Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cherished beliefs

The Evolutionary Middleman asks, "Do we really want everyone giving up the cherished beliefs that keep them going?" [h/t to Primordial Blog]

Well not really. That's not the point.

It's at best disingenuous and at worst patently dishonest to characterize religious belief as just cherished beliefs that keep people going. That's not what religious belief does, or what it's typically for. There are four categories of religious belief:

The first category includes vague, vacuous slogans that make people feel better. "God loves you and wants you to be happy." That's dumb, of course (what the fuck has to be wrong with God when you're unhappy) but nobody cares about this sort of slogan any more than they care about, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better."

If all — or even most — religious belief were in this category, there would be no atheists. But this sort of vague, vacuous sloganeering is actually relatively rare. There are a lot of religious people who dishonestly say that their beliefs are this vacuous, but to even bother to raise their voices in defense of such beliefs belies their vacuity. Sooner or later, you'll find that most religious people's beliefs fall into one or the other of the more pernicious categories.

The most obviously pernicious category is, of course, "If you don't have the same superstitious beliefs that I do, I'm going to kill you, rape your wife, torture your children, and plow salt in your land." There are at the very least hundreds of millions of people who support this sort of violent imposition of religion. Of course, this sort of religion is mixed up in complicated ways with all the other reasons why people cheerfully slaughter each other, but it's definitely the case that you can't get the tribe, clan or nation involved in wholesale slaughter unless you convince them that God is on their side.

If your cherished beliefs that keep you going involve murdering homosexuals, abortion doctors, infidels, heretics, apostates, or those damned sand niggers sitting on our oil, then yes, I do in fact want to strip you of your cherished beliefs.

A slightly less overtly violent form of religion is the sort of belief that make believers feel guilty and ashamed of their ordinary human feelings and emotions, mostly sexual. I cannot imagine anyone "cherishing" the belief that God hates them and will damn them to eternal punishment if they even think about physically expressing their sexual and emotional love for someone of the same sex, or of a different race, or before they're married, or if they're married to someone else, or whatever.

Related to the above is the sort of belief that reconciles the believer to mitigable suffering. Yes, some suffering is inevitable, and there are times when there's no help but to suck it up and adopt some stoicism, but religions heavily fetishize suffering for its own sake, even when that suffering is easily ameliorated (and often when, per the preceding paragraph, the suffering is actually induced by the religion itself). It's a hell of a lot easier to exploit someone if they've been indoctrinated that the resulting suffering is at best deserved and at worst desired, and that all will be made "right" in a ludicrous posthumous fantasy world... so long as you obey in this life.

Again, if the cherished beliefs that keep you going make you susceptible to exploitation and mitigable suffering, then yes I do want to strip you of those beliefs so you'll stand up and make your life better and stop being a patsy and a fool, a victim of parasites and predators.

To talk about the atheist political project as being against just vague, vacuous comforting slogans is to dishonestly trivialize the project. As PZ Myers puts it, "We want to eliminate [religion] in the same sense that we want to eliminate illiteracy." But just because we want to eliminate illiteracy doesn't mean we have anything against those who don't much care to read often: we just want to give them the choice.


  1. I'd argue that even your first category is dangerous. People who accept vague, vacuous slogans are among the electorate -- maybe they even make up the majority of the electorate. Vague, vacuous slogans replace reasoned thought, and the absence of reasoned thought is an extremely dangerous thing.

    I'm not saying that people should be forced in any way to give up whatever nonsense they believe in. But I don't think we should stand by silently when they spout their nonsense in the public arena.

  2. A truly vacuous slogan doesn't replace rational thought: a vacuous slogan doesn't mean anything, and even irrational thought always means something; it has to have some content to be called false or mistaken.

    If vacuous sloganeering is dangerous, it's still paper-cut dangerous compared to the uninsulated 115kV 20A danger of xenophobic hatred.


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