Opposing Beliefs That Cause Harm

Opposing Beliefs That Cause Harm August 7, 2014

Blogger Kaveh Mousavi of FreeThought Blogs wrote a post yesterday criticizing my recent posts on progressive Christianity and theistic evolution. I want to take a moment to respond to his critiques and further explain what I’ve been trying to say. In this post I am going to look at priorities and what we mean by “truth.” In tomorrow’s post I’ll look at Kaveh’s claim that progressive values are not compatible with Christianity (or Islam).

Kaveh starts out with this:

[A]ny atheist who argues in favor of progressive religion either buys into religious hegemony and gives a special status to religion or does so for political reasons.

As we’ll get into tomorrow, Kaveh does not believe that progressive values are compatible with Christianity or Islam. He does not see progressive Christianity or Islam as valid religious traditions. Here he says that those arguing that progressive Christianity or Islam are valid interpretations of these faith traditions must either be buying into “a religious hegemony” and giving “a special status to religion” or arguing such “for political reasons.”

I did indeed talk about “political reasons” accepting progressive Christianity as a valid form of Christianity in my post. I see progressive religion as a way for fundamentalists to become more compassionate and accepting and move away from toxic beliefs, and as such it is counterproductive to argue that progressive Christianity is invalid and that fundamentalists interpret the Bible “correctly.” But I also really do believe that progressives Christianity is a valid interpretation of that faith tradition—but more on that in tomorrow’s post.

Today I want to focus on Kaveh’s statement about buying into “a religious hegemony” and giving “a special status to religion.” I think what Kaveh means is that when the word “religion” is attached I’m willing to accept and treat as normal beliefs I would otherwise see as ridiculous. On some level, I suppose I am willing to “give a pass” to progressive Christians who say they believe God started the Big Bang and then watched, occasionally sticking a finger in it but never in a way that can be proved or disproved by science. But you know what? I am also would be willing to “give a pass” to someone who said they believed in Leprechauns—or mermaids—in an unfalsifiable way.

What do I mean by “give a pass to”? I think that’s the crux of the issue. I mean that I will accept their right to believe that, and accept them as people, and not let our differences in belief come between us. I do not mean that I will affirm their belief as objectively scientifically true. I may personally find their beliefs ridiculous, though I likely won’t say that. What I may say is that I disagree and that I think their beliefs are factually incorrect. But that’s it. I won’t let that difference in belief create a problem between us, say, by harping on it or constantly trying to prove to them that they are wrong.

By now you may have questions. Don’t I spend plenty of time here on my blog arguing against Christianity? Yes and no. I do argue ardently against Christian beliefs that cause harm—just as I do against secular beliefs that cause harm. I will absolutely do my darndest to change a patriarchal Christian’s beliefs, or an anti-gay Christian’s beliefs, and so forth. But when I do this I do not see myself as arguing against Christianity as a whole. Sure, I think Christianity is factually untrue, particularly in a scientific sense. But that’s okay. As I’ve said before, I am not an anti-theist. My goal is simply to move people away from specific toxic beliefs. If they change these beliefs by moving toward progressive Christianity, that is just as much a victory for me as if they do so by giving up religion entirely.

I think I understand why this is the case: At its core, my ethics is harm-based, not truth-based. On some level, I honestly don’t care whether or not people’s beliefs are factually, scientifically true. Instead, I care whether their beliefs cause harm. I’m against anti-vaxxing because it causes harm, not because it is factually, scientifically untrue. I’m against patriarchal Christianity because of the harm it does to women and girls, not because it is factually, scientifically untrue. My opposition to climate change denialism stems from the harm it causes, not from the fact that it is factually, scientifically. I find little value in arguing against things that are factually untrue but not causing any harm.

Part of the reason for this is that I don’t actually find “truth” that simple a term to pin down. I draw a distinction between scientific truth and the truth people draw from religion in the form of meaning and purpose. One of my biggest breakthroughs as I moved from fundamentalist to progressive Christianity was realizing that the Bible could be “truth” in a mythos sense without being “truth” in a logos sense. In other words, it did not have to be factually true to have rich meaning. In the same way, you can draw “truth” from Shakespeare, or from Harry Potter, or from Doctor Who.

I understand that many reading this may disagree with me on this. I’m okay with that. I’m not here to tell you that you have to think like I do. I think part of the reason I feel as I do on this topic is that I remember what it was like to be told what I could or could not believe. I remember what it felt to constantly have to defend my right to my own beliefs. It got to where I could completely understand why some people might choose to believe something simply to spite their parents. I’m not going to turn around and do that to anyone else. I would rather let people believe in leprechauns, or mermaids, or religion, with its long cultural history. If someone’s beliefs aren’t causing harm, do those beliefs really have to be objectively scientifically true? I like my world with a bit more diversity.

Some may note that “harm” is also difficult to pin down. This is true. Fundamentalist Christians argue that premarital sex causes harm. I would argue that modesty teachings cause harm. I suppose I am simply confident enough in my own understanding of harm to put skin in the game fighting it. And if someone wants to argue that I am wrong and what I see as harmful isn’t, and vice versa, that’s an argument I am more than willing to have.

Kaveh finishes his piece as follows:

So what I’m telling a moderate Christian or Muslim is not mainly “you have to choose between your faith and your values”, that is the consequence and not the cause. What I’m mainly saying is “You have to be intellectually consistent and work based on rationality, not what feels good.”

And so I would ask, why? Why is it more important for a person to base base their beliefs on objective scientific fact alone than on what is most fulfilling and meaningful for them? This is, again, where I’m coming from a different approach than Kaveh—my ethics are primarily harm-based, not truth-based. I care much more about a person’s beliefs aligning with acceptance, equality, and compassion than I do about them lining up with—and being limited t0—objective scientific fact.

And with that, tomorrow we will turn to the question of whether progressive Christianity—or progressive Islam—is a valid interpretation of that religious tradition.

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