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Benign Belief?

A few months ago when I had the chance to appear on MSNBC’s “Up W/ Chris Hayes” author Robert Wright asked me if I felt a sense of urgency about recruiting others to the free-thought position.   Or is it enough be satisfied with one’s own skepticism and adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward belief?   Is it rude and intolerant to challenge the beliefs of others?   I didn’t have a great answer at the time he posed the question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.

From time to time I’ve heard this position expressed:  “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t impose your religion on me.”  Personally I sometimes resonate with that attitude.  Tolerance is often in short supply in our world.  It sounds nice to say that belief is purely a private matter, but I’m not sure that is even true.   Every single day the news brings us examples of how belief negatively impacts our world.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Surveys consistently show that people of faith are far more likely to deny the reality of global warming and its anthropogenesis.  There is often a connection between religiosity and a hostility to science.
  • In my home state of Texas, the religious views of the state Board of Education force publishers to alter the content of textbooks, which are then sold throughout the rest of the country.
  • A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention vigorously reconfirmed their position that gay rights are not civil rights.  On so many issues of social justice theology has acted as a brake on progress.
  • Still every day around the the world people kill other people over theologies, beliefs, myths and other unprovable ideas.  A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.

And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. I often wonder if belief impacts just about everything in our society.  For instance, does belief in a punishing God contribute to a generally pervasive punitive approach to life,  as exemplified in our draconian “war on drugs?”

So, I guess I’m leaning toward the position that there is no such thing as benign belief.   It ultimately disables critical reasoning.

On the other hand,  I also think that skeptics and freethinkers can at times shut down conversation as well.  The best way forward would be through conversation not confrontation, to be challenging but also charitable.

As always,  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  1. July 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Glad to see you taking a more militant stance. Another reason to add to the list is the belief in Judgment Day and the second coming of Christ or the Holy Prophet. Most of the world’s people believe this. If the world is going to be destroyed in an apocalyptic doomsday, why take care of it.

    I have a video on Youtube on this important point. Please search on “endmeme.” It increases the chances of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. adtz
    July 10, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    To draw a fine distinction here, I am more concerned about a person’s theology than about their beliefs. It is when they start building a philosophical structure on those beliefs that things start heading south. Having a vague feeling about the positive direction of the world and a sense that everything is not random is a realistic position, I think, but difficult to defend in a scientific way – but then so is M-theory. Looking at extreme religious positions is similar to looking at extreme positions in any system and can lead to a seriously unbalanced view of a situation and is hardly a rational way of approaching a problem. The need for comfort, ritual and acceptance are hard-built into the human psyche (see the Evolution of God). We need to come up with an alternative and bring people to that as opposed to criticizing people for dealing with these problems the way they were taught. Pure rationality is not going to work for the majority of people – so we need to allow people a way to be safely irrational.

  3. Andrew
    July 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    “A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.”

    I think an only average-intelligence alien race would conclude that as well.

  4. Jennifer Hancock
    July 11, 2012 at 1:27 am

    It is tricky business to encourage people to consider the impact their beliefs have without turning them off. My personal experience is that by sharing my approach and why encourages other people to consider their beliefs. It also helps to start with outliers almost everyone agrees is a dangerous form of belief, in a way that makes it clear, it’s not belief, it’s just this form. It’s round about, but more effective precisely because it isn’t a frontal assault. Don’t confuse compassionate interaction for complacency.

  5. July 12, 2012 at 12:59 am

    If I remember correctly, Richard Dawkins preceded your segment on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show. And Professor Dawkins challenged viewers to question the dogmatic beliefs of their political leaders – and really, whether any beliefs are “benign” – exactly what you address in this blog. Robert Wright knew this, as he was on the panel, and unless you knew what was said immediately before you went on the air, I suspect you were being “set up” by his question (to a certain extent). You handled yourself admirably, and nobody should fault you for not having a “great answer” at that time. I certainly didn’t notice if you felt at loss for an answer.

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