September 21, 2010

What's the Harm if Believing Makes People Feel Good?

Belief

On the occasions when I discuss religion with Christians, I can count on being asked one question every time: What is the harm in believing? A common phrasing of this question would be as follows:
I understand that you don't believe in God. But I don't know why you seem to care that others do. I mean, what's the harm in believing in God if it makes people feel good to believe?
If you are an atheist, I'd say it is a virtual certainty that you've been asked this question many times too. In this post, I'd like us to forget about how we might phrase our response and just think through the question itself.

This is a question of individual belief and not religion.

In order to approach this question, we need to understand that it is asking about religious belief and not about the institution of religion. The person who poses such a question is not generally asking us to explain what is wrong with religion but to address individual belief (i.e., what is the harm in an individual person believing in gods?). This is an important distinction because much of what we might say about the destructive nature of religion may not apply to an individual believer.

Religious belief often does make people feel good.

We also need to acknowledge at the outset that religious belief does indeed provide comfort and hope to a great many people. This is what the questioner means by saying that this sort of belief "makes people feel good."

In essence, we are being asked why we would want to burst someone's bubble, asking them to abandon a belief that brings them comfort. It is a fair question.

So why should someone abandon a belief that brings them comfort?

Consider this:
  • Religious belief is false and requires the suspension of critical thinking. Aside from religious belief, there are no other domains where we would even consider encouraging people to believe in things without sufficient evidence. Religious belief represents fantasy rather than reality, and many individual components of a religious belief system are either logically incoherent or scientifically unsound.
  • Even individual religious belief has the potential to be harmful to the individual believer, others in his or her environment, and even society at large. Consider the Muslim father who teaches his son about martyrdom or the Christian who tells her daughter that her Jewish friends will go to hell for not being "saved."

In cases where belief, even individual religious belief is both false and harmful, it is difficult to argue that anyone should approach it with respect or even tolerance. In some cases, we may even incur an obligation to intervene.

One of the key ways religious belief causes harm is by undermining knowledge. It involves believing what one wants to believe regardless of what the data suggest, and this can easily assume a prideful ignorance that hinders learning. It becomes an excuse not to think.

What would you add?

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