea. Period.

UPDATE: The original source of this analogy has been identified. It’s from Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation:

“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”

Thanks to Kazim for the heads-up. (The original extrapolation of this analogy into “why nice religion is still problematic” still belongs to Brownian, as far as I know.)

Comments

  1. Maria says

    Even after I stopped believing in a lot of woo and newage stuff myself, I still thought that belief in these things in itself didn’t need to be a bad thing. I was thinking, too, that if the belief didn’t really lead to anything bad, or if the person who believed the kooky stuff was nice, and did good, and so on, it didn’t matter. But it then struck me, about 15 years or so ago, just what you describe here, that belief in things that don’t exist is not a good thing in itself!

    Things happening in your life can so easily change your own perceptions of your beliefs into something worse! My aunt’s belief in mediums and ghosts didn’t use to matter that awfully much, but when her son died that changed! Suddenly she was very vulnerable to people who take advantage of people like her, with such beliefs, for their own gain.

    I think you are all around better off if you have as few false beliefs as possible!

  2. Ariel says

    What do you do if your hair dryer starts telling you to shoot every redhead who gets on the 9:04 train?

    If you don’t have a better reason for what you do than, “The hair dryer told me to do it,” you’re in trouble. You have no reality check on your perceptions or ideas or decisions.

    Well, quite on the contrary. If I do that, I will get arrested. That’s the reality check. If you are saying “religion is nasty, because it can be translated into horrible practices with no reality check”, this is simply false.

    In the same direction, but on a more general level: you link here your “top 1 reason” essay, where you compare religion to morbid political ideologies, saying:

    Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It’s expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case.

    I would say that roughly the same happens with religion, the difference (if any) lying rather in quickness/slowness of reaction, and not in the existence/nonexistence of the reality check. Why do morbid political systems break down? Because the reality intervenes: economical, military, demographic, cultural factors take their toll. (Communism didn’t break down because its theoretical tenets were proved wrong by the scientists.) And many religions (including some particularly morbid ones) finished their life for exactly the same reasons. To sum it up: either a given religion has some practical consequences, or not. If it has, there will be reality checks. If not, the whole argument (“religion is bad because it can lead to horrible deeds without any reality check”) becomes pointless.

    Just to be sure: I’m not saying that the worries you express are pointless. I’m saying only that in my opinion it’s not a black-or-white story – it’s more nuanced, it’s a matter of degree. Perhaps the worries should be rather formulated in terms like “slower reaction”, “quicker reaction”?

    [On reflection: no, they shouldn’t!!! After such a reformulation the essay wouldn’t be such a fun to read :-) ]

  3. Azkyroth says

    Err, being arrested would only be a reality check if it implied that listening to the hairdryer was wrong. If you’re already taking advice from appliances, it’s just as easy to imagine you’re being arrested by agents of OSHA or the power company who want to keep the hairdryer down/dependent, and you’re being persecuted for your righteousness.

  4. Maria says

    “Well, quite on the contrary. If I do that, I will get arrested. That’s the reality check.”

    Uh, there have never been religious people doing awful things because they thought their god wanted it, who didn’t also think that the wish of their god comes before all worldly laws?

  5. Steve Jeffers says

    I like the analogy a lot. What I’m not so sure about is the existence of religious people who are the sort of people who’d only volunteer at shelters, then wake up and become murderers solely because they thought God told them.

    People do become radicalized. There are people in the US who have decided that God wants them to kill the staff at abortion clinics. But when you look at them, it’s never some instant transformation – they tend to be easily-led, fall in with the wrong crowd and become obsessed, endlessly rewatching the same videos, building to the final crime. The tragedy, usually, is that the murderer is well-known to the victim, because he’s been harassing him for years.

    Logically, there ought to be an epidemic of nuns and priests going on killing sprees, quiet homemakers who suddenly go on the rampage and so on. This simply doesn’t happen.

    I think for the *extreme* examples, religion is a trigger, in the same way violent videos can be. A tiny, tiny minority of vulnerable people can go crazy exposed to something that millions of people can experience without any obvious ill effect. There are very few school killing sprees in the UK. One of them was done by a man obsessed with Disney films, who thought they contained hidden messages. Again, he didn’t just watch the Little Mermaid once, he was obsessed with Disney. And the answer isn’t ‘ban Disney, they programmed him to do this’.

    However.

    I think religion is a powerful marketing tool. If you spend any time on a Catholic board, even a moderate one, you’ll find that the people there are anti-abortion extremists, all of whom quote the same lines, have the same talking points. Yeah, it’s not a shock to learn that Catholics don’t dig abortion (well, they do – actual human Catholics have just as many abortions as non-Catholics), but this is different. This is cult thinking, identity politics.

    I’ve been on boards where they insist the Democrats are staunchly anti Catholic. The VP is Catholic, Nancy Pelosi is Catholic. ‘The Supreme Court is anti-Catholic’ … that would be the Supreme Court where six out of the nine are Catholics. Those people aren’t anti *Catholic*, they support the abortion law. And the Church – and their wider belief – is actively drumming into them the message. Which is ‘don’t vote Democrat’, not ‘God loves embryos’.

    In the end, these are related. The US has seen clear cases of Foxicide – murders and attempted murders committed by vulnerable people listening to the constant drumbeat of Fox News.

    But murderers are extreme examples, outliers. I don’t there are any examples of ‘sudden murderers’. It’s much more instructive to look at the insidious stuff, to explore the process that hardens people’s existing views. And the best way to start that exploration is looking up the origin of the word ‘propaganda’.

  6. Konradius says

    I think I’ve heard Sam Harris use the talking to a hair-dryer analogy, but I’ve seen so many discussions and talks that I cannot recall where…

  7. Maria says

    @ at Steve

    I read it as being about all sorts of harm, not least to the believers themselves. The good charity worker suddenly going on a murder spree was just an example to drive the point home. I don’t think that happens very often either. I do think that it happens extremely often that beliefs that might be relative harmless in some situations, can become harmful on some level, either to other people, or to the believer themselves if something changes.

  8. says

    I have a fairly unflattering analogy to this issue.

    The problem with light/moderate religion is that it creates a sympathetic environment to extremism.

    Just like a warm damp cellar is a sympathetic environment to mold. You could try to address the mold directly but it’s mostly futile. The way you solve the mold problem is to change the environment so that it’s not sympathetic anymore – dry and cool (secular and skeptical).

    Even if the light/moderate religious people aren’t directly doing anything wrong, they’re essentially opening the gates to allow extremism to pass unchallenged, because they can’t challenge it without also challenging their own beliefs.

    They have a conflict of interest to doing anything but turning a blind eye to it.

  9. Ariel says

    Azkyroth #3 and Maria#4, you missed my point. Greta said: “You have no reality check on your perceptions or ideas or decisions”. Some of her examples concerned decisions specifically and in my comment I concentrated on them (this aspect is quite crucial anyway if you want to argue that religion is harmful).

    Decisions are unlike opinions: they are not true or false. It makes no sense to say “I conducted an experiment which falsified my decision”. Reality checks for decisions lie rather in their consequences. After (hopefully, even before) the decision is taken and the action performed, we assess these consequences, we try to answer the question how desirable they are. That’s how it goes – for religious and nonreligious people alike. The checks are there for both groups.

    Moreover, some decisions – if required by your ideology, religious or not – will tend to diminish the attractiveness or even chances for survival of your group. Such reality checks will function on a social scale, eliminating certain secular ideologies and religions alike. After getting arrested you can still believe in your hair dryer; or you can even consider yourself a martyr and find some satisfaction in being arrested, that’s true. Nevertheless, a group composed of worshipers of a capricious hair dryer, who orders them to kill babies on Mondays, to skin women on Tuesdays and to murder firemen on Wednesdays, would quite soon have plenty of not particularly nice encounters with various reality checks, and it will probably not survive too long. Groups which want to survive must take this into consideration. And that’s the reason why I don’t find especially effective an armchair argument of the form “religion is harmful, because what happens if your hair dryer orders you this?”

  10. says

    Well, the problem I have with this analogy is that the brand of religious people I’m getting in Europe is less implying that their hairdryer told them so, but that their hairdryer magically blew the ability to make moral decissions into their brain.
    They will even claim that bald people (atheists) got that ability from the hair-dryer.
    Most people also only accept hair-dryer wisdom as far as they can see the value in it themselves, i.e. as long as it conforms to their moral compass anyway (like those 99% of catholics who use birth-control).
    So, yeah, it’s still bad in the sense of that there’s no evidence, but if I can have a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, egalitarian, socially progressive anti-racist feminist who thinks those things them from the hairdryer, they’re pretty much down on my list, way down behind atheist misgynists and homophobes.

  11. Maria says

    Groups which want to survive must take this into consideration.

    Not if they are big, old and wealthy enough! The Catholic Church is not in any risk of extermination in spite of doing a lot of different kinds of harm the world over – all sanctioned by their very own “hairdryer”!

  12. Maria says

    but if I can have a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, egalitarian, socially progressive anti-racist feminist who thinks those things them from the hairdryer, they’re pretty much down on my list, way down behind atheist misgynists and homophobes.

    Me too! Absolutely! But I think the point was that if any of this changes into something not so good… they will still think they are just as justified to think that because their hairdryer still told them!

  13. Ariel says

    Maria #11

    Not if they are big, old and wealthy enough!

    If they didn’t apply any reality checks, they wouldn’t be big, old and wealthy enough now :-)

  14. Bruce Gorton says

    There is an even more problematic issue: What if you believe your hair dryer is telling you things – like what is moral not simply for yourself but everyone else?

    What if your hairdryer tells you that the homeless shelter down the road is serving soylent green and you must warn people about it?

    What if your hairdryer tells you that people who eat certain foods are inherently sinful? What if your hairdryer tells you that your child cannot love XYZ person because it is an abomination?

    Even without this:

    What if your hairdryer tells you to support very nice, very liberal government policies because you are a good follower of the hairdryer – and to ignore arguments against those policies because they come from the people who listen to their nail clippers (whether they actually do or not)?

  15. Maria says

    If they didn’t apply any reality checks, they wouldn’t be big, old and wealthy enough now

    Do you really believe that? Can you honestly say the RC don’t get away with things? Even criminal conduct?

    They gained their wealth and power from millions of people who didn’t have that reality check, and who they have taken advantage of! You think they would be this big, old and wealthy if they had had no members at all from the start? Would they have members if people hadn’t accepted that, very UNrealistic, premise from the start, for reasons of fear, guilt, false hope and chilhood indoctrination?

    I think it’s this much more than applying reality checks that started the ball rolling, and keeps it rolling to this day!

  16. Ariel says

    Maria

    Do you really believe that? Can you honestly say the RC don’t get away with things? Even criminal conduct?

    Wow, these are two different questions. Do I believe that RC smartly manipulated the text of the Bible (its interpretation), taking into account the external political\military\economic\cultural situation? (that’s what I call: applying reality checks!) Yes, I sincerely believe that. Examples are not too difficult to find. And yes, I think also that without that the church wouldn’t become so “big, old and wealthy”. Can I honestly say that the RC don’t get away with things? No, I can’t; but you know, I never claimed that I can :-)

  17. Maria says

    Do I believe that RC smartly manipulated the text of the Bible (its interpretation), taking into account the external political\military\economic\cultural situation? (that’s what I call: applying reality checks!)

    The point of Greta’s article is that having no reality check and to believe things that don’t exist is harmful in many different ways. Falling for the cons of huge churches is one of those harmful things!

    Also, you can make other persons believe in stupid things, and also so be able to take advantage of them… while at the same time actually believe the same things yourself! You don’t have to be the unbelieving cynic, you can just as well think you are closer to god, or ordained by him to sit above the masses. I don’t think that ALL people of power in the Catholic Church (who are the ones reaping the benefits of the believing masses) through it’s entire history were all really atheistic con men!! The whole situation is one big con if you will, from the start, yes, because… the premise isn’t true. That doesn’t mean that most people involved didn’t actually believe in these things. I’m sure many of them actually thought they were justified in reaping the benefit of believing masses, because their power was good-given! Doesn’t justify what they do, and they sure still need a reality check!

  18. Kazim says

    “The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”
    ― Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

    I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever heard the thing about the hair dryer specifically.

  19. says

    But I think the point was that if any of this changes into something not so good… they will still think they are just as justified to think that because their hairdryer still told them!

    Sure, but you don’t need religion to justify your stupid.
    I think the few people who really seriously hear voices in their head are mentally ill and should be treated.
    Religion prevents them from getting that treatment and that is bad.
    But most people don’t claim to hear the hairdryer in person. The hairdryer supports whatever idea they have anyway (sure, other people believing in the hairdryer made sure that those ideas corelate with the general hairdryerness).

    Look at atheist libertarians who hold quasi-religious beliefs about their pretty freedom.
    Arguing with them is like arguing with religious people. Yet they’re completely and utterly lacking any belief in the hairdryer.

  20. Maria says

    But most people don’t claim to hear the hairdryer in person. The hairdryer supports whatever idea they have anyway (sure, other people believing in the hairdryer made sure that those ideas corelate with the general hairdryerness).

    True! But they don’t claim that it IS in fact their own ideas only, either, no matter if they say they hear it as a separate voice or not.

    Sure, but you don’t need religion to justify your stupid.

    I don’t think anyone ever said that religion is the only factor that does this. Greta made an argument for that religion might be uniquely armored against reality checks that could penetrate the stupid though, in one of her own articles that she links to in the article above:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2009/11/25/armor-of-god/

    And I think there is a lot to that.

    In either case, saying that other things than religion (such as some political ideologies) are also harmful doesn’t mean that religion isn’t one of the most common, and most resilient factors to why people do justify their stupid, and hold on to it in face of any evidence to the contrary, which does in fact do a lot of harm in many ways. And that is worth discussing I think, and to try to do something about. We can still discuss the other factors as well.

  21. Ariel says

    Tim Martin #17

    As it seems, they do not want to survive :-)

    Maria #18

    The point of Greta’s article is that having no reality check and to believe things that don’t exist is harmful in many different ways. Falling for the cons of huge churches is one of those harmful things! […] The whole situation is one big con if you will, from the start, yes, because… the premise isn’t true.

    I’m sorry to say that, but such an approach doesn’t make any practical sense. I hope also that it was not the point of Greta’s article. If in your statistics you count mere church membership (or perhaps even mere being a believer) as ‘harmful’, then your arguments for harmfulness of religion are bound to rest forever within the confines of an atheist ghetto, with ‘RIP’ on their grave. Nobody else will care about them.

  22. says

    @Ariel: Cute.

    Look, the issue – whether you describe it as a “lack of a reality check” or not – is that religious people do stupid and/or unethical things that other people would not generally do. They do them because they’re convinced that, say, a certain book is the absolute authority, and anything the books says, goes. This is a problem.

    But! Religious people will ask, “What if I believe in the Bible as an absolute authority (the way I interpret it), and I do good things because of it?”

    The point is, that’s still a bad reason. Not only that, but that is a dangerous state of affairs. It means the only reason you aren’t doing bad things is because you think your holy book doesn’t tell you to. But what if your interpretation were to change at some point? Then there would be nothing to stop you from wanting or attempting to do bad.

    Your claim that fear of criminal prosecution would stop people is demonstrably false. Just look at any illegal act done in the name of religion ever – killing abortion doctors, flying planes into towers, having public prayer in public schools… Religious people do all these things despite laws against them. Even if there are religious people who want to do bad things but refrain because they don’t want to get arrested (and no doubt such people exist), there is still the problem that they want to do bad things. What happens when they get a chance to commit a crime and not get caught? That’s going to be a problem.

    As for the “reality check” language – I take it to mean that the religious have no way to check whether what they believe is true or not. Once you accept that your holy book (for example) is inerrantly accurate, there is no way to falsify that (without questioning some of your previous assumptions, which many religious people are not willing to do). “Reality check” has nothing to do with whether other humans are going to try to stop you or not.

  23. Andrew T. says

    After Prop 8 and Question 1 passed, I lost count of the number of supporters who (when confronted, or became the focus of protests, etc.) blurted out excuses to the model of: “Oh, don’t blame me! It’s not my fault that I donated and voted to revoke your civil rights away! I only did what my religion made me do!”

    Gods don’t speak to people…but like hair dryers, the aura that surrounds them is full of hot air.

  24. says

    Religious philosophers like the concept of “justified true belief.” You have justified true belief if:

    1. The thing you believe is indeed true (which makes the whole thing circular IMO),

    2. You believe it to be true, and

    3. You are justified in believing that it’s true.

    If you say, “I’m going to flip this quarter, and it’s gonna come up heads” and then it does, #2 was true (you believed it) but #3 wasn’t (you had no reason to think it was).

    This ties in with Greta’s post in that we need lots of evidence before we believe that hair dryers and gods are giving us advice.

  25. Kelly says

    Great analogy, Greta! I recall reading a story about ten years ago about a woman somewhere in the U.S. South who killed her children because she claimed that God told her to.

    The argument from morality is used by a great many apologists, and it is one of the weakest arguments they have. Just ask for a Christian apologist (Muslims would probably have the same problem) to say whether human chattel slavery is moral or immoral, and to justify their answer based on their holy book.

    Of course slavery is condoned explicitly both in the OT and NT, with Jesus even saying in Luke that a disobedient slave deserves to be beaten.

    More later, have to go teach!

  26. Eclectic says

    Ariel@2:

    Well, quite on the contrary. If I do that, I will get arrested. That’s the reality check. If you are saying “religion is nasty, because it can be translated into horrible practices with no reality check”, this is simply false.

    But this is assuming that the police aren’t listening to their hair dryers!

    You’re saying “it’s okay, because people who don’t listen to hair dryers will act as a reality check.” I think that kind of proves the point that listening to hair dryers is A Bad Thing.

  27. Maria says

    …and what if someone steals your hairdryer?

    Well, it’s a talking hairdryer, it can call out for help ;-D

  28. Tx Skeptic says

    @ #8 JT
    I agree that the sympathetic environment created by the squishy religions is a big part of the problem.

    If you heard your hair dryer talking to you, in an environment where nobody believes in talking hair dryers, you probably would seek professional help. But, in an environment where most people believe in talking appliances, even if they’ve never personally heard one, If you then heard the voice, or a friend told you they heard it, you would then be inclined to believe the voice.

    The fewer people in the environment there are that believe in talking appliances, the better our chance of self recognizing bad ideas in our head as just bad ideas in our head, rather than instructions from above.

  29. Eclectic says

    Not to mention that we have pretty solid proof that even individual religious believers are listening to their own opinions when they “listen to god”.

    Briefly, there are specific brain structures, known a “mirror neurons”, that are used to imagine a third-party’s view of something. (Very useful for such tasks as “can that predator see me?”, “can that prey see me”, and “can that rival see where I’m hiding food?”) Functional MRI shows which regions of the brain have high neuronal activity by watching blood flow, and can see mirror neuron activity.

    When asked various people’s and groups’ opinions on social issues, the mirror neurons activated. There were two notable exceptions: when people were asked about their own opinions, there was a very different pattern of neuronal activation. And when asked about God’s opinion, the pattern was indistinguishable.

    (An interesting follow-on would be to do the experiment on people who hallucinate voices.)

  30. Jon B says

    #32 reminds me of a great line from “The Ruling Class,” in which Peter O’Toole plays an insane English aristocrat who, at least occasionally, thinks he’s God. At some point, a psychiatrist asks him “How do you know you’re God?” And the O’Toole character replies “Every time I pray, I find I’m talking to myself.”

  31. Greta Christina says

    But most people don’t claim to hear the hairdryer in person.

    Giliell @ #20: And it’s so much better to think, “My priest talks to a hair dryer and tells me what it says.”

    Or, “Five thousand years ago some people talked to a hair dryer and told people what it said, and that got written down in a book.”

    Or, “Two thousand years ago a person claimed to be a hair dryer in human form, and decades later some other people wrote down what they think the hair dryer said.”

  32. Maria says

    My bath towel told me not to believe a single thing the hair dryer says.

    Myself, I’ve stopped trusting the soap, it’s too slippery…

  33. says

    Greta

    I’ve had that hair dryer quote from Sam Harris as my “favorite quote” at the bottom of my blog ever since I’ve been blogging (2007), and perhaps that’s where Adam saw it. I didn’t remember it from “Christian Nation”, but it may have been there. I stole it from an interview he gave that was posted on his Amazon page after “The End of Faith” was published.

    John (SI)

  34. Scooty says

    Greta, I’m pretty sure I first heard you use this analogy on a podcast. I think it was on Ask An Atheist, but it may also have been on Minnesota Atheists.

  35. says

    Greta @ 35
    No, it’s not much better.
    Believing stupid things with no evidence at all is not good.
    But maybe this is because I come from a different experience, namely from Europe.
    In my experience, it’s mostly the other way round: People know what’s right and wrong due to empathy and reason and then go on to justify it with their magic book.
    They often don’t care much about what the priest says anyway, unless they agree with him (then, of course it becomes Higher Wisdom).
    Just like they don’t suddenly become monsters when they stop believing.

  36. Ariel says

    Tim Martin#24

    religious people do stupid and/or unethical things that other people would not generally do.

    Possibly, but that’s a different sort of an argument. In order for it to have any force you would have to analyze carefully your data. Anecdotal stuff should be deemed unsatisfactory. You would need first to establish the claim that the religious people are significantly more unethical than the nonreligious ones. Otherwise the rest (your comments about “the book”) doesn’t seem particularly interesting. Perhaps – as you say – religious people do unethical things other people would not generally do. But perhaps it is compensated by nonreligious people doing enough unethical things, and the difference between two groups is insignificant? Then – as I see it – nothing particularly interesting follows about the harmfulness of religion.

    (I’m not keen on obtaining an answer in one direction or the other. I mean: neither my ego nor my worldview will suffer independently of which answer is true. If that sounds too detached to some of you, my apologies.)

    The point is, that’s still a bad reason. Not only that, but that is a dangerous state of affairs. It means the only reason you aren’t doing bad things is because you think your holy book doesn’t tell you to. But what if your interpretation were to change at some point? Then there would be nothing to stop you from wanting or attempting to do bad.

    As I tried to explain (in vain, it seems) the problem with such counterfactual arguments is that they are completely unrealistic. I’m at a loss to understand how anyone can take them seriously (in such an extreme version). In the real world it’s not how it works, period. On the long run, surviving interpretations of holy books are filtered by a series of “reality checks”. Of course the filtering is imperfect. The only serious question which remains is: how imperfect it is, comparing to other possible filters (see the previous passage). I can’t claim to know an answer.

    Your claim that fear of criminal prosecution would stop people is demonstrably false. Just look at any illegal act done in the name of religion ever – killing abortion doctors, flying planes into towers, having public prayer in public schools… Religious people do all these things despite laws against them.

    I didn’t claim that fear of criminal prosecution is a 100 per cent effective deterrent. It never was (neither for religious crimes, nor for crimes in general). My intention was to give an illustration for a different claim, namely: the reality checks for decisions and actions of religious people (incidentally, also for interpretations of their holy books) do exist and they are pretty much the same as for nonreligious people. The general stricture is: look at the consequences of your decisions and actions. Do you like them? In practice it imposes important limits not only on your decisions/actions, but also on the way you interpret your holy book. In a contemporary setting: look at the consequences of your decision to interpret the Bible as prohibiting extramarital sex and contraception, as discriminating homosexuals. One of the consequences is that the churches are empty! Do you like it? Do you accept it? That’s the reality check the contemporary churches must deal with nowadays.

    As for the “reality check” language – I take it to mean that the religious have no way to check whether what they believe is true or not. Once you accept that your holy book (for example) is inerrantly accurate, there is no way to falsify that (without questioning some of your previous assumptions, which many religious people are not willing to do). “Reality check” has nothing to do with whether other humans are going to try to stop you or not.

    Of course you can stipulate that this will be your intended meaning for the phrase “reality check”. I have no problem with the definition as such. It’s just language. The real problem is then: why do we think that having reality checks (in your narrow sense) is important and how is it important? And my main point was that an argument of the sort “Religion is harmful, because what happens if … [insert your favorite counterfactual here]” is very weak. Arguing in this way you forget about factors operating in the real world. I prefer to take these factors into consideration, and that’s the reason why I used the phrase “reality check” in a different manner than you.

  37. Greta Christina says

    Ariel @ #41: I think you may be missing the point. Here is the relevant passage:

    If you don’t have a better reason for what you do than, “The hair dryer told me to do it,” you’re in trouble. You have no reality check on your perceptions or ideas or decisions.

    And if you do have a better reason for what you do than, “The hair dryer told me to do it”… then why do you need the hair dryer?

    “If you don’t have a better reason” and “If you do have a better reason” being the pertinent phrases.

    The reality checks you’re talking about come from outside religion. When it comes to making good decisions, moral or otherwise, religion is no help. Religion is useless at best, out of touch with reality at worst. Good decisions get made in spite of religion, not because of it.

    And if you want corroboration… look at history. Look at the moral advances of humanity: opposition to slavery, equality for women, acceptance of LGBT people, etc. Religion has almost always been the slowest to catch up. Religion has almost always been one of the most powerful brakes on these advances. (Yes, there were abolitionists who were driven by intense religious belief — but mainstream religion was one of the most powerful forces supporting slavery.) Religion is slow to catch up because it prioritizes faith in previously held ideas over reality.

  38. Ariel says

    Greta#42

    (1) The reality checks you’re talking about come from outside religion. (2) When it comes to making good decisions, moral or otherwise, religion is no help. Religion is useless at best, out of touch with reality at worst. (3) Good decisions get made in spite of religion, not because of it.

    There are three (?) thoughts here. I will comment on them separately because the logical relations between them elude me.

    (1) It’s quite normal that the reality checks come from outside your body of beliefs. Did you really expect anything else!?? The same happens everywhere, also in science: you confront your conceptions with the external world after all, for Spaghetti Monster’s sake‼!
    (2) If it means “it is possible to be moral without religion”, I tend to agree. If it means “religion never helps you to make a good decision”, I disagree. If it means “most religiously motivated decisions are no good”, I don’t have a verdict.
    (3). Again, the meaning is very unclear (to say the least). Do you mean that most good decisions we actually take are contrary to what religion would order us? (I have no idea whether this is true). Do you mean that when we decide to reinterpret our holy book – because literal interpretation would produce wrong effects (reality checks!) – we do it in spite of religion, and not because of it? (My reaction: very unobvious. You may well have both external and internal motives for introducing the revision, and that’s what in my opinion usually happens). Or do you mean still something else?

    Religion is slow to catch up

    Yes, the suggestion in my first comment was that all these misgivings should perhaps be formulated in terms of slower/quicker reaction (and not in terms “reality checks/no reality checks”). I will heed your advice and try to look at history.

    Ok, that will be all from me for now, see you all next week!!

  39. Ariel says

    Oh, just one quick addendum to my last comment. Even if we accept “religion is slow to catch up” as the main claim, the question still remains why it is so slow to catch up. And here someone could still try to answer “that’s because reality checks for religion are so imperfect”. I’m not sure at the moment (haven’t gathered my thoughts about it yet), but my initial reaction is: it might not be the most promising direction. Perhaps there are cases (like in ethics) where our reality checks are not significantly better, but we are more ready to let them go? But if not the reality checks, then what? Perhaps one could try with holiness. The line would be: people are very reluctant to drop their ideas about what is holy.

    Ok, it was just a quick thought, possibly not a very sensible one. Kill it, torture it, twist it in any way you want, I’m not here for the weekend anyway :-)

  40. says

    Well said, Greta. This is an excellent point, and one that not enough people seem to take the time to consider.

    In addition, I might argue that each religion, when you boil it down, is in essence structured on a foundation of dishonesty. While it is true that many churches do indeed do good and charitable things in our communities, that core of dishonesty that holds it all together remains the same. That’s one of my personal biggest problems with any faith. They teach people things that are untrue, sometimes leading to positive outcomes and sometimes leading to horrific ones. In any case, lies and misinformation are spreading on account of religions. This is something that I cannot let slide.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Greta Christina wrote an article on Freethought Blogs that I keep coming back to. It seems like something I would agree with on the surface, but there was something that just didn’t sit right with me. She was discussing morality, but she didn’t clarify the difference between the source of our morals and the behaviors of our moral decisions. I would argue that the source of our morality is irrelevant; behaviors, on the other hand, are very relevant to all of us. […]

  2. […] that it’s not good for me to be silent about not believing in gods.  Because belief in gods does bad things to people as individuals and damaging things to society at large.  (But because I believe in the Constitution of the United […]

Leave a Reply