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.
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.)