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.