Questionable Motives

April 24, 2010

Is belief innocuous?

A common criticism of atheism is that it promotes a militant version of liberal conventional wisdom as the all-purpose solution for human ills, another kind of belief (like religious belief) that the solution to the world’s problems can be found by the withering away of religion through the continuing advancement of science and knowledge. The old and flawed canard to argue against this wisdom relies on pulling in Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot to represent this other-kind of belief identified as atheism in action, as if religious belief is not only a reasonable alternative to this cold and barbaric totalitarianism diametrically opposed to liberalism but one that is necessary to protect us from the inevitable ravages of atheism in action.

I have already explained why atheism is by definition is not another kind of belief (hence the importance of precursor word ‘non’) but simply a label that refutes the acceptance of any kind of supernatural mechanism to explain cause with effect. When any kind of supernatural mechanism is suggested as this link between cause and effect, I think we have a duty (at least to intellectual honesty) to dismiss the claim as unjustified. No matter what the claim may be – be it about homeopathy and the claim that water retain a ‘memory’ to demonic possession, from a tripartite god who cures leprosy to one who causes geological vengeance because of the attire of women – we need to reject that belief on the merit that it is an unjustified belief. Belief in a specific yet unknown supernatural mechanism between cause and effect simply is not justified because it is an incoherent assumption masquerading as something real and knowable. But under consideration is the question whether or not holding such beliefs is innocuous?

Consider this excerpt from this article Akwa-Ibom Child Witches:

From Nigeria to Congo, Kenya to Tanzania, The Gambia to Cameroon, there are reported cases of teens been hacked to death, toddlers being drowned in rivers, adolescent being macheted by frustrated men and women all because someone CONFIRMED spiritually that THEY ARE WITCHES! As an African, belief in witchcraft is not alien to me neither is the news of stoning to death of many confirmed by native spiritualists to be a witch.

If we move away from the specific and horrific actions justified by this specific belief – in this case the veracity of witchcraft – and look at any kind of belief as a stand-alone means to legitimately know anything whatsoever about linking cause with effect, then it becomes apparent that belief is an ending point to any gaining of knowledge. Believing something to be true and being satisfied with this assumption cannot be the beginning of an honest inquiry but its ending. It is a substitute answer – and one empty of knowledge. Belief is not an equivalent kind of knowledge whatsoever for any truth claim, as is suggested by those who wish to protect us from the ravages of atheistic belief that leads to totalitarianism and who support and apologize for the absurdity of non-overlapping magisteria for knowledge (those who support the notion that science answers one kind of question – the ‘how’ questions – while religion answers another kind of question – the ‘why’ questions) . Belief is a shortcut that attempts to persuade us to accept ignorance as another kind of knowledge, a different way to know, pretending to answer ‘why’ questions with anything other that pure speculation and assumption. This is false because at its root, belief in a supernatural intervention between cause and effect is simply a hypothesis – a truth claim unsubstantiated and unverified presented as some kind of informed answer when it clearly is not. It remains an assumption that is held to be true. Non belief, then,  is the opposite of this assertion – an insistence that any truth claims about the natural universe and anything within it must be substantiated and verified by some natural means other than more assumption to count as knowledge, to be considered informed.

Any time anyone acts on the conclusion that some belief is justified by merit of it being based on a belief, then that action  is unjustified. When we allow belief to be any kind of legitimate engine that drives actions rather than knowledge, then we are arguing that acting out of ignorance is synonymous to acting out of knowledge and both as legitimate as the other. This is patently false and people – believers and non believers – do not act this way: we don’t rush a injured or sick loved one to a brick layer because we honestly think that medical ignorance is the equivalent of medical expertise; we recognize that having knowledge is opposite to not having knowledge. Yet when it comes to belief and non belief, many seem to struggle with the notion of opposites.

Belief removed from any action in its name may seem to be innocuous but when ignorant beliefs informs ignorant actions, then belief is not innocuous. The children accused of witchcraft and treated accordingly by believers of witchcraft stand in testimony of the very real cost of belief in action.

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