A Culturally-Sanctioned Belief Does Not Have To Be Religious To Cause Harm

couple on a bicycle

As you know, many atheists are fond of criticizing religious forms of woo. When asked why we do so, we might point out that many religious beliefs are not only false but harmful. That seems like a pretty good reason for criticizing them! Many skeptics extend their criticism well beyond religious belief and debunk assorted forms of woo. Their justification for doing so is similar: it isn't just that these beliefs are false but that they have at least the potential to cause harm.

I've found myself thinking lately about a different category of beliefs, those that are not explicitly religious or rooted in any sort of recognizable New Age nonsense but are instead so deeply embedded in our culture that many people accept them at face value and do not think about critically examining them. Many of these beliefs are false, and at least some of them have the potential to cause as much harm as many of the beliefs atheists and skeptics focus on. I wonder whether some of these beliefs deserve more attention than they receive from the atheist, skeptical, freethought, and/or humanist communities.

How about an example of the sort of thing I have in mind? Consider the common belief, pushed on the public in countless romantic comedies that we each have a "soulmate." Despite the use of the word "soul," this doesn't strike me as a particularly religious notion, and it is not something we hear much about from most traditional skeptics. I think it is fairly obvious that it is false, but relatively few of us may have stopped to consider the sort of harm beliefs like this can cause. It seems to me that human happiness would be positively impacted by jettisoning beliefs like this. Perhaps skeptics and freethinkers could provide a public service here.

How about a more basic example that seems to cause even more harm, beginning in early adolescence and sometimes persisting well into adulthood? I am thinking of the belief that everyone needs to be in a romantic relationship in order to "be complete." The awkward teenager is made to feel inadequate for not having a romantic partner even before he or she is interested in dating. The poor kid can't even see their relatives without being asked whether they have a boyfriend or girlfriend or seeing the looks of sympathy if they say no. The single young-adult is constantly told they are missing out and "we hope you'll find someone soon" as if that is something everyone must do to be happy. Some people end up in toxic or even abusive relationships because they have been conditioned to believe that these are preferable to being alone! Others end up hating themselves for not matching up in this particular way. Despair, depression, and even suicide - not because the culture was right that people cannot be happy without being romantically involved but because this nonsense was internalized.

I think we could probably identify at least 10 similarly troublesome beliefs from romantic comedies alone without breaking a sweat (e.g., men must pursue women and badger them until they come around because one ultimately will). I have long regarded these beliefs as false and annoying but have only recently started to think more about how much damage they can do. If beliefs that are widely promoted in our culture to the point of having almost universal acceptance are making people miserable, wouldn't it make sense to devote at least some of our debunking budget to them? If we are going to criticize religion because it is harmful, should we not expand our scope to other harmful beliefs?