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, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    This reminds me of that incident in (I believe) North Carolina, where someone vandalized an atheist billboard. A conservative writer praised the crime, and then went on to state that, as a Christian, she had the right to not be offended. She got a lot of email trying to set her straight.

  • TommyP

    You know, it’s very simple. Ray Bradbury had it right decades ago, with Fahrenheit 451. If we try to please everyone and be accommodating to all beliefs, the only winner is going to be ignorance. We might as well burn all our art and literature, any ceremonially unclean animals, and throw our musical instruments into the deepest oceanic trench we can find. How can it be so hard for people to realize that truth is more important than random bullshit?

  • Ritchie

    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.

    A thousand times, bravo and very well put!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I tend to think that criticism of religion (and just discussing ideas generally) leads to more freedom, since we can hear about ideas we might not have known about before and then make up our own minds, instead of just believing the one and only belief we know about.

    @TommyP (comment #2): I agree. We read Fahrenheit 451 for ninth grade, and it makes the point very well that there will always be people who disagree with a certain idea or book. I thought it was interesting that, in the coda, Bradbury mentioned that some schools were censoring words from this book, which was ironic considering that the book itself is about censorship.

  • L.Long

    “Suppose you could choose either to maximize human rationality or to maximize human happiness. ” I have never seen a situation where these two were not the same thing. Any where the ‘delusions’ are maximized the ‘happiness’(Who wants to move to Africa) of the people is greatly reduced. He is full of schite! to start with.

    My beliefs say I should sacrifice a virgin (meaning I now have to use 12yr olds) so the Soxs can win. This is my belief and you should not criticize it. Besides g0d wants this because the odder is very pleasing to him as stated in the buyBull. So yes we should stop criticizing the religions, then the Sox could start winning again!!

  • LDanon
  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yes. This is nothing more than a well-disguised call for abject surrender.

  • kurmujjin

    Face it, it’s just going to be a short season for the Sox…

  • Alex Weaver

    I can’t seriously believe that anyone, even O’Neill, considers this a desirable vision of the future.

    She doesn’t consider it a desirable vision, but that doesn’t affect her argument because she can’t see how it follows. This is an issue she shares with all plastic-smilists; her eyes are in her head, and thus her perspective is a bit too *ahem* inward-focused to see where her reasoning might lead.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “I deny, other than in extraordinarily rare circumstances, that these two things are separable”

    This is it. This is the entire difference between us and them. One side believes that happiness is more valuable than truth, and the other side believes that happiness is impossible without truth.

    That is the sum total of the philosophical and epistemological differences between us and them.

    I have tried for years to explain this simple distinction, and failed. Better men than me have tried for centuries: “As long as men believe absurdities, they will commit tragedies.”

    I can’t decide if it the ignorance is simple – they really don’t understand that reality matters – or willful – they instinctively know that the truth will not make them as happy as they want to be, so they avoid it.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    When I was a teen, I was often concerned that I might offend someone with my opinions and observations. As I matured, I came to realize that since I don’t intentionally set out to offend anyone, that anyone I offended had the right to call me out on it, and to explain to me why they were offended, and if they were offended by things I said or did, and were unwilling or unable to explain why, then they were the ones with a problem, not I.

    Dave Allen, the Irish comedian, often featured church related skits and jokes in his tv program “Dave Allen at Large”. In one episode of the program, Dave stated in his opening monologue, that, due to the large number of complaints about the religious material in his program, he would no longer be doing any more religious jokes or sketches on the show.
    In the opening minutes of the next episode, he stated that , as a result of dropping the religious material in the previous episode, the network had received even more complaints from people complaining that they had nothing to complain about, and the entire episode was religious material.
    An elaborate gag to be sure, but with a rather large nugget of truth. And certainly not a new idea. Several of the “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, translated and adapted frm various cultures have a theme of the futility in trying to please everyone.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org murky 2.0

    “Superstitions can improve athletic performance.” What the heck? What does that even mean? Does praying for your team make them win? Like some sort of Placebo? Surely she isn’t suggesting Christians are physically superior to Atheists…Is she? I’m confused. And annoyed.

  • Monty

    @murky: I assumed she was referring to the placebo effect. Nothing else is supported by the evidence, certainly.

  • bbk

    Sometimes you just have to treat superstition as a pre-existing condition. Someone who I dearly love believes in the healing powers of crystals and when she asks me if I can feel energy from a piece of rose quartz I smile and say, “Sure… I think I feel the same thing that you feel when you hold it.” I’m happy and to stay that way I have to accept that there is a time and place for correcting all the wrongs committed by all the quacks and cranks of this world. That time is not on my private time. The problem with people like O’Neill is that they seem to think that we eviscerate our friends in our private lives the same way we do the charlatans in our public lives. So either I treat public figures as if they were my personal friends or else I am a cold, heartless man incapable of love and acceptance. Well, I feel no love lost for some idiot from the Discovery Institute who wants to spew malicious lies to my friends and family. I will eviscerate him precisely because that’s the right time and place to do such a thing. I’m sure that their mothers love them and tell them they’re special every night before bed, but I have no such calling.

  • Ritchie

    Hey everyone!

    Sorry to be a bit of a troll, but following Stephen Hawking’s statement that God had nothing to do with the creation of the universe, there will be a live webchat on the topic over at The Times newspaper today at 2.30 GMT (so in just under two hours) featuring Richard Dawkins!!

    So if you fancy a chat with him, just follow this link:


    There is a paywall, which is a bit off-putting, so you do have to sign up. Just thought I’d spread the word.

    If this gets deleted for trolling/advertising, then I understand…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    As was pointed out in a comment, Quinn O’Neill has posted a followup. I’d normally call it a retraction, since it disavows just about every position in her earlier essay, except that she never explicitly acknowledges doing so. But if you read both essays side-by-side, it’s clear that she’s done an about-face:

    In all fairness to Coyne, I wasn’t clear as to where I stood on the issue of criticism of religion. So let me set the record straight here: my answer to Coyne’s question, “Should religion get a pass?”, is an emphatic no.

    I suggested that attacks on religion may not be the most effective approach to protecting secular education. And I argued that verbal abuse may do more harm than good. That I oppose all criticism of religion is an easy, but incorrect, inference.

    There’s no “inference” required to draw that conclusion, not when her original essay had statements like this:

    Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.

    Needless to say, that’s completely different from saying attacks on religion “may not be the most effective approach”.

  • Lion IRC

    Religion has been a crash test dummy for at least 50,000 years by people whose mockery and “I dont need God” bravado hasnt even made a scratch on the surface.

    Atheism, on the other hand, is looking a little pale and sickly of late. The Sunday after 9/11 churches were packed. That guy Karl Marcus or Karl Merricks or whatever his name was, never did get his Atheist Utopia where everyone had “the right to a job” even if they didnt want one. “Atheist” China never lost its Tianming or Jingzu and is turning to Christianity faster than you can say Feng Shui or Chi Gung. Baconian principles have given us multiverse theory, wormholes, holographic universe and the latest philosophical effort by none other than Mr Hawking – that the appearance of the universe out of nothing was an inevitable but unpredictable spontaneous event triggered by….wait for it…gravity…thats right…gravity existed before the universe and caused it.

    What a great busker he would make – able to juggle two mutually exclusive ideas inevitable yet spontaneous and at the same time sing “Amazing gravity, how sweet the sound….

    Lion (IRC)

  • Rollingforest

    @Lion: And Astrology/Zodiac is still very popular nowadays. What’s your point?

    The fact that a belief exists or even that it is popular doesn’t make it right. Islam is increasing faster than Christianity. Does that make it right?

    The number of people called Atheists overall decreased after the end of the Cold War because there was no more government coercion. However, the number of people voluntarily Atheist has gone up.

    People criticize Hawkings for saying that no God was needed to create the universe. But then they say that this all powerful, all knowing being that is everywhere just magically happened to exist before the creation of the universe. Seems quite improbable to me.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Wait, you don’t know who Karl Marx is?

    How can your comments on what he wanted carry any sort of weight when you haven’t even bothered to learn the man’s name?

    Lordy, I’m a recovering libertarian, and even in the full spate of that less-than-thoughtful chapter in my life, I took the time to read some of his works, exactly because it was a countervailing opinion.

    Certainly you, too, can take the time to do something along those lines, no? If not, you’d best remember Frank Herbert’s warning:

    Those who see only what they wish are doomed to rot in the stink of their own perceptions.

  • Mathew Wilder

    @Thumpalumpacus: QFT. “Atheist Utopia” – yeah, that was the name of one of the most influential documents in human history. #facepalm

  • Scotlyn

    Thumpalumpacus –

    Lordy, I’m a recovering libertarian, and even in the full spate of that less-than-thoughtful chapter in my life

    Hey, I’d love to hear more of that story!

  • kennypo65

    Let’s call religion what it actually is, a business. Making it immune from criticism creates a monopoly. Thats what the theocrats really want.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Atheism, on the other hand, is looking a little pale and sickly of late.

    Speaking on behalf of atheists, I encourage you to continue believing that.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Scotty, too much Ayn Rand, not enough neurons firing.

  • Bruce Gorton

    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.

    What gets me here, is basically I grew up with Batman the Animated Series.

    Ever hear of The Joker? Yeah, I’ll go with rationality thanks.

  • Zietlos

    Well, I am a bit pale and sickly, but modern medicine is helping me a bit. Thank you for the observation, though, I shall catalogue it and analyze it for verity in the near future. :)

    The backpedalling, likely in response to some sort of thankful infighting between muslims and christians, was an amusing motion.