Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's the harm of believing?

A good friend of mine, who has been reading some of the recent books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, etc ---the group that is being called the "New Atheists (NA’s)"---recently asked me "Why do they seem so aggressively intense on persuading me that my comforting beliefs are mistaken?" (he is a Christian). He wonders, in effect, "What is the harm of leaving me to my comforting believes, even if you NA's believe I am mistaken?"

My first reaction was surprise, since I have long assumed that truth is the only consideration in religious matters. In that regard, I have been in agreement with the NA's, who have stressed the importance of truth over social or psychological utility.
But on thinking it over more deeply, I realized that my friend's question does not have such a simple answer after all. It requires some in depth analysis. I emerge from this still believing that for me, truth is still of primary importance. However, the answer to the question becomes much less obvious when we consider whether we agnostics and/or atheists or should try to dissuade others from a belief we deem to likely be false.

On that question, I give a qualified "No, in many cases we should not".

But let me proceed with a few considerations:

I think that a great deal of both Dawkins and Harris's polemics are aimed at the social institutions of Christianity and Islam, that I think they correctly perceive as being damaging to humankind at large. This being because the more fanatical factions of these religions become active and influential in trying to dominate society in political issues, lobbying to get their religious  positions encoded in the laws of their nations, and in some cases even resorting to violent, terrorist tactics. Of course, in Islam, where there are so many theocracies, the religion has already been made part of the state, and they apparently are more aggressive in trying to spread their religion into laws of other nations.

Now, my friend might correctly point out that Christians are not so inclined to use violent means, terrorism, that is. And this is largely true today (not so much true in the past though).

Evangelicals still seem to be active politically, and seem to want to insist that this is a Christian nation (which it is most certainly not, at least not in a political sense). They are certainly not noted for being proponents of the separation of church and state, a principle I for one hold very dear. In consideration of this, I would suggest that the aggressive attack my friend refers to is a form of self defense, or at least an attempt to persuade religious zealots to be more tolerant of us non-believers.

One also has to ask, to what extent a religious belief is in fact comforting? I wonder if it always is. In the case of Christianity (and I think Islam also), the believer might subscribe to the notion that a great percentage of the human race will be condemned to eternal torment for having beliefs and engaging in practices that are not sufficiently in line with what he or she believes is true. How could one find that comforting, I must ask?

However, I can see where certain aspects of a religion that holds out hope of a better, or even supremely wonderful, life after death, would be comforting. Of course it would, although I don’t recall ever seeing a plausible depiction of what such everlasting existence might be like. Furthermore, surely one of the most hurtful aspects of our existence is that in many or even most cases, justice is not realized. People can do evil deeds and get away with them, often even profiting splendidly by them. Surely it is a wholesome attitude to want such evildoers to have to atone for the misdeeds, and to eventually feel true remorse for having committed them (although the desire for such punishment to be eternal seems to me to be one of the greatest evil desires to have ever been imagined by humans).

I suppose we must, to be fair, turn this around and ask whether non-believers receive some degree of comfort from their non-belief, and that actually tends to induce them to turn from honestly considering whether a particular religion might be true. Indeed, I think that a person’s motives for his or her beliefs often contain some degree of wishful thinking, and I can see where there are comforting and discomforting aspects to both sides of the issue. Indeed, the aforementioned threat of Hell is absent in atheism, and usually in agnosticism as well. So I suppose one could say it was comforting to adopt that position with respect to any religion that espouses the threat of eternal punishment.

I must admit that I think most (but certainly not all) followers of any religion have suspended critical thinking, and that most people the world around seem to just follow what their parents and their indigenous culture told them was true.

Organized religion is arguably usually---not always, of course--- primarily a social group or clan cohesive thing, in my opinion. When Protestants in northern Ireland bomb Catholics, or vice versa, it is not over differences in theology. It is simply a way to group into my our clan versus their clan. This is the aspect of organized religion that I believe is really what the NA’s are mostly protesting so aggressively.

I cannot speak for the NA’s, but I suspect they would largely agree with me, when I say I can respect the views of someone who maintains his religion is actually true. While thinking that he is, on most counts, mistaken.

But let us not forget that there may in fact be some harm done by trying to convince yourself you believe something that you really do not. Not to mention the wasted time of your precious life (assuming, as the NA’s believe, that it may well be all you have) following what may be the many rituals and requirements of a particular organized religion.


Rufus Otis said...

Have you seen the movie, "The Invention of Lying"? There are parts of this film that I know will not appeal to you, the romantic comedy aspect -- but the concept of inventing a theology simply to provide comfort is central to the movie.

I have as much of a problem with Dawkin's certitude as I would have with an dovotee of an ism. I'll have to follow up with my own blog but here's just a couple of thoughts:

-What one believes has little to do what what is ultimately true.

-All of our human "knowledge" is relative to what we consider our axioms. Any concept of "God" is necessarily absolute and thus makes claim to knowing something beyond our reason.

-Because of this, most, if not all, religions ascribe some magical ability to discern this absolute knowledge which is not available to the acolyte. I call this BS. However, I also don't think the NAs have this absolute knowledge... I'm the only one that does!!! (Now tying this to your emoticon blog.) <<- this is NOT a one-eyed smiley emoticon, just a period and close parenthesis.

Tom said...

Thank you for the interesting comment. However, the scope of my post was much more limited than is implied by your list of thoughts. That is, I was simply considering whether one is doing right by trying to persuade a friend, colleague, relative---or really anybody--- that their religion may not be true, especially if it is clear they derive comfort from it.

But---I cannot agree with "all knowledge is relative to our axioms". Humans possess true knowledge. Consider the laser, the rocket to the moon, nanotechnology, the electron scanning tunneling microscope, just to name a very few. The success of these shows we have real knowledge about how the world works, and it has been derived from testing of hypotheses, not from axioms. There is of course, a great deal we do not know, and probably a great deal that we never will know. But let us not lose sight of how strange but wonderful it is that we know anything at all.

I do agree with you that we cannot know, by the same methods of science, any of the metaphysical truths that most religions claim to have knowledge of, although perhaps I am not ready to say its BS if someone does claim a magical power to know some absolute truths beyond physics ...if there really is something beyond, it is not absurd to speculate that "that something" (e.g., a God) might make it known to selected persons....but, as I said, this all takes us way beyond what my post was addressing.

Rufus Otis said...

I should have qualified "our ONTOLOGICAL knowledge" is relative to our axioms. However, even with that specified, the things you mention -- lasers, nanobots, rockets to the moon, etc. -- are relative to our immediate context, the known universe. We're good at exploring and manipulating our environment. It's when we move to conjectures about "ultimate reality" or "absolute truth" that I make this assertion about knowledge being relative to our axioms.

You didn't say whether you'd seen "the Invention of Lying". This movie has some hilarious comments about the attempt to "know God". I think you'd get some belly laughs.

Interestingly enough, the 1977movie classic, "Oh, God", was on HBO last night. Although John Denver is probably one of the worst actors that ever lived, there are some good lines in the film which at its best, presents some good arguments for believers... for example, this one, uttered by George Burns (God): "Why is it so hard for you to believe? Is my physical existence any more improbable than your own?"

One last comment -- I'm not sure why BELIEVING in God implies WORSHIPING that God. I'm terribly uncomfortable with the concept of "worship"... it seems to me to be an extension of the kind of dominance balony that has tainted human civilization from its beginnings. God is generally just the Big King and if he chooses to smite you, no matter how unjustly, you have no further recourse... how is this comforting?

Rufus Otis said...

This is probably more appropriately appended to one of your other blogs articles, but here's what I consider an interesting thought: the name of god given in the bible is "Yahweh". I understand that the exact meaning of that word is unknown, but I've read that it can be interpreted as "That which is." It would be hard to deny the existence of "that which is". This definition might be a tautology and ergo, absolute truth? If you suitably define your terms, anything can be proven!!!

On the other hand, it's not difficult to be "athiest" with regard to a anthropomorphic god -- the one on a throne with white robes and all. But I wonder if we would even be considering the possible existence of "god" if it were not for the taint of these anthropomorphic images seeping down from our superstitious, royalty worshiping acestors!