Upholding Religious Freedom by Criticizing Religion

Since this is becoming Accommodationism Week on Daylight Atheism, let me turn to the latest piece hushing atheists, written by Quinn O’Neill on 3 Quarks Daily. It plays a familiar tune, so I’ll strike a few well-chosen notes of discord.

Suppose you could choose either to maximize human rationality or to maximize human happiness. For most of us, even for the most strident advocates of reason and critical thinking, I suspect the choice would be happiness or well-being.

I deny, other than in extraordinarily rare circumstances, that these two things are separable. On the contrary, I think it’s obvious that when you list the most notable evils of human history, nearly all of them were caused by irrationality, dogma, and superstition. This ought to be expected, since basing your decisions on irrational criteria means not basing them on tangible facts of human welfare, which is the only means of moral reasoning that consistently produces happiness. When people make choices based on delusions, any side effect of improving human well-being is purely coincidental, so poor reasoning usually produces bad results.

O’Neill uses this as a jumping-off point to suggest that “Delusions can provide comfort”, and it would be mean and horrible of us to take away the superstitions that people rely on. But when it comes to the actual benefits of delusion, her list seems, shall we say, a little thin:

Superstitions can improve athletic performance, and psychics and astrologers can help people deal with the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds.

That’s it? Atheists shouldn’t debunk superstition because it makes people better at sports, and because psychics make people feel temporarily better with soothing lies? This hardly seems worth comparing to vaccines, genetic medicine, space exploration, biotechnology, and the Internet. If these are the biggest benefits that irrationality has to offer, then O’Neill has made my point for me: We are more than capable of doing without it.

We are predisposed to delusional thinking because our brains have evolved this way; it was evolutionarily advantageous. It is human nature to be somewhat delusional. To expect people to be perfectly rational is to ask us to defy our own nature. It isn’t reasonable.

This is the kind of unfounded, baseless just-so story that gives evolutionary psychology a bad name. How on earth could O’Neill or anyone else know that at some point in humanity’s past, there was positive selection for being delusional?

Let me suggest another hypothesis. Contrary to O’Neill’s assertion, I would argue that all else being equal, more accurate perception of reality is always an improvement. However, evolution, being a blind watchmaker, tends to produce good-enough solutions rather than theoretically optimal solutions, and as such, has settled on the most accurate level of perception that could reasonably be achieved. Like the appendix or the inverted retina, the human tendency toward irrationality is a lingering imperfection; it remains either because the right mutations haven’t arisen or because we’re trapped on a hill of adaptation where making things better would require first making them worse.

How do we know which of these is the truth? We don’t. But that simply means that O’Neill and others should refrain from basing arguments on unverifiable claims about what psychological traits evolution has favored.

Up until now, O’Neill’s arguments have just been flawed and weak. But the next part is where it takes a turn into scary:

Freedom of religion can be a confusing term that people on both sides of religious debates can wrongly think they advocate. Religious freedom means that individuals have the right to embrace religious beliefs of their own choosing… Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order…

Got it? People like us “wrongly think” we understand what freedom of religion means. In fact, to uphold freedom of religion, we must cease – and, apparently, outlaw – any speech that offends or upsets believers, because such behavior is “inconsistent” with respecting religious freedom. Let me suggest a few of the more likely ways this might play out:

• Many Christians consider same-sex marriage to be extremely offensive and contrary to their religious beliefs. Should we outlaw this so as to respect their religious freedom?

• Many Christians are offended by generic prayers that don’t mention Jesus. Should we require all ceremonial invocations at public events to include a reference to Jesus?

• Many Roman Catholics (and some Protestants) are offended by the widespread availability of birth control and abortion. Should we restrict the availability of these technologies so as to respect their religious convictions?

• Many Muslims consider it extremely offensive to depict Muhammad in drawings or art. Should we outlaw such depictions? If so, what should be the penalty for people who defy this law?

• Many Muslims consider it very offensive for women to go out in public with their hair uncovered. Should women be required to wear headscarves in public places so as not to offend them?

• Many Muslims consider it offensive for non-Muslims to use the word “Allah”, even if that word is the correct term for “God” in the speaker’s own language. Should Muslims be allowed exclusive use of this word and all others banned from saying it?

• Many Hindus consider it offensive to eat beef. Should we ban McDonald’s and Burger King so as not to offend them?

• Many Orthodox Jews consider it offensive to drive or work on the Sabbath. Should we ban people from doing this in majority-Orthodox neighborhoods?

O’Neill might say that eating at McDonald’s isn’t a “personal attack” on a Hindu, or using condoms isn’t a “personal attack” on a Catholic, but why should this matter if they provoke the same level of offense? Isn’t the point of her essay that we should respect religious freedom by not offending people’s deeply felt and sincere religious convictions? If protecting from offense is the goal, then surely the relevant factor is whether an act causes offense, not how that offense is delivered.

And for that matter, why should religious beliefs be the only ones deserving of special protection from offense and ridicule? Political beliefs, for example, are equally central to many people’s conceptions of self, and the right to hold them is indisputably protected by law. Should we outlaw negative campaign ads and forbid politicians to debate each other, in order to respect the right of their opponents’ supporters to hold their own beliefs? Should we ban political cartoons and censor the editorial sections of newspapers?

What lies down this road is a balkanized society, divided into hermetically sealed compartments whose members are forbidden to speak to each other, lest they cause offense by inadvertently exposing someone to an idea they don’t agree with. I can’t seriously believe that anyone, even O’Neill, considers this a desirable vision of the future.

People being offended isn’t like car crashes or muggings, a harm that should be prevented as much as possible. Rather, it’s an inevitable consequence of the testing of ideas that’s a vital part of the democratic model. The only way our society makes moral progress is by challenging and criticizing dominant beliefs, even though this is certain to anger and upset people who benefit from the status quo. Having freedom of belief means only that the government will not interfere in this process by using its coercive power to force people to believe something. It most certainly does not mean that people have the right to be free of criticism. It amazes me that so many otherwise intelligent and perceptive people are incapable of grasping this distinction. The way we exercise our freedom of belief is by criticizing and, yes, even attacking beliefs. That’s what freedom means, and it’s O’Neill and her allies, not us rabble-rousing atheists, who don’t understand that.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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