Should people be allowed to have stupid beliefs?
I am an atheist. Nearly everyone who knows me knows it. While I do not doubt what I know, I do waffle on how exactly to practice this outlook on life. There are those, like P.Z. Myers, J.T. Eberhard, and Richard Dawkins, who think a direct and confrontational approach to anti-scientific beliefs are the way to “win” the culture war between religion and science. On the other hand, there are people like Kenneth Miller and Pamela Gay who, being either of faith or at least willing to believe in such things, think a cooperative approach is necessary.
Many believe atheism to be little more than another religion. A religion which is just as extreme as the Westboro Baptist Church or several sects of Islam. This could not be further from the truth. While I am sure there are many who consider themselves to be atheists because they just do not believe in gods, there are many more who came to this realization because of an understanding of the natural world. A rudimentary understanding of biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics will lead anyone to reconcile that there is no guiding supernatural force which caused all of this to be. We are merely happy accidents of an otherwise perfectly functioning universe that we simply do not fully comprehend as of yet. (I think its even time to argue against calling it a system of laws as such a nomenclature implies those laws were written and organized by someone before they were understood.) Furthermore, as someone whose beliefs are shaped by science and what can be tested for validity I can give the faithful a simple challenge to bring me over to their side; if you can pray and give me the name of the person in the photograph 4th from the back in my wallet, I will renounce science and become a believer on the spot. This is why I can never be and should never be labelled an extremist; I am open to changing my viewpoint given sufficient evidence. No extremist can say that.
As a sociologist, I understand how critical it is for a society to have a functioning cosmology which holds it together. Likewise I also understand the dangers of unchecked religious extremism. Just look at Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most of Southwest Asia (the Middle East to you ethnocentric pups). And the dangers to a functioning society of allowing a plurality of beliefs that conflict. Look at the history of the United States’ own civil war. Only the most blind of holocaust deniers would even entertain the idea that war was fought over anything but slavery. (Yes economics was the focus, but it was the economic advantage the south had because of their slave population that caused it. Thus, the war was about slavery.) We had a nation with two widespread, deeply felt, and unresolvable beliefs; in one camp slavery was good, in the other slavery was bad. It took a very bloody war to settle that difference in social cosmology.
I have friends who fully support allowing people to believe what they will. They say “it is their right, after all.” While I find no initial problem with this apparent innocuous statement, when allowed to go to its inevitable conclusion we wind up with people like Shelly Shannon and Scott Roeder. Both of these people attacked Dr. George Tiller for assisting women with ending unwanted pregnancies. Shannon shot Dr. Tiller in both arms and is currently serving a 20 year sentence for setting fire to women’s clinics in three states, after she served a 10 year sentence for shooting Dr. Tiller. Scott Roeder is currently serving a 50 year prison sentence in Kansas, without possibility of parole, for the murder of Dr. Tiller. Then you have a religious group who has, for decades, co-opted the word science and teaches things like “Electricity is a mystery” and “We cannot even say where electricity comes from.” And then we wonder why our nation is so far behind in the sciences when compared to other countries. It is these people’s unfounded beliefs, and their faith in them, that cause such strife.
Rather than, “should people be allowed to have stupid beliefs,” we should be asking, “should we allow those beliefs equal discourse in the public dialog?” When someone says “abortion is a sin against god” you should respond with “and how, exactly, does that affect the price of tea in china?” When someone says “marriage is between a man and a woman” the response should be “you’re right, those are a striking pair of loafers, but I’m talking about civil rights and not your religion.” Perhaps the problem isn’t the dangerous beliefs, it is the danger of giving belief equal weight as fact.
We need to stop accommodating and start challenging. We need to stop giving the faithful a free pass when it comes to their rantings about god and faith when it comes to the public good. Belief is not synonymous with right, nor is it with wisdom. Why do we give credence to the beliefs about a partially-developed fetus from people who have no idea how the body works? Why do we give any serious time to people who completely ignore facts based on their antiquated beliefs? I say we bring back the old social methods of correction: ridicule. Make fun of these ridiculous beliefs. Not the people, the beliefs. It is a fine line, but it can be walked.
Stop drawing lines in the sand, and start drawing a mustache and glasses on Jesus.