Reality Matters

Reality Matters March 2, 2012

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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