What’s the harm?

What’s the harm? is a fascinating website collecting news stories concerning people who have come to some harm due to paranormal and supernatural beliefs. It’s intended to counter the common “well, what’s the harm in believing that?” response that critics of paranormal and supernatural convictions often face. It’s not a detailed case including statistical assessments of harm and so forth, so its evidential value is limited. But at least it might get people thinking that some of this may well, in some circumstances, lead to some very serious harm.

Still, I’m not sure that even an extensive study that went beyond collecting individual stories would be applicable to religious supernatural beliefs—supernatural beliefs tightly embedded in the life of communities—as opposed to the more free-floating woo-woo variety of supernatural beliefs.

I can see making a case for, say, homeopathy being harmful on balance. All our serious evidence and background knowledge comes down of the side of homeopathy being a preposterous notion. It’s a diversion from seeking real medical help, which in cases of significant illness, can and does lead to obvious cases of harm. The reason people use homeopathy is primarily, almost exclusively, to improve their health. There is no plausible case for very beneficial indirect effects of homeopathy that could offset the harm to health homeopathy can promote. The relevant notion of harm in assessing homeopathy concerns health, and there is little controversy about whether, say, cancer is really harmful. So, on balance, I think we can conclude that homeopathy is harmful.

But things start to get murkier, I think, when other motivations come into play. Many fans of alternative medicine, for example, are attracted to alternative modalities not just because of immediate pragmatic health benefits that they think they can obtain, but because alternative medicine is often wrapped up in an attractive spiritual philosophy concerning a person’s place in the universe. Followers often are not just convinced that there are immediate health benefits due to the alternative regimen they follow, but also that they are becoming attuned to a deeper promise of feeling at home in the universe. They might have a new group of friends, a new way of seeing their lives, all which are very valuable to them above and beyond immediate health issues.

In such a case, it becomes harder to judge whether the alternative medical philosophy is harmful on balance. In pragmatic health terms, yes, it’s harmful. But how do we weigh the indirect and psychological benefits an adherent might enjoy? Do we really have a commonly held, clear concept of the relevant harm in such a case? Different people—reasonable, adequately-informed people—may well judge the balance of harm differently in some cases.

If that is so, then religious supernatural belief might be an even more impossibly murky case. After all, many religious beliefs are very tightly coupled to personal identity and community integrity. Dropping a religious belief is far more consequential than ceasing to buy homeopathic remedies—it can entail becoming a different person in some respects, and often it means isolation from a community. The very notion of harm in play is vehemently contested, since religious supernatural beliefs are often closely tied to notions of morality and the purpose of ones life. Religions redefine the notion of harm in self-serving ways, as when many devout people think that losing ones faith is one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a believer.

So I am not sure that “where is the harm?” has a clear-cut answer, where religious belief is concerned. As a rather catankerous sort of nonbeliever, I’ll continue to work toward reducing the influence of religious supernaturalism. But that is a political judgment rooted in my circumstances and my way of life. I have a hard time seeing myself as selflessly trying to reduce harm for everyone. Indeed, to the extent that I succeed, many of my political competitors will legitimately judge their interests to have suffered harm.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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