No, We Can't Have That

Well, my blood’s boiling.

PZ posted a bit from an obsessive loony yesterday.  I won’t go into detail on the loony’s post, but one snarky part of the loony’s rant caught my attention because I hear it so much from non-loony (at least, to that extent) religious people.

 You don’t want people thinking that they can just believe whatever the fuck they want to get them through the day :: and to cope with their own mortality :: and the mortality of those they treasure …

You’re dead right: I don’t want people thinking they can believe whatever the fuck they want.

So frequently religious people will say their beliefs about god are the most important thing in their lives, and then they causally say something like this, which dismisses any concern for whether or not those beliefs are true as though their beliefs are as unimportant as stale leftovers.

Can’t people believe whatever they want, regardless of whether or not it’s true?  What if it comforts them?

Too. Fucking. Bad.  There are outlets to comfort that don’t involve sacrificing our intellect at the altar of complacency.  You can find peace without hacking down the fence between fantasy and fact.

What of the parents who prayed their daughter to death, comforted until her dying breath by the belief that trusting god over doctors would cause their child to recover?  The solace those parents found in believing their daughter is in a better place (y’know, coping with the experience of their treasured daughter’s mortality courtesy of their shitty beliefs) does not unmake the fact that erroneous beliefs caused perfectly caring parents to murder their offspring.  Surely the men who brought down the twin towers coped with death by imagining their existence beyond the explosions.  The empty tranquility extracted from inaccurate/lazy beliefs is not without repercussions, nor is it a moral way to seek comfort.  The idea that we shouldn’t care about the reliability of our beliefs is an evil concept that corrupts otherwise good people, yet it is a concept for which anybody who believes on faith necessarily stands in defense.

You may scream until you’re blue in the face that I cannot compare the pious parents in the above example to ‘normal’ believers, but you’re wrong.  While unsupported beliefs are a crapshoot that produces several different behavioral outcomes, a way in which you can tie every single believer in Jesus together is that each and every one of them has no better reason to believe they’re right than the next Christian.  The liberal Christian has no better reason to believe they are privy to the will of god than Fred Phelps or the parents of pure intent who watched as their daughter died unnecessarily.  Every single Christian, Muslim, you name it, has failed to treat evidence or reason with greater primacy than the maintenance of their present beliefs.  This is a failure that should be noted without apology and that should worry the believer, but instead they so often dismiss the importance of forging reliable beliefs with the immoral noise of, “Shouldn’t we be allowed to believe whatever we want?” with an unspoken “…without you pestering us about it?” at the end.

And the answer is an exasperated ‘NO!’, delivered with mountains of frustration that we are expected to answer such a stupid question.  We can’t have people believing whatever they damn well please.  Beliefs are the guardians of actions, and the inane beliefs that give religious people comfort often come with a lot of other baggage on an individual level and always come with baggage on the societal level.  This is why religion is the chief catalyst in America for the suppression of minority rights and the social stigmatization of outgroups.  This has resulted in non-believers burying who they are for fear of losing their jobs and/or losing their family (and if the atheist is a minor, losing their home) as well as a whole slew of other malicious shit.

Beliefs that do not incorporate reality often result in behavior that does not incorporate reality, and that’s a pretty lousy way of navigating compassionately through…reality.  And since these people are my teammates here on Earth, with whom I must work to live a happy life and to foster a better world, their beliefs (as well as their lack of pious care in developing them) is god damn sure my business the second they step out of church.

The truth matters.  Don’t get pissed at us for pointing out where you have failed in formulating judicious beliefs, stop acting like you shouldn’t have to try and make sense, and start fixing your failures – which is precisely what faith-based beliefs are. Faith is not beautiful.  It is gullibility pursued.  Believing things on faith in opposition to reason, like believing in people rising from the dead or walking on water, is an intellectual failure.  It is something people should be ashamed of.  This is the problem with religion, and it is captured in a single sentence atop of this post that we’ve all heard from believers.

Religion tells us that cheap comfort takes precedence over reason.  In doing so, it tells us that being irrational is acceptable.  It’s not.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • janicot

    I’ve seen one of my favorite quotes attributed to George Bernard Shaw:

    The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

    Personally, I won’t sacrifice my mind or integrity for somebody’s religion.

    • Cwayne

      Well put.

  • Cwayne

    Another superb post… and why I see JT Eberhard on the same level as PZ Myers.

  • RhubarbTheBear

    I don’t see how you’re going to keep people from “believing whatever they want” without getting into the concept of “thought crime” and limiting Constitutional freedoms. I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed and I really have to try harder than most to grasp these concepts, but you’re losing me here and I am honestly baffled.

    I’m trying here, trust me.

    • Adam.B

      Thought crimes and limiting freedoms is not what is meant here, it may just be the wording of the quote that is confusing you.

      The quoted statement is another version of the “why can’t you just let people believe whatever they what” trope in this case it’s basically why can’t we all just shut up and let them have there coping mechanism.

      Jt’s point is no we won’t be quite because forgoing truth when building and holding beliefs has a cost.

      • RhubarbTheBear

        If that is indeed what JT meant, then yeah, I obviously have no problem with exercising free speech vigorously on this matter.

        • Mark

          Isn’t it obvious what he meant? Nobody in their right mind would try and strip the right to believe whatever you like. What he’s (quite obviously) saying is that we shouldn’t fall for the typical bullshit of, “why can’t you leave me alone to believe whatever I want?” In other words “please don’t criticise my irrational beliefs!”. Just like they have the right under the law to hold these beliefs we hold the same rights under the law to criticise them and it is our moral imperative to do so when we see bad beliefs informing bad actions.

  • Finney

    Do you believe we have control over our beliefs – in the sense that we can freely direct our thought-processes to conform to rational norms? And if so, where does scientific determinism fit in?

  • Susi

    Spot on… as usual! Love reading your posts!

  • Daniel Gentry

    “Religion tells us that cheap comfort takes precedence over reason.”

    You may see religion as a cheap comfort; however, it is the only comfort some people can find. While it is sad that religion is the only comfort they can find, taking someone’s only source of hope away is sadistic. I agree that people need to be more than just their beliefs. I just don’t think that most people have enough moral/ ethical/ mental strength to live in a world with only their own strength to provide the will to live. Hope is a powerful drug that most people need to survive daily life.

    • Art Vandelay

      I’m sorry, but what exactly is it that they’re hoping for? Immortality? The fact that this sextillion star universe was designed specifically for them? That doesn’t offer them comfort…just a vehicle for their narcissism. Anyone that needs to believe in the divinity of a 2000 year old Palestinian zombie in order to act ethically towards others is at the most a psychopath and at least inherently amoral. They’re either dangerous or they’re lending credence to those that are dangerous and as JT said…the dangerous ones’ understanding of God’s will has no less of a chance of being incorrect than the ones that are just in this for “comfort.” It’s that respect that you offer to people like the faith-healing parents of that baby that leads to tragedies like that. If more people treated them with ridicule as JT does, that baby would probably still be alive.

      • Daniel Gentry

        What they are hoping for does not matter. They cannot function on a high enough emotional/ intellectual level to internalize hope. This is not a weakness, it is the norm. Most people cannot function on that high of a level.

        “this sextillion star universe was . . . a vehicle for their narcissism.” You are right. it is extreme narcissism for someone to thing the universe was created only for them. However, that is a fairly new idea in Christianity and is very Western, and seen almost exclusively in the US. It is a weak, unsupported theology, don’t group all of us in that mindset.

        “Anyone that needs to believe . . . a psychopath and at least inherently amoral.”

        Actually, we, as humans, do apparently need a moral guideline. Last time I checked they were called laws.

        Bad parents are going to be bad parents. I see no special significance that these parents were religious. They were no different than any type of fanatic. I remember reading about the baby that died because the parents played so much WOW that the child starved to death. Fanatics are dangerous. I don’t think anyone will argue that fact. But having a belief system does not guarantee that some is or will become a fanatic.

        People are going to be stupid, if you take away there belief system . . . they will find new ways to be stupid.

        • Art Vandelay

          I think you’re still missing the point. Playing WOW isn’t tied into your salvation. Playing WOW isn’t divinely warranted. People that put WOW before the well-being of their child can’t argue that playing WOW is in fact in the best interest of their child. WOW nerds simply can’t appeal to reason with faith. With shit like faith healing, otherwise caring, attentive parents can still become muderers. They’re not necessarily scumbags…just super misguided, and they probably just never met anyone that wasn’t afraid to criticize their beliefs.

          • Daniel Gentry

            No, my whole point is fanatics are fanatics. I am sure that the WOW parents tried to justified their actions somehow. And, unless the faith-healing parents lived in some kind of super close-knit cult like setting (if they did then my argument would be moot), then they ran into other Christians who would have repeatedly criticized them for endangering their child. In modern American Evangelical Christianity faith-healing is the Hail-Mary on 4th and long when you are down by 6, not the go-to play.

            Yes, you are going to have poorly educated (poorly educated in both science and theology) people do crazy things. Spending time overseas and in the poorest parts of the rural South I seen some crazy home remedies, many of which could have been fatal. So if you want to argue that these kinds of people need to have better education, and be taught to doubt the “wisdom of the ages,” whether it be from a religious figure or a secular one, I will agree. But if you want to blame it all on a belief system, I will whole-heartedly and politely disagree.

    • Mark

      You are missing the point by quite a wide mark Daniel. Of course people who naturally lean towards fanaticism will be fanatics. Nobody is disputing that. The fact is that religion gives these people a great platform to do so and in a lot of instances it’s exempt from public scrutiny because it’s done in the name of religion. Then there’s the instances of ‘normal’ people committing the acts of fanatics because they have been driven there by the particular beliefs of their wacky churches. These parents killing people aren’t being found insane by the legal system they’re simply people who took their irrational belief system to it’s inevitable conclusion. As JT said that’s one of the problems with religion, it’s virtually indistinguishable from insanity.

      • Daniel Gentry

        “These parents killing people aren’t being found insane by the legal system.” You are right they are not insane. In every case I have ever read about they were found to be of sound mind and body, thus capable of deciding between right and wrong and guilty of murder (technically manslaughter).

        You can use any inflexible worldview as a platform for fanaticism, be it religion, politics, or social justice. There have be countless atrocities committed under they name of politics. Are we trying to get rid of politicians?

        Insanity is a legal term not a psychological term. if you want to call someone with a belief system which includes the supernatural illogical or claim that they are in denial, that is fine but we cannot normally be called insane.

    • Crommunist

      This attitude never fails to disgust me. “Religion is what the masses need to get by, because they’re too stupid to live otherwise.” Who are you to decide what truths people are ready to hear? It’s the same kind of ‘reasoning’ that gives us “if you teach kids about evolution, they’ll start acting like monkeys!”

      The human race is characterized by a capacity to adapt to monumental changes in the understanding of the universe. To claim that we should keep our hands off their precious religion because they wouldn’t know how to function otherwise reveals both an obscene level of arrogance and a profound misunderestimation of your fellow humans.

      We should pursue truth wherever it leads us, and not shy away because the “common people” might not like it.

  • plutosdad

    What is somewhat surprising is you CAN compare those who let their children die while praying for them, with others who will go to the doctor but still trust more in God:

    According to this study, the more you believe your fate is in God’s hands, the more likely you will simply forget to take medication, this is without even trying. Note other religious people who subscribed to “God helps those who help themselves” and similar philosophies were more likely to remember to take their medications.

    From this we can extrapolate that people pre-disposed to thinking their efforts don’t matter much in the long run will make less of an effort. This might even apply to others, not only to sick children, but to helping those in need on the street, their neighbors, etc.

  • Mario

    My dear JT,

    I hope you are well. First, once again allow me to tell you that I do not doubt your drive to improve our planet; I respect that. Now about this comment:
    “What of the parents who prayed their daughter to death, comforted until her dying breath by the belief that trusting god over doctors would cause their child to recover? The solace those parents found in believing their daughter is in a better place (y’know, coping with the experience of their treasured daughter’s mortality courtesy of their shitty beliefs) does not unmake the fact that erroneous beliefs caused perfectly caring parents to murder their offspring.”

    My dear JT, like I have told you before, this example does not work to show that ALL people of faith are the same. Why? First, did these parents do this? Yes. Did I deny this? No. Did I say that my faith was “better” than theirs? NO. What did I say when you pointed this out? That I want laws in place that will prevent this. And you approved of me saying this. Remember, I myself have a little girl and from the moment she was born she has gone to the doctor. No “praying away the sickness” here. So, how is it that my faith does not prevent me from taking my little girl to the doctor? I think it is a fair question.

    Then you add this:
    “The liberal Christian has no better reason to believe they are privy to the will of god than Fred Phelps or the parents of pure intent who watched as their daughter died unnecessarily.”
    Again, my dear JT, when have you seen me say ANYTHING about my faith being BETTER than anyone? The answer is never. I only explained how I come to my conclusions. You told me that I am reaching the RIGHT conclusions for the WRONG reasons. Another question this: what is allowing me to reach the RIGHT conclusions? Should not my faith prevent me from doing so? Why is not faith preventing so many others from taking their children to the doctor? Or from making sure that they take their medicines? What is it about them and me that we continue to do so everyday? I believe these are fair questions.

    In the meantime, I shall continue to take my little girl to the doctor, I shall continue to combat people (IN PUBLIC) like Fred Phelps, I shall continue to stand for separation of church and state, I shall continue support Evolution (including combating Creationism from getting into public schools), I shall continue to support my brothers and sisters of the LGBTQ community, I shall continue to support the efforts of organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief and the UN Millennium goals, and I shall continue to look for people like yourself that are already doing this so that we can come up with ways for doing so.

    And many like me are not doing this because we think our faith is “better” than the faith of others. We simply think that compassion for other human beings and relieving their suffering is important.

    I do not think this is unreasonable. In fact, I think these things will help us all. And I remain open to ideas and solutions that could help. Always my friend.

    Mario :)

    P.S. My girlfriend says hi, and we were wondering when we may see you again :)

    • jonnelson

      You’re precisely the ally I had in mind in my comment. Cheers, Comrade!

    • Crommunist

      what is allowing me to reach the RIGHT conclusions? Should not my faith prevent me from doing so? Why is not faith preventing so many others from taking their children to the doctor? Or from making sure that they take their medicines? What is it about them and me that we continue to do so everyday?

      A person intervenes to stop a suicide jumper because she respects and values human life.

      A second person intervenes to stop a suicide jumper because she’s the one who has to clean the sidewalk in front of the building.

      They’ve both done the RIGHT thing, but for very different reasons. It is entirely possible for two identical actions to be motivated by very different ethical standpoints. Doing something because you believe your sky zombie wants you to is feather-pluckin’ insane.

      As for why you take your kid to a doctor instead of a priest, I’d guess it’s because your faith isn’t quite as strong as someone who relies on a faith healer. The bible is explicit – if you have sufficient faith, Yahweh will heal your infirmities (and if He doesn’t, your kid goes to Heaven anyway, so stop complaining). Relying on paltry human reason over the power of the almighty simply reveals that you’re not a very devout Christian.

      Or maybe you recognize that belief in a ghost over demonstrably-effective science is ridiculous, in which case I invite you to take the leap the rest of the way.

  • Finney

    “And since these people are my teammates here on Earth, with whom I must work to live a happy life and to foster a better world”

    Can you state a non-faith-based basis for your concept of a “better world”?

    In other words, can you provide a wholly assumptionless empirical foundation for asserting that any given course of action is “good” or “right” or “better”?

    My bet is that you don’t. And that you’ll ultimately take your vision of what the world should be by trust (AKA faith).

    But again, you’ll probably think your faith is better than the faith of other people.

  • jonnelson

    I absolutely identify with your frustration. We are facing and will be facing unprecedented challenges as a society and as a species over the coming decades. However, that is far too short a timespan to expect the masses to begin deconverting, especially when we need solidarity and mass action in the light of these challenges.

    I would propose instead that you seek to build a culture of rationality and build bridges with those liberal Christians that can be persuaded to agree with you on the issues that pertain to the here and now. Yes, they are irrational, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone that isn’t from time to time. Our generation is already seeing a decline in religiosity, and that will hopefully only accelerate, though their new idols (sex, drugs, money) may be no more rational than the gods they worship now.

    People will always be irrational. It’s the nature of the beast. However, science, by offering solutions, and rationality by expanding rights, can prove themselves and establish a foothold in society. If instead you use science and reason to attack the religious they will just retreat from your intellectual fusillade to the comfort of their religiosity. We must learn to work together, and by doing so we may be able to impart reason to those that you claim are so hostile to it.

  • Art Vandelay

    Daniel…one more time. People that play WOW while neglecting their starving child don’t think that they are doing anything to benefit their child. They are quite aware that they are neglecting their child but simply don’t give a shit. Those are the people that are going to be dangerous no matter what.

    The faith healers, in the context of their religion, are doing the right thing. They have a book that they’ve been told has divine origins and will lead them to salvation by following what it mandates. Jesus clearly states that whatever you pray for, it will be answered. In that context, why wouldn’t they just try to pray the kid back to life? I mean…you either have faith or you don’t. Why is believing that you can pray demons out of a kid any less ridiculous than believing a God needed to sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself in order to forgive us? It’s just not. Lending credence to any of this shit is dangerous and that’s exactly what people are doing who are in this just for the comfort.

    I can’t understand why you don’t see the difference between these two things and I know you want to agree to disagree but you’re just…wrong.

    • Daniel Gentry

      1: “They have a book that . . . salvation by following what it mandates.” This is a gross oversimplification of what the Biblical text is about. To claim to be a “Christian” literally means to be a little Christ, or to attempt to emulate his life, i.e., to feed the poor, to protect the widow and orphan, welcome the stranger, support the oppressed, to sacrifice one’s life for another, and to attempt to change society into a better place. Anyone who says all you have to do is follow the Bible has apparently never read the Bible because there is an entire book (Galatians) about how we are not to be bound to a legalistic mindset. The author says the point of pursuing God is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.” (Gal 5:22b, 23) I like the ideas in that list. Those are the kind of ideas I strive to create in myself and in my community.

      2: “Jesus clearly states that whatever you pray for, it will be answered.” Once again, this is a shallow understanding of the text. Of the four texts (Matthew 7 and 21, Luke 11, and John 16) that mention receiving what you ask for in prayer, only one, Matt 21, could be eluded as receiving anything you ask for, even a modicum of Biblical or literary training would allow you to see that the passage as a whole is speaking on Jesus’ authority not man’s.

      3: “Why is believing that . . . in order to forgive us?” I understand your point here. The idea of a self-sacrificial God is completely foreign and abhorrent to the modern, logical ideology. It is an ancient near-eastern motif and I would need pages to try to explain its cultural/ historical/ and theological significance. Even then, it still becomes a matter of faith, thus in the purest of logical forms . . . illogical.

      4: “Lending credence to any of this shit is dangerous and that’s exactly what people are doing who are in this just for the comfort.”
      Let me ask for clarification on this point. Are you saying that by having a belief system which includes the supernatural, that you are a danger to yourself and all those around you? If you are trying to judge all of us by the minority, then that is insulting and I get to judge all atheists by the crazy ones.

      5: “I can’t understand …wrong.” I can see the point that you are making. I just think that you are wrong. I think that they were ignorant, bad parents and fanatics. If I had a child, I would do whatever was necessary to preserve that child’s life and happiness. If that means praying for them, I would pray. If that means giving them a kidney, I start drinking a lot of cranberry juice and peeing every hour. If that means sending them to atheist/ skeptic summer camp, then I get Dawkins’ autograph while they are gone. I see no significant psychological difference between a ignorant atheist and and ignorant believer. They are going to both do dump stuff because they are going to be full of misconceptions.