In the February 2009 issue of Harper’s magazine, Mark Slouka wrote:
One out of every four of us believes we’ve been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo “vibrational aura” that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.
Is the fact that so many people believe such rubbish necessarily so bad that we need to actively work against them? What harm do they do?
This kind of argument surfaces all the time from people who recognize that religion and belief in god has no empirical basis whatsoever and is thus irrational but that we should indulge them because they make people feel good and is harmless.
I think we would all agree that what people believe is in all cases a private affair that does not do any harm and thus should be free from harassment. Our society is full of people who believe all manner of bizarre and unsubstantiated things and we leave them alone to live their lives. Our psychiatric wards are only reserved for those who are delusional in ways that make them imminently dangerous to others and perhaps themselves, and a humane society takes such people into its care so that they cannot act on their beliefs.
What people say should also be protected. Words, by themselves, cannot harm anyone and thus there can be no justification for restricting speech by and for adults, except for obviously dangerous things like falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.
So belief in angels or ghosts or reincarnation or auras or god are, by themselves, harmless. But the fact that something is harmless by itself does not mean that we should passively allow it to exist and even flourish. An open manhole in the middle of a street is harmless by itself. It is not an aggressor. If someone should fall into it, one can still say that it was not the open hole that was at fault but the person for not paying attention to where they were walking. But that does not mean we should not take steps to prevent unsuspecting people from accidentally falling into it.
Religious beliefs are like the open manhole. It is not their existence that is the danger but that they can be the cause of harm. They make it easier for some people to believe the voices in their head that tells them that god is commanding them to do various things, or believe that god is speaking though specially chosen people (like the Pope or Pat Robertson or one of the Ayatollahs) and that thus their words carry extra weight.
The danger with religion is that it is at best like the so-called ‘gateway drugs’ that can lure unsuspecting people into using more harmful and highly addictive drugs. Once people, at a very early age, are made to think that it is perfectly rational that there is an invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful being who can read everyone’s mind simultaneously, talk to them with no on else hearing the voice, and take action in the world while evading all detection, then they have been primed to accept as plausible any and all beliefs, however bizarre, provided it is even vaguely compatible with their childhood indoctrination.
Angels, reincarnation, auras, and the like may be frowned on by Christian clergy and theologians but I suspect that most ordinary Christians think that they are within the broad framework of their beliefs. Notice that the official churches at most indulge in tut-tutting disapproval of these fringe beliefs and never go on a crusade to stamp them all out. How could they? Religious institutions know that there is little that separates them from what are commonly known as fringe beliefs: the spoon-benders, mind readers, psychics, faith healers, crystal-ball gazers, Tarot card readers, snake handlers, and the like. This is why they never aggressively campaign against them. What possible argument could they use that could not be turned against their own beliefs and reveal that their own dogmas are equally baseless?
During the last presidential campaign, many people had a lot of fun at the expense of Dennis Kucinich’s admission that he had seen what he thought was a UFO. What a wacky guy! But if they were religious believers, all you had to do was ask them why that was any weirder than believing in a god, and you likely found that they were initially surprised (because the thought had never occurred to them) and then quickly changed the subject as they realized the indefensible position they were in.
All irrational beliefs exist together in a Pandora’s Box. Open it even slightly with the intention of letting out only mainstream religious beliefs, and everything else also comes rushing out.
Since free and open thought and speech is a fundamental right and a good thing, this particular Pandora’s Box should not be shut. Thus we really have only two consistent options: the rational position that while we should not suppress beliefs, we should actively campaign against all unsubstantiated beliefs and superstitions, which would necessarily include those of mainstream religions; or allow any and all beliefs to be unchallenged, and thus allow the evil and harmful ones to have the same level of approval as that of mainstream religions.
POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart had a farewell interview with George W. Bush