This is a topic I have tried to write about multiple times, but every time I get long winded. It's hard not to because this should be fucking simple!!! Yet, for whatever reason (we'll get to that in part three), it is not.
Too many times I hear crap from people (whether it be people I personally know or comments I see on the internet) along the lines of "let people believe what they want to believe" in regards to religion. All that should be required to see the problem with this is a small thought experiment. If I were to believe the following things, would you really let me do so?
- I believe I am a better driver while intoxicated.
- I believe second hand smoke is beneficial to a person's health.
- I believe texting while driving is safe.
- I believe gay people are an abomination and should be put to death.
- I believe we don't need to conserve the earth's resources. God put them there for us to use and Jesus will return to rapture us before or when we run out.
- ...And so on.
Now some people I have interacted with have been wise enough to at least add the qualifier, "if [those beliefs] don't do any harm," to their suggestions that we allow people to believe what they want. This seems to be a pretty good qualifier, and would pretty much go against all the beliefs I listed as examples. The problem? Now we're in a position of predicting all of the effects/consequences of a belief. I don't think that's a position we want to be in. Take that first example I listed. That belief is completely false; people are worse drivers while intoxicated. And worse driving should increase the probability of an accident. But what if the person who believes they are a better driver while intoxicated never actually drives intoxicated? Well, then they'll never get in an accident while driving intoxicated. So then that belief doesn't harm anyone. Is it then OK to let that person believe that?
An example that I feel better exposes this problem deals with prayer. I have been personally told that I shouldn't have criticized a Christian for asking people to pray (or maybe the Christian was just stating that they themselves were praying...either way, this detail isn't critical to my point) because praying doesn't hurt anyone. The truth is that prayer can and does hurt people. People have died because they believed prayer — and prayer alone — would cure their or their children's health issues...health issues that are curable or treatable with modern medicine. I'm not talking about people who were on their death beds with no other hope here. And that is the problem with prayer — people may pray instead of taking other action that is proven to be effective.
But is prayer harmless most of the time? Yeah, probably. Whereas believing one's driving improves with intoxication is probably going to be more problematic. But then this adds on another qualifier. Do we really want to say it's OK to let people believe what they want to believe if those beliefs are harmless most of the time? This still does not resolved the issue of having to forecast the effects of beliefs.
Again, on the issue of prayer, maybe it is more harmful than even I, a critic of prayer, am aware. As I have demonstrated, a problem with prayer is people not taking action that is known to be effective. In the anecdote where I was told that prayer doesn't do any harm, the prayers were directed toward victims of a natural disaster. Instead of praying, this Christian could have instead donated money to an organization like the Red Cross that deals in recovery efforts. So was hirs praying actually causing harm? I suppose much of it depends on if ze were truly concerned about the well-being of the victims or if hirs prayers were a way to show false concern. If it's the former, then, yeah, believing pray works could very well be preventing ze from taking effective action and is thus harmful in the sense that it could be preventing people from getting help that they need.
Yet, having to read the mind of the believer to determine hirs sincerity means that I cannot accurately forecast the harm of hirs belief in prayer because, it should go without saying, I cannot read minds! I have an alternative solution — how about if we encourage people to believe what is real instead of believing what they want?
Yes, there are some challenges and issues even then. First, of course, is the challenge to figure out what is real. An example that is relevant to today is a question of whether or not cellular phones can cause cancer. If they do, and if I believed that, then I perhaps should no longer use a cellular phone. (There would be some risk assessment involved in that decision, but that drifts away from the topic at hand.) As of now, we don't really know. So I could be harming myself from using a cellular phone if it is indeed dangerous to my health. Second, beliefs could be harmful if reality dictates so. Take that fourth example from the list above. What if gays were an abomination and needed to be killed? Then, yeah, beliefs aligned with reality would be harmful to gay people. (Luckily, there is no good reason to believe this is true!) But would it not be at least better if people believed that because it were real as opposed to just believing whatever they want? There is a reason I included that as an example, and that reason is because there are many people out there that actually believe that gays are an abomination! I'm really supposed to just let them believe that?
Overall, I find that having beliefs that align with reality is for the best. I'll cover more on why this is in part two.