June 17, 2010

Confronting Religiously Motivated Idiocy

Back in 2008, I wrote about the results of a Baylor University poll that found:
  • 55% of Americans believe that they are protected by guardian angels
  • 25% claim to have witnessed miraculous healings
  • 20% claim to have heard some sort of god speak to them
  • 8% speak in tongues
If you are an atheist living in the U.S., you have undoubtedly seen data just like these countless times. Like me, you have probably even struggled to understand how such beliefs could be present in our modern age.

idiocy.jpg
What do you call it when someone believes all sorts of nonsense without any evidence whatsoever and then goes so far as to demand that others adopt their beliefs? Faith? Ignorance? Idiocy? How you label it probably is not nearly as important as what, if anything, you decide to do about it.

Should we just ignore these beliefs?

Some have suggested that we do not need to do anything about such irrational beliefs. Indeed, some argue that we should ignore these beliefs because even criticizing them offers publicity to those who seek to spread them. I'll admit that this argument holds appeal in certain cases, but I'm not sure it works for those of us who are convinced that beliefs like this are dangerous. No, I think a response is necessary.

But if these beliefs are based in religion, don't they require our respect?

Surprisingly, this one still comes up from time to time. No, respect is not something to be granted simply because religion is involved. Respect is earned, and false beliefs have earned no respect. I think that most people who cling to this idea of respect are confusing respect for the individual believer with respect for the beliefs. We can respect people even while having no respect for the superstitious drivel some of them believe.

Isn't education (especially science education) the answer?

Education (and critical thinking skills and scientific literacy in particular) is important. However, I am not sure that education can take us as far as we need to go without help. The way I have come to think of it is that education is necessary but not sufficient in reducing irrational beliefs. After all, we have witnessed the lengths to which some will go to avoid learning anything and to prevent their own children from gaining knowledge of their world.

Isn't mockery just going to make matters worse?

When people like me rail against religious delusion and crown people who hold these sorts of beliefs as idiots, aren't we simply making things worse? Isn't the natural response to a perceived attack either a counterattack or a strengthening of one's own views? This is a tempting but overly simplistic analysis. Mockery can be effective for some but will certainly not be effective for all. It cannot be the only response, but it should not be dismissed as a wholly ineffective response either.

Like it or not, humans are social creatures who can and do learn from social pressures. When someone says something stupid and is greeted with resounding laughter, temporarily becoming the butt of their friends' jokes, they tend to refrain from expressing the same sort of stupidity in the future.

So what should we do?

Very few of those who believe in angels, think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, or believe that Obama is going to take away our guns are going to be talked out of these erroneous views quickly or easily. A multifaceted approach is needed. However, each of us can use every interaction we have with such a person to plant the seeds of doubt. Like real seeds, we must recognize that it may take these metaphorical seeds a long time to germinate. Let our primary task be one of stimulating genuine thought. Remember, while it may indeed be an uphill battle, we have reality on our side.

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