During my guest stint at Daylight Atheism, I expressed pity for Harold Camping’s deluded followers and sparked a debate on whether his beliefs were so stupid as to be self-refuting. If the beliefs couldn’t be rationally supported, then presumably the ‘victims’ were willfully deluding themselves in order to take part in a con or for some other malign purpose. I was dubious, since I’m not one to ever underestimate the Dunning-Kruger effect (sufficiently ignorant/stupid people can’t spot their own mistakes).
In a follow-up thread, some of the commenters raised a different, more weighty objection. Leaving aside the stupidity of the justification for the Rapture prediction, some readers thought that the moral implications of Rapture-oriented theology (most people consigned to hell-on-earth during the Tribulation, followed by actual Hell) made them untenable. By this logic, sticking with these beliefs doesn’t just reveal a tolerance of a paradox (a good God who damns almost everyone), it betrays a callousness disregard for others. In this light, it’s easier to claim that Camping’s followers deserve humiliation or to lose their money.
I remain skeptical about this tack of argument. Turning over the question, I was reminded of a comment posted by Dylan some time ago, on a thread that had devolved into one of those Crusades vs Stalin arguments. He wrote:
I actually read through this entire argument (and I’ve read more Marx than the Communist Manifesto, thank you very much), but I find it rather boring. Is either side actually prepared to be consequentialist in choosing what beliefs to adopt and spread? That is to say, if I convince Publius atheistic societies are less violent, etc., I doubt he’ll stop believing in God. Similarly, I don’t think convincing Matt that theistic societies are less violent will make him start. It’s the rare theist or atheist who maintains (or at least admits to maintaining) such a consequentialist epistemology (one such rare example, ironically, was the great “deontologist” Immanuel Kant).
There’s a substantive difference between Camping’s followers, who mostly seemed sorrowful about the fate of the unbelievers left behind and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who take a gleeful joy in our impending fate. The WBC never spends much time trying to persuade people to convert or offering them a way out. In contrast, the Camping followers embarked on increasingly desperate and frenzied attempts at evangelization as their deadline approached.
If people’s beliefs point them toward some horrific conclusion about the world, it’s not necessarily reasonable to expect them to abandon it, and their persistence in belief does not necessarily betray a moral failing. It’s worth examining the way they respond to that belief. Do they try to ameliorate the pain they fear, or do they rejoice in the suffering of others? Do they try to examine the evidence for their belief, hoping they might be mistaken or do they accept the suffering of others complacently?
If you don’t have time to pick apart all the data that led your interlocutor to his untenable belief, you can still make use of it in argument. These theories can blossom into doubt about God’s benevolence, much like any question of theodicy, but soteriological questions are harder to wave aside. They can’t be easily dismissed as a confusing part of God’s ineffable plan.
In some ways, it may be easier to get a Christian to abandon an erroneous horrifying belief than it would be to persuade someone like me. We atheists have no guarantor that we live in a bearable universe.