One of the negative consequences of not pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs out of a misplaced desire to not give offense is that it allows them to make absurd statements that in any other context would be greeted with incredulity. Over time, they may not even realize that they are saying things that are absurd.
Take for example, this news report about the plane that crashed into a house near Buffalo last week, tragically killing fifty people (sent to me by reader Lisa):
Two people escaped the destroyed house and neighboring homes went unscathed.
“It’s hard to make sense of it today but God hasn’t left us. Two of three people that were in the home that the plane landed on miraculously escaped. A couple people missed the flight and saved their lives,” New York Governor David Paterson told a news conference.
“So we just take what little we can and move forward.”
Because two people in the home fortunately escaped death and two others missed their flight, the governor of New York says that “God hasn’t left us”. God hasn’t left us? What does that even mean? That god was on vacation somewhere and rushed back to avert the tragedy but only got back in time to save a few people? That god is somewhat absent-minded and can’t keep track of everything and so overlooked the fact that a plane was crashing until the last minute? Or is so overwhelmed with things to do and could only spare the lives of a few people?
What explains the fact that the chief executive of New York, the most powerful elected official in the state, can freely make a statement that is not only absurd and meaningless on its face but also cruelly insensitive to the loved ones of those who died, implying that god had better things to do than save them? How can a person entrusted with dealing rationally with real problems affecting so many people make such a clearly meaningless and delusional statement without eliciting any protest whatsoever?
The reason is precisely because many people share Paterson’s delusion, and the rest have been conditioned to think that it is impolite to point out the absurdity of his statement (and the belief system that underlies it) because of the mistaken ‘respect for religion’ trope. You can speak utter tripe but as long as you put the word god somewhere in there in a positive or exculpatory light, you are safe from criticism. Even the people who were bereaved by the accident will refrain from pointing out that the logical implication of Paterson’s statement is that god wanted their own loved ones to die.
While I was irritated at the cruel insensitivity of Paterson’s remarks, I wondered if the bereaved people in such situations are also secretly outraged by such statements but are intimidated by the ‘respect for religion’ trope and thus remain silent, or if they too have been so brainwashed that they are willing to accept the weird idea that this kind of appalling tragedy is all part of a loving and benevolent god’s mysterious plan, and that god targeting their loved ones for an untimely death serves some noble purpose.
The reason that Paterson can cavalierly say these things is because such idiotic statements are never questioned since the delusion he suffers from is widespread. It is the kind of thing that is repeatedly said and we have come to think of as making sense. As author Robert M. Pirsig said, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.” (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 5)
The reason that most of us do not say out loud everything that pops into our heads is that we screen them first to see if they make sense. But because vacuous religious statements have not been criticized, over time the habit of screening them seems to have atrophied. Religious believers have been given the benefit of being allowed to say absurd things without any consequence. As a result, such statements multiply and become even more delusional over time, which is why religions have become towering edifices of irrational beliefs, houses of cards that have to be carefully shielded from the winds of skepticism. The fact that they have lasted so long is a testament to the triumph of religion as a propaganda system.
It would be good if more and more people do not accept the idea that pointing out delusional thinking is intolerant or impolite. Then we can keep blowing at those houses of cards, and eventually they will fall down.
POST SCRIPT: Fry and Laurie on different views of madness