Sunday, 11 October 2009

Is believing in nonsense harmless?

There is a cant phrase which is often tossed around in the increasingly heated debates between religious believers of various stripes and between believers and non-believers. It is that “everyone should be free to believe what they wish, providing they are not harming others”.

At first glance, this appears to be an admirable sentiment. But on closer scrutiny it doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that nonsensical beliefs are not harmless, and do not deserve respect.

While everyone should indeed be free to believe whatever they want in an open, tolerant society – and how can one stop them? – we should recognise that unreasonable beliefs which are groundless and positively false when they fly in the face of the evidence are indeed socially harmful.

If you think for a moment, you will see that they are bound to be. If more and more individuals and groups believe in things which are in fact not so, and which often conflict with each other, the more fractured and at odds society will become.

If someone sincerely believes that they are Napoleon, or a poached egg, should we respect their belief simply because it is sincere though mistaken, or should we place them under some sort of constraint if they proceed to behave as Napoleon did (attempting to make themselves dictatorial emperor) or as a poached egg does (sitting passively on a piece of buttered toast waiting for someone to eat them)? Should we respect the sincere belief of a mother who refuses life-saving medicine for her dying child because she puts her faith in prayer?

If someone sincerely believes that God, or Allah, or Jehovah, is telling them to reorder the world in his image, and that they are justified in using all necessary means, including force, to do so, are they harmless? Was Hitler harmless when he believed – or affected to believe – that he had a sacred mission to cleanse first Europe and then the world of Jews?

The answer to that last one may be obvious; but the important question is, where do you draw the line? Are Creationism or Intelligent Design merely harmless alternative theories to evolution, or would their wider adoption as orthodoxy by a majority of society lead to crippling and ultimately disastrous curbs on freedom of experimental thought and scientific progress?

Are the quaint dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church – many of which would have been summarily dismissed as superstitions in an earlier, less mealy-mouthed, age - harmless? When you glance at history and consider the many thousands, if not millions, who have been murdered for believing or not believing in the highly fanciful doctrine of transubstantiation, it is scarcely possible to think so.

On Stephen Law’s philosophy blog there is currently a lively discussion about a Catholic church in Oxford which is inviting its congregation to obtain Plenary Indulgences by venerating the relics of St Thérèse on display in the church. In order to do so you must
“1. Make a good sacramental Confession
2. Receive Holy Communion (within a few days)
3. Pray for the Holy Father's Intentions
4. Take part in a service or devotion in honour of St Thérèse, or spend some time in prayer, concluding with the Our Father, Creed and invocations to Our Lady and St Thérèse."

Is this all good harmless fun, or a pernicious type of brainwashing which, far from benefiting those who participate, will render them more credulous and obedient to “the Holy Father’s intentions” – which many non-Catholics consider to be in some respects (such as the Church’s prohibition of the use of condoms) extremely socially harmful?

Stephen Law comments: “It appears that, by following the above 4-part instruction, Heaven-bound Catholics can go directly to Heaven without having to spend any intervening time in Purgatory during which their sins would be fully cleansed prior to their encountering God. Almost every Heaven-bound soul ends up being punished - and purged of sin - in Purgatory for a period; how long depends on how big a sinner you were [See here and scroll down to Purgatory for more info].

The offer, if you like, is a get-out-of-Purgatory card. That partly explains the length of the queue outside the church, I suppose.”

Predictably, most of those posting additional comments regard the whole idea as ludicrous. But one poster, who is a member of a Catholic male confraternity called the Little Oratory, was highly indignant:

“I think this post, the content and the tone of it, is appalling. It is intolerant, rude and offensive. If you consider yourself "intelligent", why do you think this kind of writing does can do any good? Suffice to say that some people believe in God, in heaven, and in building a better world before they get there: if you don't believe in these things just get on and enjoy life while you can and leave others alone.”

But should we leave people who believe this sort of thing alone? Indeed, CAN we? Why should they be immune from logical criticism?

The historian A.L Rowse once wrote: “Those who will believe nonsense must expect awkward consequences.” What he didn’t point out is that the awkward consequences all too often spill over onto others who don’t believe the nonsense.


Bodwyn Wook said...

To make things right starting out with elaborately worked-out phantasy, whether based on a religion or any of the other formal sciences (ways of knowing, eg), of course sounds cheap on the face of it. Naturally the so-called 'sufis' don't make a big deal out of it just now. But the critical factor is not so much the mode of belief. It is far more a question of whether the personality is sufficiently regenerated by the relevant studies and mandatory exercises in each field of endeavour. This work means most of all increasingly being free of the biological tugs, of fear and lust and greed and anger and laziness. Only then will any phantasy, or model of reality, not be mis-used for the usual power-purposes.

Especially in response to the always-enraging spectacle of my neighbour, who famously 'never' believes as I do, mainly because he /can/ not!

Critically, in no case is the map the terrain. For the rest, I personally and emotionally and temperamentally prefer a rich World of (only superficially and apparently) contending ideas, to any kind of epistemological impoverishment. To that extent I of course share in the so-called 'multi-cultural' notion. But only to the extent that in constitution and law we positively do not establish as a state matter /any/ particular science; and, that we protect one another equally in law from any bodily harm at one anothers hands. In this comparatively gross molecular world, that is I daresay all that can be hoped for. But we must also keep in mind the exact physical reality of any and all pheneomena, including phantasy. In this last case it is a simple matter of ever-unfolding coherent patterns of electrons and photons in the individual human brain. These in turn take their place in Dr Hawking's light cone', along with Ms Widdicombe, Mr Michael Jackson and everything else. It follows logically enough from this austere fact that all is real and, hence, all is true.

No way out of that, I'm sorry to say.

anticant said...

Sadly, the clash of expansionist ideologies isn't merely superficial and apparent: it is often murderous and bloody.

But I agree that what matters is motivation - the desire to find inner and outer peace through enhancing the self-awareness which brings tranquillity.

I've a great deal of time for meditational mysticism - not only Sufi, but also Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian. There is more inner wisdom and peace to be found in Asian philosophies than in Western and Middle Eastern theologies.

Which makes it so strange that Asia is currently the chief sphere of violent East/West conflict.

zola a social thing said...

What we need really is Anticant and our beloved Anticant in Wonderland.

If Alice then why not Anti?

BTW : one does not really belive all this nonsense one simply likes it all for the best of possible worlds.

Phil said...

You posit: “...everyone should be free to believe what they wish, providing they are not harming others.” But you then argue against respect for the belief – which is not part of the statement – and go on to describe situations in which a great deal of harm is, indeed, done to others. I defend that people should be at liberty to have ideas I can’t respect. I absolutely abhor beliefs that produce harm to the general good.

anticant said...

Of course people are at liberty to believe whatever they choose - how can anyone stop them? But nonsensical and irrational beliefs are always socially damaging - especially when instilled into children - because they cause confusion as to the nature of reality and lead to poor decision-making.

Lucas said...

Phil, you are the great fascism that we fight against.

Jose said...

I just wonder what the world would be like if religions, I mean the main ones, had not started when they did. Morals, love, would they have been understood as they are today?

I share the thought that we must at all times respect what everybody else thinks or has faith in provided we are dealt with likewise

anticant said...

But non-believers are NOT "dealt with likewise" by any of the three great Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all assert that believers are destined for Paradise while non-believers are on the fast track to Hell (and deserve a push along the way).

Where is the even-handedness in that?

Phil said...

I don't accept that it is a justifiable position to categorically state that any belief that one deems to be irrational is therefore inherently damaging. I agree that history and contemporary society are riddled with examples of "believers" imposing their beliefs and doing harm to others. However, it is the manifestation of such intolerance and the application of discriminatory action that is the enemy. It is the imposition of a personal belief on others that is the crime – not the belief itself – no matter how much I may deem that belief to be the forbear of potential damage. There are many examples in history where it could have been argued, and sometimes was, that the belief itself was enough to warrant the removal of the believer (communism, socialism, Judaism, Globalism, Buddhism, Protestantism, capitalism etc.). Such a preemptive position is abhorrent and in opposition to the defense of liberty, as I understand the term, and even a very well intentioned step on that road is a precursor of authoritarianism.

anticant said...

The removal of non-believers is just as bad, if not worse, and remains the main impetus of the intolerant.

Phil said...

There I must agree!

anticant said...

This saint's "bones" are being hawked around the country for display and veneration at various venues, including Wormwood Scrubs!

IMHO in this day and age this isn't just harmless religious loopiness - it's gross superstition and both moral and intellectual degradation which most certainly doesn't deserve 'respect' but should be laughed to scorn by any sensible person.

We seem to be rapidly retreating back into the pre-Reformation Middle Ages when stuff like this is solemnly reported as 'news'.

Jose said...

As you may know it not only serves to refresh memories of faithful but also as a source of funding for the particular church, both ends are no doubt interrelated.

Bodwyn Wook said...

Again, I need to stick in here that /non-rational/ is the more helpful term, for me personally at least; it denotes that /I/ have not quite yet worked out the connecting links, if you will, between only superfically competing models of 'reality': and, hence, the greater surrounding inclusive narrative. Meantime, naturally, il ne marche pas and all that...not yet, anyway!

However, be assured there is nothing that the mind well-disciplined in creative phantasy 'cannot' work together -- but, note, I wrote /work/.

When I find myself saying 'irrational' it means, mainly, that I am tetchy just now, and just a tad too tired for another round of the necessary inclusive work. The great art is to develop ones diurnal rhythm and then stick too it, I find. /Doing/ the phantasy that everything and everyone is equally right AND at every point of of the compass, 'all at once' so to speak, only proceeds efficiently when I am well-rested. Only then, I mean, can the slow additive gains in Unity be made sure and solid.

Needless to say, it does take a long time for the future to catch up with the present. This is frustrating to ones natural impatience and it is chiefly to blame for the red herring of 'truth' as somehow a subset of all statements -- this, itself another phantasy, mainly is a dodgey attempt to inveigle some kind of short-cut, alas.

Laziness on top of the occasional tiredness, these are the great opponents (and teachers!)

anticant said...

I fear that "the phantasy that everything and everyone is equally right AND at every point of the compass, 'all at once' so to speak" is just that - a Panglossian, Pollyannaish phantasy that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Would that it were so. But one cannot reconcile all contradictions.

Yes, the non-rational, as opposed to the irrational, is an innate and valuable component of every human being. Understanding is more than just an intellectual process - instincts, hunches, the 'eureka moment' are founts of inner wisdom.

Irrationality, though, is a perversely wilful flouting of solid evidence, scientific proof, and logical argument which insists that black is white because I choose to say so. It plays a destructive part in human affairs. "Believe what you like", said God, "and pay later".

zola a social thing said...

The non-rational is also LOVE.

And love is not irrational.

anticant said...


Bodwyn Wook said...

'[B]lack is white because I choose to say so' is of course the heart of the matter -- and, the secret of all magic. Alas, the black magic of the power-attitude still very often makes a botch of it. This is typical of the agonised and fearful response of the individual identity trammelled in a separate physical body. I expect that I know of no remedy for this, except for more love. Some advanced workers spend a great deal of time in re-visiting the infant scenes of the obvious troublemakers, providing nurture and setting them off, at least for 'now' in parallel time-flows, on quite different tracks. Others likewise re-visit historical horrors, rescuing victims, tying the hands of perpetrators, and indeed so much of the past has been changed -- or supplemented until it is a completely joyous other story -- that really the actual human and creaturely tale is now something almost entirely unbeknownst to most of us. Needless to say, these imaginal processes although additive nonetheless are taking a great deal of time (at least as we feel time to be!) to catch up with 'the' present, or this one at any rate.