Reality Matters

I just read Greta’s recent post, “Truth Is Not Boring,” and this quote stuck out to me:

There’s something JT Eberhard says a lot in his talks, and he said it again in some of his responses to de Botton: Caring about reality is a moral obligation. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re not committed to understanding how the world really works, you’re going to make bad decisions: decisions that hurt yourself and others around you. You’re going to let your child die when medical treatment could cure them; you’re going to cut off your little girl’s clitoris; you’re going to tell people in a country ravaged by AIDS not to use condoms because they make baby Jesus cry. If we really do care about making ourselves and one another happy, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to understand reality, to the absolute best of our ability.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in my experience, most religious individuals absolutely do have the best of intentions, even when it comes to those most consider extreme. Parents follow the Pearls’ highly problematic parenting practices because they loved their children and want what’s best for them. Parents teach their children creationism not to deprive them of information but because they honestly believe it is true. And on and on.

When I talk to atheists, I sometimes find myself in the position of defending religious people’s motives. I try my best in my blog posts not to simply demonize even extreme religious movements like Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy. But what Greta points out is extremely important. At some point, your intentions don’t matter. If you are operating on an incorrect understanding of the world, the best intentions in the world won’t keep you from accidentally causing harm to those around you.

I’ll readily admit that for more liberal religious individuals religion can be benign, or even do positive good. If your religious beliefs don’t cause harm to those around you, kudos. I’m all for not causing harm. But that doesn’t change the fact that for others religion can and does cause well-meaning people to do highly problematic and even harmful things in the name of love.

Greta has said before that religion has no “reality check.” That is what concerns me. “Faith” functions as a get out of jail free card, with the potential to justify all manner of belief regardless of reality. For some, “faith” simply creates feelings of meaning and purpose and an individual connection with the divine; for others, “faith” results in dead children, whether through prayer healings or through excessive discipline to curb “rebellious spirits.”

Faith is believing things unseen and unproven. This strikes me as potentially dangerous to say the very least. I see actually objectively trying to understand reality as highly superior to believing in something unseen and unproven. And that’s an understatement. This privileging of faith over reality is, to me, the danger religion poses.

Tangent thought: To what extent are religious beliefs and systems that cause less or no harm simply more in line with objective reality than religious beliefs and systems that cause harm? For instance, the religious individual who accepts what experts have found about, say, evolution or child training will not cause the damage in these areas that the religious individual who believes the Bible mandates belief in creationism or authoritarian corporal punishment. Your thoughts? 

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anders

    Religion is only of several such systems, though. I believe they are called “closed belief systems”. Conspiracy theories are another class – anything that looks like evidence against a conspiracy theory is actually evidence for it. And the same goes for political ideologies – I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, but as a libertarian I can tell you that there are several libertarians who have gone off the deep end.

    Seeking truth is difficult, and you will be disappointed many times. It is a way of life more than a quest with a definite endpoint. It’s much easier to declare that you have the truth and just trumpet it as loudly as you can. God* knows I’ve done that in the past.

    The million dollar question, from my perspective, is “how do we shatter a closed belief system?” And unfortunately I think that varies from person to person.


    • James K

      Greta has actually contrasted political ideologies with religions. At some point people expect ideologies to deliver the goods. It took 70 years but eventually communism collapsed because it didn’t live up to it’s claims.

      I believe the reason our fellow libertarians who are off the deep end can remain so is precisely because they haven’t had a chance to set up a government to their specifications. If they did, their beliefs would be subject to falsification, even if it took a while.

  • machintelligence

    Faith is not a virtue. It is a character flaw.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Churchill said that democracy is the worst political system except for all the others that have been tried. What’s wrong with it is the same thing that’s wrong with every other system. If the sovereign is incompetent for whatever reason, the state must fail. He could be the smartest man in the world but if his advisors are giving him bad information then he can’t make a good decision.

    In a democracy the people are sovereign. Their councillors are Fox News. They could have the best intentions in the world but if they’re not living in reality then they get, well…Rick Santorum.

  • Kevin Alexander

    It’s not just the religious or the tea baggers. I blame George Lucas for losing my son. It’s thirty five years or so since we were sitting in a theatre, he five years old. ObiWan says ‘Luke, trust your feelings’ My son’s eyes go big and he nods his head.

    I am the peacefullest man since Gandhi but if Lucas had been sitting next to me in that theatre I would have smacked that son of a bitch silly. He mind buggered an entire generation. Every human disaster since the beginning of time started with some fool hearing a voice telling him to trust his feelings.

    Your heart is a garden, you don’t let every weed grow. You cultivate your feelings, understand where they come from so that you can train them to see reality. A sense of reality isn’t something you’re born with.

    • Ysanne

      Luke had a reality check: He could deflect the laser bolts when he closed his eyes and listened to his feelings. His feelings of the Force, that is, which were an added sensory system connecting him to the reality around him. Obi-Wan and Yoda explicitly warned Luke about relying on his emotions as a guide: Particularly the ones that pave the path to the dark side, such as anger, hate and fear, but also love — recall how Yoda tried to keep Luke from going to Cloud City to rescue Leia without a thought.

      Plus, Han’s attitude to hokey religions and when to accept an extraordinary claim is an excellent role model for an atheist kid.

      • Kevin Alexander

        You’re right of course, I did notice that the one person who always trusted his feelings was Anakin Skywalker and that turned real well for him.

        My trouble is with unexamined romanticism, the idea that our feelings are some kind of mystical guide to reality.

      • Lou Doench

        Good point. Its important to remember that in the Star Wars universe Jedi mind tricks WORK. It’s perfectly consistent with the story that Lucas was trying to tell.

        Whatever the heck happened to Anakin Skywalker is a muddle mess however…

      • Eamon Knight

        I don’t think that lets them off the hook. ISTM that an attractively-presented fiction, in which the protagonist engages in magical thinking, and then has that thinking materially validated, potentially sets the stage for real-world folly like relying on faith-healing instead of medicine. Isn’t that the theme of many Bible stories, and aren’t they used pedagogically in exactly that way?

        Now, Star Wars was mostly harmless thrills and eye-candy, but a more pernicious example is the kid-flick The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The eventual hero, a young owl, has faith in the legendary Guardians, while his brother is depicted as a skeptic who makes fun of him. In the end, of course, the hero finds the Guardians and saves the day, while the brother winds up in league with the villain and comes to a bad end. It’s a thoroughly noxious message to stream into the heads of impressionable children, via gorgeous animation and sympathetic characters.

      • Anders

        In Natalie’s Pony-a-Thon we were deeply troubled by the “Pinkie Sense” episode precisely because it taught young girls to just accept whatever their friends said without examining it.

      • Drolfe

        Let me expound a little bit on “Luke had a reality check” and the other replies. Now, this is all a muddled, sort of mess, but here’s my favorite two claims from the exchange…

        Han Solo: [laughs] Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
        Luke Skywalker: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?
        Han Solo: Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. Anyway, it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
        Ben Kenobi: [gets up and takes a blast helmet] I suggest you try it again, Luke. Only this time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct. [puts the helmet on Luke, which covers his eyes]
        Luke Skywalker: But with the blast shield down, I can’t even see! How am I supposed to fight?
        Ben Kenobi: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings! [Watches Luke succeed in blocking the lasers] You see? You can do it.
        Han Solo: I call it luck.
        Ben Kenobi: In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.

        Here, in a pre-midi-chlorian context, the Force is presented as rational, it is a sense that permits an instinctual modeling of physical reality, while at the same time described in airy-fairy words like “stretch out with your feelings” (and later “Luke, trust your feelings!”). Han and Ben can both be right, the Force can be a conception that explains observed reality even if it isn’t a mystical energy field controlling everything.

        (How could you train to use the Force and better if it wasn’t a real sense with a real mechanism? Question answered with symbiotes that Jedis host. Under continuity Kenobi should know all about them but doesn’t bother mentioning this well-kept secret to Han and the others. Perhaps he prefers the romantic notion instead, as he prefers his romantic weapon. There’s never a reason presented that a Jedi could not train to become incredibly proficient with blasters instead other than a straight up appeal to tradition.)

        I feel pretty geeky for going on and on about this tangent, so let me end with this:

        ESP and telekinesis are fun “powers” for fiction (along with FTL) and in a variety of works can and are treated in materialistic or rational ways. This is just another casualty of Lucas’ terrible dialogue, imho. I guess the upside is Lucas never decided on presenting a God of the Force.

  • purpleshoes

    I think it might be more that some religions (along with lots of nonreligious beliefs) are more in line with what both the culture and the popular science of the day say about human life. For instance, I don’t live in an era where restriction of my sexual activity is absolutely essential to my family’s economic and social standing, so I’m not much interested in what God has to say about my uterus either. But I do live in an era where popular science as interpreted by culture insists that disease is caused by not living righteously (by not exercising, or having a licentious relationship with food, or having a bad attitude) and I see a lot more people acting out that belief than the belief that everything’s ruined if you don’t go to your wedding a virgin. I see a lot more people acknowledging the latter as a belief. It’s the stuff that’s unspoken that people actually think is real.

    Historically, at least in many contexts, Christian theological constructions were like your credit score – no, there was no objective existence to a cloud-dwelling God in a toga, but the weight of collective belief was itself a real thing that really existed and was taken as some kind of objective truth. Whereas contemporary Christianity is asked to either become a partial belief – note how progressive Christians are pretty specific about not thinking that heaven and hell are physical places, or that God is a physical being, not necessarily because it’s theologically ridiculous but because observably we would probably have found those by now – or to become a belief that constructs its own reality and shuts the door. I know that from our perspective Christianity seems like a big, stompy unacknowledged state religion that dominates our culture. It is. But I think outside that tightly-shut door they can hear the rest of reality moving on without them, and that makes us seem much bigger than them from inside.

  • James Sweet

    Tangent thought: To what extent are religious beliefs and systems that cause less or no harm simply more in line with objective reality than religious beliefs and systems that cause harm? …Your thoughts?

    I have definitely noticed that for some believers — even a couple who consider themselves conservative — I find after talking with them that functionally there is very little difference between their worldview and mine, in that for both of us it ultimately comes down to using their own reason and moral compass to try and puzzle out what is right. It’s just that they put it in terms of praying and meditating, but ultimately they recognize that it is they themselves who have to figure it out.

    Just making this up off the top of my head: I think a good litmus test would be whether a particular believer finds Divine Command Theory to be tenable. If you reject DCT and are not a moral nihilist, then you believe there is truth and morality independent of what God says — you may believe that God can inherently only say things that are true and moral, but if you have an external means of evaluating truth and morality, then that puts a sort of safety net on faith: If it seems God is commanding you to do something immoral, then you say, “I must be mistaken, God wouldn’t command that.” While the reasoning is a little sloppy and mushy-headed, functionally it boils down to atheism.

    It’s DCT that really takes the brakes off: The idea that morality and truth is dictated by God, rather than just reflected by God. Without an external reference frame to determine whether “it really is God’s command” (i.e. “it really is moral” in an atheistic worldview), then the dangers of faith become fully manifest.

    • Eamon Knight

      Basically, if you’re the sort of person who de-emphasizes religious authority in favour of human reason, you probably do that in both epistemology and morality, even though theoretically those two are orthogonal (except, as the OP says, insofar as you need some level of anchor in reality in order to realize your moral goals).

    • Anders

      This is the Eutyphro dilemma, from Plato’s dialogue of the same name. Either God takes his morals from an external source and we would do better to go to the source directly and chuck away the middleman. Or God determines what is moral, in which case morality is just as subjective as it is if one of us decides what is right and what is wrong.

      • jamessweet

        Right, exactly. If you buy Euthyphro (I always want to spell it “Eurythro” for some reason and I have to look it up every time), then faith is probably not tremendously dangerous for you. (I still wouldn’t call it “harmless”, but you probably won’t go killing anybody over it) If you reject that argument and buy into DCT, though, then there’s no telling what faith will cause you to do.

  • ScottInOH

    Interesting food for thought! Here are some of the thoughts it provoked in me:

    There are, of course, a lot of questions that don’t have objective, provable answers. That is, there’s no “reality” to discover. Is killing another person ever justified? When does a child become an adult? What is the mark of a good person?

    Others, though, do admit of evidence, so we can test our hypothesized answers and reject some answers while becoming more confident of others. How old is Earth? What causes various diseases? What are the likely results of various tax policies?

    I would guess that all of us are loath to change our answers even to the second set of questions, but some of us recognize the validity of scientific inquiry in principle. It’s the people who don’t who are frightening.

    I also suspect that people who are willing to question (or at least let other people question) their answers to questions about reality are more likely to be willing to discuss and re-think their answers to questions about morality, the meaning of life, and so on. People who aren’t are the ones who think they know God’s mind and use that as justification to condemn others. (Note that they will sometimes pretend to engage in scientific inquiry or science-based argument, but they will only do this so long as the evidence can be made to fit their conclusion.)

    • kevinalexander

      “When does a child become an adult? ”

      This to me is the most interesting question. From what we know of the phenomenon of neoteny it could well be that many, if not most people never grow up, they may not be able to.

      Look at the parent-child relationship in almost any mammal. Mother gives birth, a flood of oxytocin in her brain makes her fall in love with her baby. Same thing happens with the baby so they’re emotionally bonded.

      As the youngster gets bigger that attachment fades, the mother is gradually less in love with the little darling and the weaner is less doting on mom until the bond is broken completely.
      Mom finds a new mate and life goes on.

      This doesn’t happen with people. In the same way that we keep our baby faces all our lives, we keep our juvenile emotional structures in our brains all our lives. There just might be a parent circuit with the attendant neurochemistry still intact in our brain.

      Some people call it god.

      • Anders

        This to me is the most interesting question. From what we know of the phenomenon of neoteny it could well be that many, if not most people never grow up, they may not be able to.

        I think you are precisely wrong here. Most children are intensely curious and actually very good at figuring stuff out. I’m a pharmacologist and we talked about this when discussing pill bottles. Pill bottles have to be easy to open, so that old people can get to their pills. At the same time, they have to be difficult to open, so that kids can’t get to the pills. This is difficult, especially since kids are brilliant problem-solvers.

        I would say that the problem with those who don’t seek knowledge but are convinced that they have it is that they have grown up too quickly. Whereas you probably can’t be a good scientist without having the wide-eyed kid’s wonder at the universe alive and well within you.

      • Kevin Alexander


        I think you missed my point, I didn’t express it too well. It’s true that children are intensely curious, it’s also true that they are marvellously creative but it isn’t their intelligence that I was talking about.

        It’s about the need to love that’s unusual about humans (and their pets, because we’ve bred them that way) It’s not something we learn, in fact most cultures put a lot of effort into controlling it as Libby Anne will testify. It’s wired into out brains.

      • Anders

        Yeah, I misunderstood that. Sorry. *sheepish*

  • Landon

    Great post! In discussing a similar issue – for similar reasons – with a colleague, we came to the conclusion that it IS a matter of the religious person’s intentions… in a way. The religious person may have the best of intentions to do right by his or her child, to be a good person, etc., but if the “higher level” (if you will) intention to be epistemically responsible, and get things right about the world, isn’t there, the antecedent intentions will all fail.

    Think of it this way – all things being equal, I can’t honestly claim to intend to cook a meal for someone if I don’t also genuinely hold the intention to do all the pre-requisite stuff, like going to the grocery store, making sure I have clean pots and pans, etc. Suppose I said, after failing to deliver on the meal, “no, but I really meant to! I meant well!” Any reasonable person would take the facts that I hadn’t been to the store, hadn’t cleaned my cooking utensils, etc. as evidence that I did not, in fact, intend to cook the meal, after all. Even if I honestly believed I meant well, I could not be judged to have had any serious intent to cook.

    I think that many religious people believe they mean well, and – on some level – intend to do good. But they are, as you pointed out, being irresponsible about getting true beliefs. They are not taking the other, antecedent obligations seriously. They have abdicated their first responsibility, the fulfilling of which is a necessary precondition to fulfilling any other responsibility. They haven’t actually found out what’s true, even though they take themselves to have done so.

  • Emburii

    I’ve had that sort of thing come up before; someone who knew that I didn’t like religion started lecturing me on why people still cling to it, even though I’d just explained that I understood why people wanted those ideas and don’t easily let go. It was as if he couldn’t comprehend the idea that I could understand the motive of eternal life, eternal happiness, and a ‘higher power’ looking out for someone and yet still disagree on its utility (none) and degree of harm (too high).

  • Judy L.

    That’s actually how I’ve come to terms with religion and religious people, and it falls right in line with my personal moral and ethical beliefs about what makes something moral. I don’t care what a person says they believe or says is the motivation for their actions and behaviour. I only care about the action and behaviour and its consequence for others, because it’s only in the consequence for others, only within the interelation between two or more living things, that has moral content.

    The truth is, no one ‘is’ their religion. There are no ‘Christians’, only ‘Christianists’. People are not their religion, they DO their religion. Religion is a behaviour, which is why I can respect your right to believe whatever the hell you want but I don’t have to respect your insistence that it’s right or that you’re allowed to do whatever you please or that you should be granted special legal privileges because of what you believe.

    Creationists don’t get to teach creationism in a science classroom because it’s not science. Children deserve to not be lied to or abused physically, emotionally, sexually, or intellectually by their parents and teachers. Christian Patriarchy and all other religions as expressed by the people who practice them are abusive to children, and adults alike, in one way or another.

  • AnyBeth

    (Beth elsewhere on FtB)
    Hm. Yeah, I get that people can do horrible things while operating under good intentions. (Yes, I think it’s sort of funny that many Christians are so blind to this considering those are what pave the proverbial road to hell.) Still, as Kazim at Atheist Experience said, “Horrible people don’t realize they’re horrible.” (No need to read beyond the first four paragraphs unless you want vivid examples of horrible.) Very few people wake with the goal of being evil, of being cruel.
    I can only guess extreme conservative religious groups (online and off) serve to reinforce the problematice practices. Quite literally, they praise the members for doing certain evils in the name of good and encourage them to continue or increase it. Religion is poor excuse, but we’re talking about the possibility of generations of people growing up under something like the Stanford prison experient where guards and prisoners are determined by age and maybe gender. Unfortunately, we as a species seem to be really bad at recognizing we’re doing terrible things if those awful things are encouraged. It doesn’t take religion to do this, to name harmful actions “good”, but religion does it well, yes. Any system, any group that does this lacks reality checks. I think “lack of reality checks” is necessary for anyone with empathy to call hurting others good, especially family members.
    My guess is that less harmful religious beliefs and belief systems aren’t necessarily more “in line with objective reality.” For a number of years (and likely little to do with my atheism), I was some kind of panentheist or maybe pandeist Christian. Christian fundamentalists reject some science and replace it with their tales. I didn’t reject any science, but my beliefs meant I thought (a generally non-interventionist) God literally pervades everything. Is it more “in line with objective reality” if the belief system doesn’t subtract and replace but only adds? (Or, to speak mathematically, distributes God throughout?) I added a lot, but functionally it made no difference in how I treated people or the environment. I still don’t think that makes the basic belief any more objective.
    I wonder if any religious belief can be harmless. While I’m sure those beliefs of mine didn’t hurt others any more than my humanism does now, I think it may have hurt me. Is magical thinking a good thing in adults? Would believing one thing without any solid evidence leave me more vulnerable to other baseless claims (some that can be dangerous)? I don’t know but I can see how that might be so. If that’s the case, I’d say there isn’t a religion that does no harm.

  • Willy

    Dear all,

    What is reality and what isn’t? Read C.S. Lewis or C.K. Chesterton or Francis Shaeffer and don’t get fooled by people who lost all sense of it.

    • Eamon Knight

      Read most of the first, a bit of the second, and a fair bit of the last, back when I was on that side of the aisle. What did I (apparently) miss?

    • jamessweet

      It’s so cute when people naively assume the only reason someone would be an atheist is because they’ve never heard the standard arguments against it.

      • Eamon Knight

        ….not that they even present any arguments, preferring to merely wave vaguely in the direction of a rather large literary corpus. But hey, on Willy’s advice, I’m totally sitting down tonight to re-read that landmark work of epistemology The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    • Caravelle

      That, or read Eliezer Yudkowsky :

    • Stacy

      Funny. I just read Mere Christianity a month ago. It’s pabulum.

      • Kevin Alexander

        I’ve never read Mere Christianity. The fake humility of the title put me off.

      • Eamon Knight

        @Kevin Alexander: Don’t hold the title against it. IIRC, the “Mere” means that he’s not discussing Catholicism, or Anglicanism, or Baptist-ism, etc: just generic Christianity.

        What you should hold against the book is the vapidity of the arguments. In fact, I recommend that you read the first (short) section, at the end of which Lewis helpfully says (paraphrased) “If I haven’t convinced you that Christianity is at least likely to be true, then there’s no point in your reading further”.

        You’ll probably close the book at that point.

  • Ashton

    Yes, people usually have goo intentions. But I don’t see how someone’s intentions can be good when they cut themselves off from information. If they truly believe in creationism, they should have no objection whatsoever to studying evolution. In fact, they should promote it among creationism believers so that they can better counter the information in the there to those who accept evolution. Instead, they avoid writings about evolutionary theory and regard them as dangerous. I don’t see how anyone who wants to limit information can be considered to have good intentions. If someone thinks that gaining knowledge is bad, something is very wrong.

  • sheila

    It think that the more morality takes note of how its own rules affect real, live humans in the real world, the less damage it will do. On the other hand, “morality” which depends only on an old book can (and does) do very serious harm.

    I remember an fundamentalist ex-friend insisting that there’s no cruelty involved in driving gay teenagers to suicide, because it would be breaking God’s law to do otherwise. She seemed to think the “God’s law” bit meant that they didn’t suffer. I never did work out whether this sort of thing was a result of her brand of Christianity, or whether the Christianity was just the wrapping paper she put around what sometimes looked like mental illness.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I think this is what I settled on eventually. My parents do love me and often do good things, but it’s based on a flawed model of reality, so they can’t be relied on to do the right thing.