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Those with No Allegiance to Reality

Some time ago, religious activist Be Scofield published an article criticizing atheists who say that religion is harmful, because they haven’t shown that concrete harms have resulted from the beliefs and practices of each of over 4,000 distinct religious groups. According to Scofield, organized religions often provide social services that aren’t available elsewhere, and religious belief has assisted marginalized groups in building community, developing personal identity, and resisting oppression. At the time, I sensed that he was somehow missing the point about the harms of religious belief, but I couldn’t quite pin down where exactly this argument went wrong.

More recently, Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum claimed it was largely irrelevant that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created by God within the past 10,000 years, because not believing in evolution has very little impact on people’s everyday lives. Instead, Drum noted that such a profession of belief is just a “cultural signifier” that they use to identify themselves as Christians. Again, it seemed that he had failed to grasp something essential about people’s beliefs, but I was still at a loss to describe the precise nature of the error.

And then I found a post from a Tumblr user who was looking for a religion that could account for what they perceived as a spiritual dimension and “sacred” nature of transgender people. When others questioned whether subscribing to a religion was necessarily a good idea, they responded:

There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological. If you’re better off for believing something, and you aren’t hurting others with that belief, that is sufficient reason to believe it.

That was when the mistake common to these examples became clear: These people have misunderstood the concept of belief itself, and in doing so, they encourage misuse of the very action of believing. They don’t seem to comprehend what a belief actually is, or what beliefs are for, and so they’ve mistakenly labeled a number of distinct concepts as “beliefs”. This can generate significant confusion in any discussion about belief, so it’s important to distinguish the different meanings that people intend when they refer to “belief”.

Belief is typically understood to denote a person’s idea that something is true – that is, they regard a certain state of affairs as actually being the case in the real world. If they believe “snow is white”, this is meant to correspond to the fact that snow is indeed white in reality. This should be pretty basic stuff, but it soon becomes vastly more complicated due to the many roles that people have repurposed “belief” to serve.

Beliefs are part of the larger category of functional ideas. They specifically function to represent reality and create an internal model of the world, offering people the ability to understand how things relate to one another, identify why things happen, and predict what may happen in the future. Obviously, a person’s belief does not cease to be a belief if it’s inaccurate or outright wrong. It’s still a belief as long as they consider it a genuine map of reality, even if this is actually incorrect.

All beliefs are functional ideas, but not all functional ideas are beliefs. Ideas can serve purposes other than generating a model of the real world. They might instead provide personal emotional comfort, encourage social cohesion, promote charity activities, be appreciated aesthetically for their perceived elegance, make someone seem interesting for how obscure and esoteric their ideas are, indicate membership in a certain group and aid a person in fitting in with them, or be seen as virtuous to profess a belief in or attempt to believe in even if you don’t actually believe it.

All of these purposes are completely unrelated to belief itself – the matter of whether the ideas in question are true or not. An idea which serves these purposes may also be a belief, if someone genuinely holds it to be reflective of reality. But if it isn’t meant as a statement about what they consider to be true in reality, it’s not a belief. It’s just a functional idea.

When people treat all ideas which serve these purposes as also being beliefs, the resulting confusion knows no limit. Collapsing these distinct categories into one group labeled “beliefs” suggests that these other functions have some bearing on whether a belief is actually true. They don’t, but treating them as if they do can badly compromise the goal of beliefs: accurately representing the real world. That’s what makes this conflation so insidious, and that’s why such cavalier and careless approaches to belief are so frustrating.

Certainly people still regard beliefs as being about what’s true, even when using them in a way that doesn’t reflect this at all, and this requires redefining truth as well. Instead of defining their beliefs solely by what they regard the state of reality to be, what they see as true about the world is now defined by whatever they “believe” in this new sense of the word, which is determined by any number of purposes other than modeling reality. When representing the state of the world is just one purpose of belief among many, this can become secondary to other considerations.

What Scofield, Drum, and the seeker of transgender spirituality are telling us is that they are completely okay with the obsolescence of belief as a map of reality. To them, belief need not be tied to reality at all. Scofield is quite confident that religious belief can be good for people and societies, and this apparently outweighs any potential impact of holding beliefs that are actually false or basing one’s beliefs on how useful they are to individuals and groups. Drum protests that disbelief of evolution isn’t a cause of any harm, while failing to consider what it might be a symptom of. And our spiritual seeker cuts right to the heart of it: “There are reasons to hold a belief other than epistemological”, and one of those reasons is how good it makes you feel.

For all of their focus on whether beliefs are good or bad, harmful or harmless, they’ve paid little attention to the consequences of decoupling beliefs that are putatively about reality from reality itself. If you can believe whatever you like because of how you feel about it, and truth is just one aspect of belief among many (if it’s present at all), facts about the world can be helpless to alter your beliefs. Reality is now only a single factor that holds no privileged status here.

And if a belief comes to serve a deep emotional need, the cost of finding a replacement for this role may be unbearable, so anything that contradicts this belief must be denied and disregarded in order to preserve it. Just one strongly valued belief that must be protected at any cost is all it takes to distort someone’s entire world view. Any other belief or fact that might be connected to this will be filtered through the lens of the security blanket belief that cannot be denied.

Maybe you’re a transhumanist who takes great pleasure in the thought that a technological Singularity will inevitably occur in the near future, solving every problem and ending all suffering, so you might mentally downplay anything that suggests this might not happen instead of adjusting your beliefs accordingly. Or you could be a recently converted Catholic who’s so excited about your newfound religion that you’ll overlook your disagreement with the church’s official views on homosexuality and chalk it up to mere “confusion” on your part, rather than admitting that the church might just be wrong.

Perhaps you’re enthusiastic about the idea that cryonic preservation of your brain for future revival will allow you to live indefinitely, and so you don’t take any evidence of the shortcomings of current cryopreservation techniques quite as seriously as you should. Or you might be so attached to the supposed inerrancy of the Bible that you find yourself defending American slavery, because you can’t bring yourself to say that the Bible could be mistaken about the practice.

This is what can happen when your beliefs are determined by emotional need, social benefits, group identification, a perceived virtue in the act of belief itself, or anything other than reality. The possibilities for denial and distortion are as limitless as human emotional attachments. And when holding a certain belief becomes that important in people’s lives, it may become necessary for them to act in a way consistent with that belief on an individual or collective level, in order to keep up the internal charade that this belief is about reality.

Allowing your needs and social concerns to influence your beliefs – your mental model of reality – is not just a harmless personal indulgence, even if it may seem that way due to how universal confirmation bias and wishful thinking are. But defenders of faith like Be Scofield are unashamedly suggesting that the truth does not matter, and ensuring that our beliefs mirror reality is unnecessary. In doing so, they grant people an explicit license to believe anything they feel is good or necessary for them. And they don’t seem to have any grasp of the boundless epistemic chaos that they’re leaving everyone to languish in. They’re prepared to cultivate an approach to reality that revolves around believing whatever you find most comfortable and enjoyable, and they’re really trying to say that there is no harm in this.

But at the end of the day, the truth is not determined by what makes you feel warm and safe. It is not determined by what gets you the most friends. It is not determined by what makes people be nice to each other. It is not determined by a cost-benefit analysis of holding a certain belief. It is determined by reality. And those who willingly compromise their understanding of reality still have to live in it. They just might find themselves without a decent map.

Comments

  1. says

    Although Scofield is putting the cart before the horse (The belief before the social cohesion that people got from church), there’s still an important point there; Gnus need to stay way the hell away from churches of marginalized groups they don’t belong to. It is not up to white people/straights/etc to do this work, just support the marginalized atheists while they create parallel structures before going to work on the churches.

    It doesn’t gainsay what you said; reality matters, and that same solidarity can be had without the negative effects of religion(F’rex, without anti-gay shit from churches, including black, latino, etc, ones). I just am extremely wary of Gnus and their habit of a massive blind spot towards their own (dominant) cultural traditions while denying the potential secular value to anyone else. Hitchens and Dawkins, of course, can celebrate Christmas as rational human beings who like charity, presents and vacation, but FSM forbid an ethnic jewish person celebrate Yom Kippur just to have a good excuse to make good with family…

  2. A. Noyd says

    It’s ultimately about being too self-centered to see that believing whatever it pleases one to believe is a privilege that must logically be extended to everybody. Or, rather, that there are no external reasons to forbid the privilege to anybody, even if the preferred beliefs of the Drums and Scofields have internal provisions covering why, for example, it’s not okay to indulge the belief that black people are mentally inferior. So when they try to convince others of the harmlessness of their I-can-believe-whatever philosophy, they’re necessarily enabling those with harmful beliefs. Without reality as an impersonal mediator, there’s no way to show that some beliefs are wrong. There’s nothing Drum and Scofield can say to those racist scumbags who do believe in the inferiority of black people that isn’t utterly ineffective, hypocritical or both.

  3. skepticalmath says

    Gnus need to stay way the hell away from churches of marginalized groups they don’t belong to.

    It’s a bit more complex than that. Plenty of marginalized groups to which I do not belong are Catholic, but I refuse to stay away from criticizing that church for much of its doctrine/dogma.

    Hitchens and Dawkins, of course, can celebrate Christmas as rational human beings who like charity, presents and vacation, but FSM forbid an ethnic jewish person celebrate Yom Kippur just to have a good excuse to make good with family…

    Sorry, that sentence just doesn’t parse for me. (FSM?). Who’s forbidden ethnic Jews from celebrating Yom Kippur in a secular fashion. (I’m a dreaded Gnu Atheist, and I celebrate Yom Kippur (almost) every year, and certainly Passover every year.) Did someone actually say this?

  4. ktnevl says

    FSM=Flying Spaghetti Monster

    No one around here would suggest an atheist shouldn’t celebrate family holidays because they’re religious

  5. says

    No one around here would suggest an atheist shouldn’t celebrate family holidays because they’re religious

    Appreciated; really, it is. This is also not the sum and total of Gnu Atheism. I love that folks like Greta, or Zinnia, or PZ, or Taslima Najreen, are in it; people who get it. That doesn’t change that people like Dawkins, hitchens, harris, or countless other run of the mill white rich dudes are big wheels; bigger than the ones I mentioned, frequently.

    It’s a bit more complex than that. Plenty of marginalized groups to which I do not belong are Catholic, but I refuse to stay away from criticizing that church for much of its doctrine/dogma.

    Last I checked, the catholic church is an organization that is run by and principally to the benefit of white people. But it isn’t about not criticizing. It’s about not actually trying to dismantle the institutions, and supporting their native atheists in doing so instead. For instance, White People should not be leading the charge to secularize, let’s say, Indonesia. Indonesia has native atheists. Support them, let them determine what must be done for Indonesia’s secular traditions to flourish. Don’t tell black people they need to just leave church (Because it’s so easy when church is a huge part of one’s support structures available); support Black atheists in their own work in building their own structures… Etc.

    Did someone actually say this?

    Not in as many words regarding Jews, that I’ve seen. But that’s the net effect (particularly for non-white people secularizing their culture) when folks insist on enlightenment-model secularism, rather than building on their own experiences and cultures.

  6. says

    Aw, I almost thought you had a point. Had me quite interested, considering I as an atheist use a similar argument – that the truth (or lack thereof) of religion does not matter – to explain why I am not an anti-theist.

    Then you simply skipped, hopped, and jumped right over this point:

    “…and you aren’t hurting others with that belief…”

    and proceeded to give the old, tired argument that beliefs can be harmful. No shit. No one’s proposing that harmful beliefs should be let slide, yet you’re acting as such.

    Letting someone believe Catholic teaching approves of homosexuality would be harmful (eventual collapse of faith possibility), so Be, myself, and like us wouldn’t approve of this belief.

    Letting someone believe cryogenics is advanced would be harmful, (potential for wasting life) so again, no one would defend that belief.

    When we step outside the realm of material facts, as all gods lie beyond, you find that the truth is indeed irrelevant, and the features brought up by Be – you are bettered by believing, and no others are harmed – are.

    You’re right that the truth isn’t comprised of a cost-benefit analysis.

    Good thing that truth is, more often than not, not worth two cents.

    • says

      I get the impression that you might have missed my point, although that may be my fault for not summing it up in a concise manner. The main thrust of my argument is that basing beliefs on considerations such as whether you’re “bettered by believing” can be harmful, in ways that aren’t as immediately obvious as abortion clinic bombings, witch burnings, or murders of homosexuals. The indirect effects of allowing such factors to influence your belief system are more wide-ranging than many people acknowledge, and that’s what they’re giving a thumbs-up to when they see this as acceptable.

      • says

        A couple of comments. First, we weren’t designed to be epistemologists. Were evolved our intelligence in a context where it was beneficial to wooing mates, persuading comrades, manipulating enemies, and catching game, with deep path dependence on cognitive capacities evolved by our ancestors. So it’s not surprising that people’s beliefs often lack clearly marked modalities, nor that they themselves may not have thought through just how they’re holding a particular belief.

        Second, almost any philosophical commitment “can be harmful, in ways that aren’t .. immediately obvious.” And can be beneficial, in ways that also aren’t immediately obvious. And both likely are true for conflicting commitments as well. The whole problem with arguing from harm or benefit is that it’s quite difficult to sum up those effects, either for an individual or culture. And no, you can’t just say believing fantasies is harmful, because people who believe fantasies tend to develop psychological mechanisms that prevent the most salient problems when their fantasies bump up against reality. Measuring harm depends on deep prediction of the future. And on what one sees as harmful. Some things Christians seem as harmful, I see as benign. Some things they view as beneficial, I see as harmful.

        Finally, I think the issue of why people should be rational tends to make us over-think. People don’t make that effort because they think it will make them happier, bring them fame or fortune, gain them the respect of their friends, or get them laid. Nor even because they think it is the right thing to do, because they can’t fairly reach that conclusion until long after they have made the commitment. (And might never reach it.) Nor is it even a binary decision. It requires continuous effort and diligence and exercise. Some people strive for and develop intellectual integrity, the way some pursue strength and endurance, and some pursue drawing. And if you asked anyone why such a pursuit was important to them, the answer might not be all that simple.

        • says

          Second, almost any philosophical commitment “can be harmful, in ways that aren’t .. immediately obvious.” And can be beneficial, in ways that also aren’t immediately obvious. And both likely are true for conflicting commitments as well. The whole problem with arguing from harm or benefit is that it’s quite difficult to sum up those effects, either for an individual or culture.

          I’d imagine the same can be said for nearly any utilitarian calculation that hasn’t been pinned down to some limited set of facts that have been agreed to be relevant. This is clearly a limitation, but not what I’d consider a compelling reason to abandon the entire principle of taking into account the harms that may result from certain courses of action.

          To give a general example of how accurate beliefs are relevant to practically everyone, if there’s some particular goal you wish to achieve, then knowing what is actually true and false is pretty crucial in informing you of how you should act so as to accomplish this in the best way. If you’re not even clear on what’s going on, how will you know how to get what you want? Obviously you might just still be wrong, which will hinder you, but abandoning any attempt at working toward accuracy would be even worse. There are real incentives to caring about the actual state of reality.

          Even if the goal you seek specifically pertains to determining which beliefs will make you the happiest, this still requires an accurate grasp of reality – of what actually would make you happy. Those who are okay with their beliefs being defined by what gives them the greatest pleasure still must maintain some dedication to the truth.

          • says

            “This is clearly a limitation, but not what I’d consider a compelling reason to abandon the entire principle of taking into account the harms that may result from certain courses of action.”

            Let me confess up front that for most of the issues on which I stew, pry, and niggle, I make zero utilitarian calculation in whether I should do so. And on the particular issue of religious belief, it’s quite easy to imagine how exposing its epistemological flaws might have harmful consequence. People have separated from spouses, lost friends, and suffered persecution for dissenting too much from the majority religion. Would you really recommend that someone starting to doubt their religion first go through some utilitarian calculation before pursuing that course of thinking too much? And in the opposite direction, in promising benefit for that, aren’t you committing (prommising?) a secular version of Pascal’s wager?

            “..if there’s some particular goal you wish to achieve, then knowing what is actually true and false is pretty crucial in informing you of how you should act so as to accomplish this in the best way..”

            Where there is effective technology. And so, where there is effective technology, most religions adapt to it and encourage their believers to practice it. That may be the what keeps Christian Science so small. But the deeper questions aren’t about how to make a car, treat a disease, or win an election. Now, we rationalists can quite rightly point out the discrepancy between the methods and reasoning religious believers use in those practical areas, and what they do regarding their religious belief. But that’s not a utilitarian argument. That’s a prod that they pursue a bit more intellectual integrity. To the purely utilitarian argument, most of them can respond, “hey, I’m happy to use and work with technology.”

      • says

        All of your examples lie within harm that /is/ immediately obvious. If someone believes abortion providers are evil worthy of violence, that’s a belief that would be fought against.

        The question that should be asked would be something similar to this:

        “Does a belief that a man called Jesus Christ was god, died for sins, and rose again three days later cause any DIRECT (NO INTERMISSORY DOCTRINES ADDED) harm?”

        If you cannot prove (and the burden of proof does lie on the accuser) that that statement alone causes some direct harm, you have /failed/ to prove Christian faith in and of itself harmful.

        This is precisely my point: To receive any harm from that statement, ADDITIONAL CLAUSES must be added. Those ADDITIONAL CLAUSES can then be targeted SEPARATELY from the core statement of faith which, again, is NOT the source of harm.

        My argument once again is NOT that beliefs can cause harm, or that beliefs should not be critiqued, but that DIRECT harm MUST BE PROVEN in order to justify criticism.

        Capitalization used for emphasis, not anger.

        • Vicki says

          I’m not sure what you mean by “intermissory doctrines,” but I think the implications of that belief (or group of beliefs) do matter. For example: to believe that is to believe that there are such things as sins. It strongly implies that we can know what those deeds are (and less strongly implies that at least some people do know, and that there are ways to find out, which likely include asking those experts).

          That someone “died for sins” is too elliptical to be believed: will you accept “died to cause other people’s sins to be forgiven” as a reasonable Christian expansion of that phrase? If so, “died for sins” implies that one person can take responsibility for other people’s deeds (not necessarily that any person can, but at least that Jesus could), which has implications about responsibility.

          I also think it’s reasonable to say “okay, you believe [this person believes] that a man called Jesus was god. I have a reasonable idea of what a man is, in part because I’ve met quite a few. I’ve never met a god. What do you mean by that word?” And “how did this man’s death “make up for” sins?

          That couple of sentences doesn’t imply anything about appropriate sexual behavior, or when/whether it is appropriate to kill another human being, or the (im)morality of slavery—but it does imply that there is a being who enforces certain rules, which might include rules about those or many other behaviors.

      • says

        Only if you cling to the ridiculous notion that truth is always important. Is the parent who tells the kids the family dog has ‘gone to live on the farm’ in the moral wrong?

        • Nadai says

          Yes. Death is a basic fact of life and parents shouldn’t shield even young children from knowing it happens. The explanation should be pitched to the level the child can understand, which may well be no more than, “Rover died, honey. That means he’s gone and we won’t see him again.” But out-and-out lies are morally wrong. And frankly, I don’t understand why telling a child that Rover has “gone to the farm” is any less scary than acknowledging he’s dead. The end result is the same – no more Rover. It isn’t like the child won’t notice the dog is gone and no one ever visits him.

          • says

            I grew up on a farm. I knew things died. I saw things die. In fact, occasionally I helped kill things. On more than one occasion, I ate the thing I helped kill, skin and clean.

            I knew the names of the cows I was eating.

            Yet people who can’t even tell a child that a dog has died; feed them dead pigs and cows.

            Perhaps denial becomes a habit?

  7. says

    When we step outside the realm of material facts, as all gods lie beyond, you find that the truth is indeed irrelevant, and the features brought up by Be – you are bettered by believing, and no others are harmed – are.

    Be lied. Plain and simple. He, as many religious apologists do, distorted the truth. He ignored that things like the Harlem Renaissance, which was very, VERY atheist friendly and atheist tone. He ignored that MLK Jr. was cool with things like letting Rustin get blacklisted for his gayness, whereas his atheist colleague randolph was not. He ignored that Randolph and Rustin organized the washington march, not King and his church. He ignored that Sikivu Hutchinson was not telling white Gnus to stuff it because they are wrong on god, and herself is a popular gnu who criticizes the churches she grew up with while also telling white gnus to stop being racist pieces of shit.

    Further, Be is an appropriative piece of shit, which I did not immediately notice; the struggles of black people are real, and a thing. White people using them to score ideological points on each other can fucking burn. Non-white people do not just exist when white people want to score points on each other. I usually have to tell Gnus this, but I am more than happy to do the same for an appropriative theist shit. His fetishistic racism is NOT substantively better.

    Good thing that truth is, more often than not, not worth two cents.

    And yet, you think you can talk to us about facts.

  8. says

    Oh, and Be straightsplained to Greta the value of gay churches. That was a treat. Dude, she was alive for the era and is gay. She knows better than you, by a lot. Both of you can fuck off.

  9. says

    Also, seriously, triple fuck you. Because the strategy of pretending reality is not a thing that matters? It affects the marginalized far more than you privileged asshats. Like the black people you pretend to care about. Truth. Fucking. Matters. We might as well throw out the facts of marginalization along with it, if that’s what we’re doing, and what’s harmful. Which I have a funny feeling is step two of your little plan to get us to accept belief in god ‘because we’re bettered by it’.

    • says

      That is an excellent point about truth not affecting the privileged as much as the underprivileged. A wealthy white guy can believe whatever he finds most personally satisfying, and can ride out practically any fallout from those tricky little reality/faith interactions.

      For example, a wealthy person might try prayer instead of medicines to heal an illness, and recover quickly due to a better basic health due to,say, better nutrition in their lifestyle and PRAISE JAYSUS HE HEAYLED ME! A poor person might suffer lasting damage due to vitamin deficiency or eventually have to seek cripplingly expensive real emergency treatment – which the wealthy person would be able to afford.

      • says

        I was being a bit more direct than that, but that’s true too. But what better tool do we have to argue with whiney, WATMZ dudes, white people angry at affirmative action, cis people complaining that trans are the privileged ones, than the truth? Reality does not abide by such frivolous thought exercises, no more than it stands behind other ‘logical’ but false frippery. Truth is the best defense. And that grade-a jerk wants us to drop it because it doesn’t matter when we stop looking at reality? No no, we can leave that kind of wanking to the defenders of religion, thanks.

        • says

          I see moving from Tumblr brought along the Tumblr Social Justice Warriors. Shame there’s no way to quarantine it.

          You are both continuing to jump over my point. Any belief which causes harm, social or personal, should be critiqued. I have yet to say otherwise, yet you continue to pretend I’m defending some of this Be character’s morally repugnant (if they’re real that is, I tend to assume you SJW’s have more hyperbole than honesty) actions.

          If the truth is needed to prevent harm, by all means, shove the truth down the offender’s throat. But sometimes – like in the belief of peaceful theists – truth is not necessary.

          • says

            I see moving from Tumblr brought along the Tumblr Social Justice Warriors. Shame there’s no way to quarantine it.

            Did you actually read Scofield’s article? As inane as this lame attack would be under ordinary circumstances, it’s fucking hilarious when you’re trying to defend something that is the same thing.

            Any belief which causes harm, social or personal, should be critiqued.

            You say this, while backtalking me as a ‘tumblr social justice warrior’. I somehow suspect this less than an honest representation of what you actually think.

            (if they’re real that is, I tend to assume you SJW’s have more hyperbole than honesty)

            Is that so? Why should that be a complaint to you? After all…

            When we step outside the realm of material facts, as all gods lie beyond, you find that the truth is indeed irrelevant, and the features brought up by Be – you are bettered by believing, and no others are harmed – are.

            truth is not necessary.

            Yeah, not even you seem to believe this in practice, so you’ll forgive me just laughing like hell. Why bother with reality at all if that which is true and real doesn’t matter?

          • says

            It’s very dishonest of you to pretend I’ve said the truth /never/ matters. It very often does. The truth matters at a criminal hearing, for instance. The truth matters in relationships, where secret affairs can hurt. The truth matters here because it is a material fact – important term, that one – a fact that is not only true but relevant to the issue(s) at hand.

            There is, to my knowledge, no issue where the truth of common religious beliefs is a material fact. To paraphrase the classic answer to Pascal’s Wager, if there are gods, be a good person. If there are no gods, be a good person. The belief in and of itself does not (and I hold it can not) hurt anyone, so the truth of it does not matter.

          • says

            It’s very dishonest of you to pretend I’ve said the truth /never/ matters.

            But it doesn’t. You don’t consider the truth important, and have said as much. Even in your examples, you consider the other concerns important and truth is just a tool. And that’s conditional on whether your weak analysis deems the truth is helpful. Or so you say, anyway, when we discuss religion. Curious, that.

            I notice that you are far more concerned with my honesty than youa re the dude you stepped up to defend in the first place. The dude who clearly knowingly played sleight of hand with Sikivu Hutchinson to say gnus can’t talk about religion. Is that because truth doesn’t matter in the face of a ‘good’? Just how do you determine if someone is bettered by something without reality, anyway?

            There is, to my knowledge, no issue where the truth of common religious beliefs is a material fact.

            The supposed creation of lightning and thunder at a god’s hand(And before you play games with ‘common’ vis a vis the ancient greek and pre-christian scandinavian beliefs, Hinduism is real, common, and has Indra), the supposed eternally burning bush, the supposed captivity of the jews in Egypt, the supposed shared descent of jews and amerindians, pretty much everything about E-Meters, off the very top of my head. Slightly less readily off the top of my head, ‘meridians’ and qi.

            he belief in and of itself does not (and I hold it can not) hurt anyone,

            The status of private ‘beliefs’ such that reality does not matter so much as the feelings of those who hold them does, in fact, hurt quite a few people. Religion is a major beneficiary in the USA, but it is hardly the only one.

  10. says

    Re rturpin:

    How someone should derive their own beliefs is a separate matter from the question of how they should act when their beliefs have changed in a way that may alienate them from their society, community, family and peers if this came to light. But when they’re evaluating the best course of action to pursue in this situation, it is to their advantage to have the most accurate beliefs about how those around them will react, so that they can make the most effective decision for themselves. If anything, this only reinforces the importance of holding beliefs that reflect reality.

    I’m sorry if I was unclear, but no, I wholly reject the idea that anyone ought to consider whether having a certain belief will be good for them before deciding whether to believe something. Their beliefs should be based on reality, period. They should just believe it if it’s true, and not believe it if it’s false. How they choose to deal with the personal consequences of holding such beliefs is unrelated to this. Likewise, I’m not promising them any particular benefit aside from the benefits that come from having an accurate model of reality, rather than taking a shot in the dark and relying on pure luck to get their way. It’s possible that we agree more than you think.

    • says

      I suspect we agree quite a bit. But the rationalist in me requires me to press a bit more:

      “I wholly reject the idea that anyone ought to consider whether having a certain belief will be good for them before deciding whether to believe something. Their beliefs should be based on reality, period.”

      That is a normative claim. Following Hume, it is not based on reality, but on how you think people ought to behave.

      I’m not sure how much good it does to tell people how to order their thoughts. Sometimes it seems to me that those of us who are “reality based” are a bit like vegan marathoners who think the obesity crisis will be solved once everyone gets the message. It’s just not going to happen in most cases.

      At some point, it may be all you can do is point out that views originate in faith and tradition, lacking in evidence or logic, and understanding that’s going to matter only to some.

      • says

        That is a normative claim. Following Hume, it is not based on reality, but on how you think people ought to behave.

        When compared to other reasons to hold beliefs, I see modeling reality as being the most valid and useful – even when people may seek to harness belief itself for other roles, they must hold accurate beliefs about the world if they wish to do so successfully. Reality-based beliefs may be unpleasant to have, or they may have social consequences, but I think this still serves people better than interacting with the world through the lens of what makes them feel good or any number of things that are irrelevant to the truth, which can leave them wholly unprepared for collisions with reality. I suppose I could sum this up as: “Better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t know.”

    • beth says

      I disagree that beliefs about reality and functional ideas can be separated in the way you are talking about here. For example, consider the following quote from the US Declaration of Independence:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–

      These are clearly false beliefs about reality. Nonetheless, I believe it is beneficial for me and other people in my society to hold these particular beliefs as being true in an abstract way and molding our laws to reflect that abstract ideal rather than the messy reality of myriad differences in physical bodies, abilities, and social status.

      I wholly reject the idea that anyone ought to consider whether having a certain belief will be good for them before deciding whether to believe something. Their beliefs should be based on reality, period.

      That’s fine for ideas about physical reality. When we get into ideas about social reality and other abstractions from the physical, I’m not so convinced. Our beliefs do not simply map reality, they are also a blueprint for the reality we create. We build our social reality out of our shared beliefs.

      Going back to the example of ‘all men are created equal’. I choose to believe that not because it matches reality (I am quite aware that it does not) but because when most members of a society believe it, they will build a social reality that matches that belief and that’s the sort of society I want to live in.

      • says

        This seeming contradiction is easily solved when you replace “are” with “should be”. Now you have the useful belief that is helpful for society, without exitting reality. This is king of friggin’ important; how many times have you heard folks whine about how, f’rex, ‘women are equal now so I don’t see what they’re whining about’, confusing legal abstractions with reality?

        • Dalillama says

          Indeed, the statement “All persons should be treated equally before the law” is a belief which has an assessable truth value, insofar as we can examine various societies for correlations between equality before the law and such things as crime, corruption, and economic prosperity, and determine that the greater the extent to which a society treats everyone equally, the less crime and corruption and the greater the prosperity. Thus, the statement “All persons should be treated equally before the law” does conform to reality, and is a justified belief.

      • says

        Nonetheless, I believe it is beneficial for me and other people in my society to hold these particular beliefs as being true in an abstract way and molding our laws to reflect that abstract ideal rather than the messy reality of myriad differences in physical bodies, abilities, and social status.

        That may be the case, but believing this, and believing that it is good for people in general to believe it, are separate things. Even if it is established that it is good for people to believe a certain thing, warranting the belief that it is good for people to hold that belief, that fact still does not affect the truth value of the thing itself. It does not become true or false just because it’s socially beneficial for people to believe that it’s true or false. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

        And evaluating whether holding a certain belief is good or bad in this sense still requires grounding one’s beliefs in reality- if you don’t care about what’s actually the case, then you clearly don’t care that much about whether holding a certain belief really does have good or bad results.

        Personally, I’d question how wise it is to decide that it’s good and important for people to actually believe something regardless of its truth, because this presumes we have a full accounting of how that devotion to a reality-disconnected belief will affect their beliefs and actions in other areas. I wouldn’t be quite so prepared to accept everything that results from this as being okay just because the belief itself is allegedly so important. I’m not sure we would even comprehend what kind of trade-off we’re making here.

        • beth says

          Nonetheless, I believe it is beneficial for me and other people in my society to hold these particular beliefs as being true in an abstract way and molding our laws to reflect that abstract ideal rather than the messy reality of myriad differences in physical bodies, abilities, and social status.

          That may be the case, but believing this, and believing that it is good for people in general to believe it, are separate things.

          Yes.

          Even if it is established that it is good for people to believe a certain thing, warranting the belief that it is good for people to hold that belief, that fact still does not affect the truth value of the thing itself. It does not become true or false just because it’s socially beneficial for people to believe that it’s true or false. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

          The point I’m trying to get across that in the case of things like social constructs, the fact that people hold a particular belief does affect the truth value of the belief. Therefore, the distinction you are attempting to make doesn’t hold in all cases.

          And evaluating whether holding a certain belief is good or bad in this sense still requires grounding one’s beliefs in reality- if you don’t care about what’s actually the case, then you clearly don’t care that much about whether holding a certain belief really does have good or bad results.

          I think you are creating a straw man argument here. No one arguing the case for faith based beliefs claims that they don’t care whether or not any of their beliefs are based in reality. They are claiming that there exist some beliefs for which it does not matter whether it accurately maps to their day-to-day perception of reality.

          Personally, I’d question how wise it is to decide that it’s good and important for people to actually believe something regardless of its truth, because this presumes we have a full accounting of how that devotion to a reality-disconnected belief will affect their beliefs and actions in other areas.

          While I wouldn’t claim we have a full accounting of how devotion to the idea of all men being created equal has affected our society, I think it’s reasonable to come to a judgment about it based on the history of the idea in our own society as well as in others. So I have decided that I think it’s a good and important thing for me and other members of my society to belief. Of course, the judgment of what is good, important or wise is very subjective. Disagreements can occur between reasonable people on such matters.

          Changing our minds about which beliefs are beneficial is also possible. For example, you appear to hold the belief that only ‘true’ beliefs are worth believing. I disagreed and gave ‘all men are created equal’ as a false statement I consider worth believing hoping to get you to reconsider your blanket condemnation of all beliefs not known to be true as unworthy.

          I wouldn’t be quite so prepared to accept everything that results from this as being okay just because the belief itself is allegedly so important. I’m not sure we would even comprehend what kind of trade-off we’re making here.

          I didn’t claim that I was prepared to accept everything that results from this as being okay. You’re extrapolating without evidence if you attribute this assumption to me. Rather, I think that overall, more good than harm has resulted from people and societies that have adopted that particular false belief. As far as the trade-off we are making for it, I don’t claim to comprehend everything about it. I only claim that my perceptions of reality are such that I think people who hold such false beliefs create better societies – a completely subjective judgment made based on my preferences, my limited knowledge of reality and the history of various earthly societies.
          You can disagree, but I would then ask what evidence and preferences are you basing your disagreement on?

          • says

            It’s possible there’s an element of self-reference here that I’ve failed to consider. I can see how the statement “we hold these truths to be self-evident” could become true if “we” as a society actually do come to “hold these truths to be self-evident”.

  11. Sastra says

    Excellent post. I call putting an emphasis on meaning over truth “going into therapist mode.” Or, maybe, “anthropologist mode.” We do not judge. It doesn’t matter if the scripture is true, the miracle happened, God exists. What matters is whether the belief in these things works for people. Does it inspire, satisfy, enhance, or comfort them? Bind them together into groups and unite them in shared rituals? If so, then hands off. It is true enough. It has what French philosopher Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” (Yes, that was snark.)

    But despite the superficial air of respect and sympathy, there’s something low and sneaking about this approach. You put it very well. “The possibilities for denial and distortion are as limitless as human emotional attachments.” And one of the first casualties of therapist mode is any real concern for the actual subject of belief.

    If you’re using therapist mode on yourself, then you really, deep down, don’t give a crap about God. Or scripture, or miracles, or whatever else you’re professing to love so, so much. This is about YOU. If you’re wrong, you wouldn’t want to know. God is irrelevant. The belief as identity is about the identity — yours.

    Technically speaking, an atheist gives God more respect. They’re interested in the truth of the matter. They’re paying attention to the subject — not using it as a vehicle to playact themselves into something useful for their own development.

    And if you’re using therapist mode on others, then imo you aren’t letting them take their beliefs seriously, nor are you treating them with real respect, as intelligent equals. No, these are Little People who are remote from the anthropologist who observes and approves and never places them on common ground. Going on and on about how truth doesn’t really matter to ‘these people,’ because they can’t handle reality (like us) or adapt (like us) or value honest thought (like us) seems like a strange sort of respect. Ask them to their face: do you really believe — or are you just looking for whatever “works?” Aren’t you happy that I say it’s the latter — BUT I approve? Because I understand.

    In my experience, believers do not really appreciate being made into Little People who can be explained by a therapist or anthropologist as valuing functional beliefs. Not, at any rate, if it’s made explicit.

  12. Tony... therefore God says

    Sastra:


    Technically speaking, an atheist gives God more respect. They’re interested in the truth of the matter. They’re paying attention to the subject — not using it as a vehicle to playact themselves into something useful for their own development.

    I’ve never thought about it that way before. Damn. That is some serious irony.

    • says

      I think there is something to that. It is true, at least in my case, that the people who take their religion more seriously are perhaps more likely to become atheist.

      I was convinced – I trusted the people around me – and the implications of those beliefs caused me emotional and psychological hardship.

      I used to wonder how anyone with any sort of empathy wouldn’t be torn apart by believing that a huge number of people in the world are going to hell FOREVER if they didn’t accept Christ – and I figured out that most people don’t even really think about it and many who go through the motions don’t actually believe it.

      Of course, you can make arguments for alternative theologies such as Universalism – but at some point I realized that if I decided to build my own theology I would just be making stuff up and throwing a dart at a wall full of gods was just as valid.

      If I didn’t have a problem with that, why in the world would I take the extreme social and personal hit of leaving a church?

      I think ZJ hit it right on the head.

  13. says

    Well, I agree that the purpose of beliefs is indeed to model reality, but the one issue with a lot of your argument your replies to rturpin is that you are assuming that in the relevant cases it is clear or at least reasonably trivial to actually figure out how to model reality. But in a lot of cases, it isn’t. The only times, it seems to me, that it is clear what is true or what is reality is when we have knowledge, which is a belief that is justified (and true, but that part would be confusing here). But this justified is a very stringent qualification, and not a simple basic “I kinda have a reason”. So there are a number of things that we might want to believe but that we don’t actually know. In those cases, how do we decide if we should believe true, believe false, or not believe? We don’t have a particularly good set of evidence to tell us what reality is in these cases, and while not believing seems reasonable it also leaves us with a gap in our model of reality, and one that we might not be able to explicitly test and resolve.

    Given this, would it really be unreasonable to temporarily choose to accept into your model the proposition that best benefits you, or at least one that doesn’t directly cause harm? As long, of course, as you are willing to adjust it should you find actual contradictions with reality? Yes, emotional attachments can interfere with such corrections, but they can interfere with moving from no belief to belief as well; that’s a general problem, not one specific to this case.

    • says

      If it’s a choice between attempting to approximate reality to the best of your ability, and going totally off into left field because this is hard and you’d rather just believe what makes you feel good, I don’t see how the latter would be a better course of action. In the event that you don’t have enough information to form an accurate belief, this still doesn’t warrant substituting emotional attachments for actual evidence just for the sake of having a belief. The unavailability of necessary information doesn’t mean you should contaminate your belief system with beliefs not based in reaity at all.

      • says

        Well, who said anything about not basing it on reality at all? If we are thinking about whether or not to believe something, we have something from outside of ourselves that is at least getting us to consider it. That would be at least potentially a connection to reality. Thus, you seem to be misinterpreting my comment. I was asking what would be wrong with using “benefit to yourself” as a tie-breaker, especially when you actually do not have the time or resources to actually settle — at least at this time — what best models reality.

        For me, though, I DO think that having beliefs for the sake of believing ARE, in fact, useful, because beliefs impact behaviour. If I form a belief — which can be, again, believing true or believing false — then this is in my model and then I act according to that model. This gives, at least potentially, direct and frequent testing of my beliefs, because as I go out in the world I am constantly testing my model to see if it produces the results I expect. Choosing to not add a position to that model means that I would actually have to test that proposition explicitly to get any indication of whether or not it is true, which for the massive number of beliefs that we have and have to have in our model isn’t actually feasible.

        So, again, as long as someone is always willing to adjust their model if their actions on the basis of that model don’t work out, what would be the problem with this? What is your alternative for the cases where we do not know what the truth is?

        • says

          I suppose I doubt the need for a “tie-breaker”. If there really isn’t enough evidence at hand to base a belief on, I don’t think anything says that we still must fall on one side or the other. We can just say that there’s insufficient evidence to form a belief at this time, Last Question-style. How someone feels about the issue at hand still has no bearing on its actual truth, even in a vacuum of evidence. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with testing a belief and updating it based on the results. But warm fuzzy feelings, social acceptance, and so on won’t provide you with such evidence – unless the belief in question specifically pertains to such things.

          • says

            Well, for me it is the cases where the belief would greatly impact my behaviour and I care about those situations where I might be tempted to provisionally go with the one that it would be the most beneficial to adopt, and then just act on it until it contradicts me.

            That being said, I don’t think that psychologically we’re capable of this, so the most relevant case might be where for some reason you believe that X, you examine it and discover that the evidence doesn’t really say either way, should you continue to believe it or must you give it up? In this case, claims that it doesn’t seem to harm anyone and gives you some benefits might make more sense.

  14. says

    The song “We Shall Overcome” is an example of something I might have called a belief of mine, “deep in my heart”. Now, I suppose I might instead call this a “functional idea”. I learn all the time how fucked up humanity continues to be, but I continue to strive for improvement based on the belief that we can improve, on the whole. Or at the very least, that I personally have power to make positive change.

    It seems to me that people hold the opposite as a form of unquestioned belief–the despairing thought that “if I do something good, someone else in the world will choose to do something bad and balance me out” or simply the belief that “I am too insignificant to make any difference”. And they believe that solely because it justifies being too scared or lazy to do anything.

    I’m just musing. I’m not sure I entirely agree (as beth made really good points), but thanks for an interesting post.

  15. KNessJM says

    Something occurred to me as I was reading this, and that’s that an important distinction needs to be made regarding beliefs and the harm (or benefit, for that matter) that they may cause. It may seem somewhat trite, but I think it’s something that needs to be specified and recognized.

    Namely, beliefs themselves cannot harm anybody but the believer. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts, and I’m a firm supporter of the notion of unrestrained freedom of thought.

    The problem with beliefs, is that they often inspire action, and it’s actions that we’re concerned with. Say somebody is a racist. They have a hatred of all people outside of their own race. This belief is completely harmless to anyone aside from the believer if they were to never act on it. How would anybody even know that they had these beliefs if they never expressed it, or never allowed it to inform their actions? This is an exceedingly rare thing, however, for someone to hold beliefs with any significant conviction and not have their actions follow suit.

    So, my point in all of this is to make the distinction that thoughts themselves are not the enemy, it’s just the action that manifests from these thoughts. We need to hold people (including ourselves) responsible for their actions, not their thoughts. Sometimes when people get into heated discussion about beliefs, this important distinction is left out, and the discussion begins to resemble an interrogation by the thought crimes division, which just makes everything hard to take seriously.

    How someone thinks, or whether or not they accept reality, is frankly none of my business. It’s actions that matter.

  16. brenda says

    “But at the end of the day, the truth is not determined by what makes you feel warm and safe.”

    Does your belief that religion is poisonous make you feel good about yourself? Is your claim that “religion is poisonous” true because it is determined by reality or is it a functional belief?

    The Be Scofield article claims that the New Atheist belief that religion is evil is not reality based but is instead a functional belief that serves to reinforce the cultural imperialism of leading New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. All of whom have advocated anti-humanist and anti-democratic policies which they justify by their fundamentalist atheist belief in the evils of religion.

    You entirely failed to address Be Scofield’s argument. Instead you responded to:

    “According to Scofield, organized religions often provide social services that aren’t available elsewhere, and religious belief has assisted marginalized groups in building community, developing personal identity, and resisting oppression.”

    Scofield did not claim that religion is true because it provides social services or assists marginalized groups. Rather he gave those examples to counter your unscientific belief that religion is evil. Your post pretty much focused on the trans-woman who wanted a religion to confirm her beliefs. Which is indeed bad.

    “Scofield is quite confident that religious belief can be good for people and societies, and this apparently outweighs any potential impact of holding beliefs that are actually false”

    I suppose then that you can provide a proof for your belief that religion is false? Please do so. Also if you could please post your proof that religion is evil as these are two separate claims. There is considerable scientific evidence that religious beliefs provide a benefit to the individuals and societies that hold them. Perhaps atheistic beliefs are more beneficial but even if that is true it does not follow that non-atheist beliefs are harmful.

    • says

      The Be Scofield article claims that the New Atheist belief that religion is evil is not reality based but is instead a functional belief that serves to reinforce the cultural imperialism of leading New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. All of whom have advocated anti-humanist and anti-democratic policies which they justify by their fundamentalist atheist belief in the evils of religion.

      You entirely failed to address Be Scofield’s argument.

      Good spotting – that wasn’t the argument I was intending to address anyway, because such claims about prominent atheists, “cultural imperialism”, and so on are irrelevant to my central point: Scofield disregards the costs of cultivating an approach to “belief” based on something other than reality.

      Scofield did not claim that religion is true because it provides social services or assists marginalized groups.

      No, he claimed it’s true that belief in religion is good – or at least hinted at it. That’s why I spent so much time exploring the ways that belief in religion, or other false things, can in fact be harmful.

      I suppose then that you can provide a proof for your belief that religion is false? Please do so.

      Disprove all these deities first. Or I hope you never, ever make any statement in your life that presumes any of them are nonexistent.

      • brenda says

        “Scofield disregards the costs of cultivating an approach to “belief” based on something other than reality.”

        I’m not convinced that Scofield thinks beliefs should not be based in reality but I really can’t speak for him. For myself I would agree with Jonathan Haidt that religion is adaptive.

        Point of Inquiry podcast

        I tend to agree with Chris Mooney on many things. I’d recommend his podcast above and the website The Intersection. Probably lots there you’d agree with.

        The Stanford University anthropologist Robert Sapolsky makes similar claims here:

        Evolution, religion, schizophrenia and the schizotypal personality Lecture

        “Disprove all these deities first.”

        Ah… no, I don’t have to. The one who makes the claim bears the burden of proof and you really did claim that religion is false. An assertion you need to back up. Nor do I have to avoid making any statements about say… Zeus because from the fact that I might reject claims made regarding Zeus it does not follow that I have made a positive claim that religion is false. Skepticism (not atheism) is the default position.

        Could you please point to published papers in anthropology or sociology that prove religion is harmful to believers?

        • says

          Ah… no, I don’t have to. The one who makes the claim bears the burden of proof and you really did claim that religion is false. An assertion you need to back up.

          If you’re not going to argue that any deities do exist, then I’m pretty sure we’re already in agreement on that matter. No one has to show that something doesn’t exist when there’s already nothing to show that it does. You seem to know that.

          • brenda says

            Whether or not any gods exist was not what Be Scofield’s article was about and it is not what my responses here are about either. Be Scofield was addressing the unsupported and unscientific belief that religion is evil.

            I don’t think that religion is necessarily evil. I do think that the New Atheist movement has made a strategic error in attacking all religion as “poison”. New Atheist media personalities like Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris have done real harm by fetishizing reason and by making extremist policy statements.

            Most people simply don’t give a rip about tedious proofs or disproofs of god. Obsessing about such scholastic trivia just turns people off. Much better to attract rather than repel.

      • brenda says

        A few more thoughts about religion being adaptive. Take for example the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. It is false of course but that doesn’t mean it was not adaptive. It was better than nothing and allowed believers to make useful predictions about the seasons. Very important for an agrarian civilization.

        I think religion may also be adaptive. It is better than no metaphysical beliefs at all and allows believers to do things co-operatively and functions as the glue that holds societies together. Radically selfish philosophies such as those of Ayn Rand or Nietzsche are destructive to human flourishing. Social institutions can only exist in the presence of a social contract and religion provides at least a base level of such a contract. A way of being in the world that everyone agrees on. You might argue that Humanism is a better way of being in the world than say Jainism, I’m not sure you can but it’d be fun to see you try, but that is a different question than whether or not it is true.

        To say that religion is false is to say it’s negation, atheism, is true and you can’t prove that. You could just assume it is true but then really you can’t go around abusing others for not believing as you do.

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