Should We Care Whether Others Believe in God?

March 24, 2011

I gave a talk recently in which I stated that converting the religious to atheism or humanism should not be a major objective of secular organizations such as CFI. This assertion resulted in probing questions from some who maintained that I might be underestimating the importance of religious belief. I don’t think so. Let me explain why. (An editorial making some of the same points appears in the current (April/May) issue of Free Inquiry.)

Why should we care whether others believe in a god or other supernatural beings? Because these beliefs are false? Yes, they are false, but most people, including humanists, have a large number of false beliefs. Mistaken beliefs do not typically trigger passionate, prolonged efforts to persuade the person holding the erroneous belief that s/he is incorrect. Think of all the false beliefs each of us has about history, physics, biology, and whether our hair is thinning.

So if we are concerned about false beliefs that the religious have about the supernatural, presumably it must be because of the significant harmful consequences that follow from holding such mistaken beliefs.

In the case of religious beliefs, there are three broad categories into which such harmful consequences could fit. One is the self-inflicted harm resulting from religious belief. Second, there is the harm resulting from efforts by the religious to force their beliefs on others. Finally, there is harmful conduct toward others (not connected to imposition of beliefs) inspired or motivated by religious doctrines and practices.

With respect to self-regarding harmful behavior, I do not see this as sufficient justification for intervention, except perhaps in the case of imminent serious harm, for example, a person who is about to commit suicide because s/he believes it is the only way to meet God. Sure, religion produces false hopes and wastes a person’s time, but so do other mistaken beliefs. If the only harmful consequences from religious belief were those affecting the believer, it would constitute unjustified paternalism to devote significant time and effort to persuade the religious to give up their beliefs. Atheists are not in the business of saving souls.

Of course, for many—but, importantly, not all—of the religious, their beliefs are not purely a personal matter. To the contrary, many of the religious actively seek to convert others. Moreover, they often seek to impose their beliefs by enlisting the support of the government. This support can range from laws prohibiting individuals from abandoning their religion or criticizing it (such as the laws forbidding apostasy and blasphemy in some Islamic countries) to laws that passively support religion by allowing religious symbols to be displayed on public property. Whatever form government support for religion takes, it is wrong. Everyone should be free to come to their own conclusions about the existence of the supernatural without compulsion, prodding, or oversight by the State.

But notice that although religious beliefs surely motivate some of the religious to use the government as a crutch for their beliefs, other individuals who are religious are staunch defenders of church-state separation. Indeed, in the United States, the individuals responsible for providing us with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom were probably all religious, to some degree. In other words, it’s possible for a person to be religious and also support a secular government. So if we are concerned about combating preferential treatment for religion, it’s not necessary to persuade the religious to become atheists; we only need to persuade most of them of the justice and advantages of secularism.

This brings us to the third category of harm, that is, harmful consequences to others flowing from religious doctrines. These harms typically result from attempts to shape laws and public policies to reflect religious beliefs. For example, in the United States, religiously motivated individuals provide much of the support for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, prohibiting stem cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth.  In other countries, the pernicious influence of religion is even more evident, with religion providing the justification for the subordination of women, the suppression of nonreligious education, and the denial of personal freedom.

With respect to this category of harm, wouldn’t it be beneficial to persuade the religious to change their beliefs? The answer to this question is a heavily qualified “yes.” The answer is qualified because, especially in Western countries, there are many religious who do not seek to utilize religious dogmas as the basis for public policy (perhaps because there isn’t much room for dogma in their religious beliefs). Along with humanists, they believe that we should have a secular state and base public policy on secular concerns and empirical evidence. 

It is not so much religious belief in and of itself that is of concern to us, but the mindset of all too many of the religious that their doctrines should be reflected in the laws and regulations that govern us all, and, furthermore that they need not provide any justification for their support for a particular public policy other than “God says so.” If we are to have a truly democratic society, we need most of the people to break free of this mindset.

For some, that may mean they must first stop believing in the supernatural, because their religion so pervades their thinking and their life that they cannot conceive of reasoning about ethics and policy matters in secular terms until they stop believing in spirits. Of course, these are precisely the religious individuals who are the most difficult to reason with, so the odds of persuading them that their religious beliefs are unfounded are low—but the probability is not zero.

To sum up: If religion were entirely a personal matter, the religious beliefs of others would be of little concern to us. What we are principally concerned with is support for secularism. We want a secular state, we want nonbelievers to be treated fairly and equally, and we want public policy to be free of religious influence. To achieve these objectives, it is not necessary to convert all, or even most, of the religious. We simply need to ensure that a sufficient number of individuals are committed to the principles of secularism. Granted, that might require persuading some religious to become nonreligious — because they would not accept secularism otherwise — but only relatively few.

Thomas Jefferson got it right when he wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The beliefs of the religious, however absurd they may be, should be a matter of concern only to the extent the religious are motivated by their beliefs to harm others.