January 5, 2006

More on the "Religious Tolerance" Issue

Native Americans flee from the allegorical rep...
Native Americans flee from the allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny, Columbia, painted in 1872 by John Gast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
That religious belief is maladaptive is hardly in dispute among my atheist readers. However, for those of you just now finding Atheist Revolution, let me share two of the many reasons for making such a statement. First, each of the major religions makes demonstrably false claims about the natural world (e.g., we know that the earth was not created in the time frame outlined in Genesis). Religion requires the believer to accept falsehoods as absolute truths. This is in sharp conflict with science and reason. Second, religion invites conflict because every major religious tradition clearly states that it is the only truth and all others are wrong. Thus, a core feature of all major religions is intolerance of those who reject the preferred doctrine.

Now for the question of this post: what is the appropriate response for nonbelievers when confronted with religious belief? There are at least two options here. Option 1 is to do nothing. We disagree with the theist, but we are willing to ignore the many ways in which religious belief is harmful. This option is consistent with what political correctness demands and could easily be referred to as religious tolerance. "I believe you are mistaken, but I respect your right to believe as you will."

There are at least two problems with Option 1. First, it sounds an awful lot like I am implying that my belief (that your religion is both inaccurate and maladaptive) and your religious belief itself are equally valid. But this is not the case. There is no evidence supporting a religious worldview and vast evidence supporting a naturalistic worldview. The second problem is that by doing nothing in the name of respect for your belief, I am avoiding any ethical responsibility to promote human welfare. If I truly believe that your religion is harmful to humanity, how can I stand by and do nothing?

Option 2 involves taking a stand against religious belief and openly challenging it. Political correctness requires that this option is viewed as intolerance, but should we worry about being intolerant of harmful belief systems? I certainly wouldn't worry about appearing intolerant to a belief system that advocated pedophilia or racism.

Option 2 is not without problems. This is not an easy path to take, and it will be extremely unpopular. Beyond that, it may even be dangerous. Some Christians feel justified in killing doctors who perform certain medical procedures; how do you think they are going to feel about someone who overly challenges their belief system?

So what are we to do? Like Sam Harris, I believe that we must move in the direction of Option 2. Doing nothing and telling ourselves that our inaction is the result of respect or a desire to fit in is intellectually dishonest and morally suspect. We must support science and secular education. We must publicly oppose clearly destructive policies, actions, and statements. We must not shy away from an opportunity to promote a secular worldview. Indeed, we need to be ambassadors of this worldview because many religious individuals are unaware that viable alternatives exist. As scary as it may be, Would suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, or any other positive form of social change have happened if nobody was willing to speak out?