I’m amicably disagreeing with Ron Lindsay at his CFI blog, where he is amicably disagreeing with Vic Stenger and PZ Myers about something both of them said at the Sunday morning panel in Orlando two weeks ago. (I was on the same panel.)
Both Stenger and Myers made various recommendations about objectives on which secularists should concentrate, but they both agreed on one point: they both asserted we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief…
As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, our primary objective as secularists should be to bring about a secular society, that is, one in which public policy is free of religious influence and discussions and decisions about public policy are based entirely on secular considerations. This is an achievable goal, at least in the developed world. Furthermore, it’s a goal that does not require us to convert all or even most of the religious. We only have to ensure that a critical mass of people support the concept of a secular society, whether they are religious or not.
If religion were truly a private matter—well, then, it would be a private matter. I don’t think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs or engaging in practices that are not rationally grounded, if in fact those beliefs or practices do not result in conduct harmful to others.
It’s that last bit that I amicably disagree about. I do think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs that are not rationally grounded, if the beliefs are of a certain kind. Beliefs in fairies, ghosts, astrology? Well, maybe not that much, but some. Beliefs in an omni god with moral claims on us? That much and more.
But even beliefs in fairies or astrology – some of us, at least, are and should be that concerned even about those: teachers, for instance; journalists, for another instance. We do care about beliefs about the world that are not rationally grounded and that there are good reasons to think are mistaken, because we think people in general should have access to reliable knowledge about the world.
Ron makes a comparison to team fandom, which is also not rationally grounded. Yes but – a commitment is not the same kind of thing as a truth claim. Religion tends to blend the two, of course, but then what Ron cites PZ and Stenger as saying is that “we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief” – not commitment, but belief. Team fandom is independent of belief. I’ve recently discovered that I actually like watching football (soccer football), and I watch it here, and the result is that I want the Sounders to win – I have a little bit of team fandom. It’s got nothing to do with any belief though, it’s just that they’re the home team where I watch. I don’t need my preference to be rationally grounded. But religious beliefs aren’t detachable in that way.
Ron concluded with:
As should be clear, I’m not advocating an “accommodationist” position. I’m not suggesting we should tone down our criticisms of religious beliefs. Integrity demands we be candid in our criticism of religion whenever the occasion for such criticism arises. Instead, I’m merely suggesting that we be clear about our goals. To paraphrase Jefferson, it doesn’t pick my pocket if a person believes in one god or twenty gods, so beliefs by themselves shouldn’t concern us. Religious beliefs should concern us only to the extent that they cause harm, in particular, the extent to which they prevent achievement of a secular society. What efforts we expend on disabusing people of their religious beliefs is a pragmatic question, to be answered by determining what is necessary to obtain a secular society—for that should be our primary objective.
The trouble with Jefferson’s quip is that it isn’t just about my pocket. It’s about education for everyone. The ability to see when beliefs – not commitments, but beliefs – are not rationally grounded, is a useful one, which shouldn’t be confined to an elite. Religious beliefs do cause harm to people’s intellectual functioning, and that by itself is a good reason to want them to erode.
I think actually Ron and I don’t really disagree about this, but are talking about slightly different things. I could be wrong though!