Beliefs Have Consequences, Including Religious Ones

Beliefs Have Consequences, Including Religious Ones September 11, 2009

ZJ has another predictably perfect video brilliant in unpredictably sharp ways:

There are those who say that religious beliefs are not at the root of certain behaviors that appear to be caused by religion. Even when the actions of the religious are completely in line with their beliefs, even when they openly proclaim that they are acting based on their religion, some will still insist that religious belief has nothing do with it at all. This happens surprisingly often. Whenever it is suggested that a person’s religion influences their behavior, it’s practically guaranteed that someone will object saying that “it couldn’t possibly be because of their religion, it’s really just something else.”  Somehow religion can never be at fault.

And yet when it comes to other kinds of beliefs, their power to motivate is rarely called into question. When illiterate hooligans mistake a pediatrician for a pedophile and subsequently vandalize her home and accuse her of pedophilia, could we honestly doubt that their woefully inaccurate beliefs drove them to action—really stupid action?    When an anti-abortion activist goes so far as to assassinate a doctor who performs abortions, do we have any reason to insist they couldn’t have done it because of their strong beliefs about abortion, it must have been something else?

So why is that when villagers in Africa believe an elderly woman or a child is magically making people die using witchcraft and a mob gathers to stone them to death or set them on fire, people will still claim that their belief in these magical abilities had nothing to do with the ensuing violence against the alleged witch. And if religious beliefs are incapable of influencing actions, if they truly make no difference in how people behave, then just what does religion do? What is religion for? What is the point of any of it? Why religion?

When you honestly hold a certain belief, be it accurate or not so accurate, it becomes a part of your understanding of reality, which forms the basis for how you choose to act. And religious beliefs are not separate from this simply because they pertain to religion, and yet some have questioned the very premise that beliefs of any sort can affect our conduct. It’s often said that if people weren’t doing something because of religion, they’d be doing it for another reason. This would mean that their reason for doing it actually has nothing to do with it, whatever their rationale, it isn’t going to change anything, the belief is irrelevant, the behavior invariant. If that is the case, would this mean that the mob of African mob of villagers knew that it was impossible for a child to kill people with witchcraft they would still proceed to incinerate that child anyway?

If beliefs don’t matter, what’s behind all this? Could it be that deep within the minds of billions of people on this earth there lies a burning core of pure evil throwing off sparks in every direction and lighting wildfires of rape, torture, murder, war? Something impervious to persuasion, so unperturbed by beliefs, that even if we succeeded in correcting their views, this would do absolutely nothing to stop them from committing atrocities.

This may very well be the most crushingly desolate and fatalistic way of looking at the world—which is not to say it isn’t true. But if it is and beliefs really do have no bearing on behavior, all this means is that my enthusiasm for fighting against dangerous beliefs will remain utterly unscathed by the knowledge that this is futile. It’s certainly not going to stop me—it can’t.

For some of my views in this general ballpark, see Religion As A Morally And Politically Ambivalent Force.  There is still a lot more to cover on the topic in the future.

atheism_motivational_poster_29 imagine a world without religion

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