Belief for the Sake of Belief?

English: Sam Harris

Image via Wikipedia

I was in a debate recently, and was responding to an argument I come across quite often.  It took place on a public debate page, and began with a post to this affect:

I saw a post on here saying being religious is to be ignorant. Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make. To believe in what they want even if others do not agree with it. If something is fantasy, and want to devote their life to it, let them. For, to that person, it is truth for them.

Now this certainly isn’t a particularly original defense of religious belief.  Noted author, Sam Harris, has addressed these very arguments on many occasions.  Still, it is a plea that is so ill-conceived that I could not resist delivering a response.  This was my rebuttal to two of the points made in the above passage.

1.  “Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make.”

How a person acts upon their religious beliefs could possibly be viewed as a choice, but their BELIEFS are not. We cannot simply “choose” what we believe. True belief is the product of being persuaded or convinced of a proposition. If I do not believe that Elvis is still alive, I could CHOOSE to pretend as though I do, but I could not actually believe it inside without being convinced of the claim by evidence or argument.

2.  “If something is fantasy, and they want to devote their life to it, let them.   For to that person it is truth for them.”

The taboo around challenging religious beliefs is something that, itself, needs to be challenged. Sam Harris quite rightly addresses this in many of his books. Name one OTHER discipline, subject, or realm where this sort of behavior or attitude is acceptable. If someone wishes to be a holocaust denier, should we simply respect that belief? If someone decides the moon is made out of cheese, are they applauded for their faith? If someone decides that water is not made of hydrogen and oxygen, but instead is made from mind-controlling chemicals, is their viewpoint given ANY credence?

The answer is, of course, no. Sure, a person has a legal RIGHT to believe these ridiculous things, but they are not free from consequence if they express them publicly. Any claim, opinion, or viewpoint is challenged, questioned, and evaluated against the evidence, rather than being automatically respected. Only informed opinions garner respect, only educated guesses warrant consideration, and only evidentially supported claims are given any merit.

English: Sam Harris speaking in 2010

Suddenly, the moment someone mentions god, all of the above rules go flying out the window? If someone holds a trivial belief, that is obviously ridiculous, it is challenged. But if someone adopts an equally unsupported idea regarding matters of grave importance, suddenly questioning their idea is taboo? This is nonsense. Religions shape the way people live their lives. They often impact the way societies function. Education, science, morality, and social acceptance are constantly impacted and influenced by these beliefs.

They are demonstrably more impacting than almost any other position. This is all the MORE reason to hold them to the very same standard to which we evaluate every other claim or concept. If you have a claim, support it with evidence, or prepare to have it disregarded. If you make an assertion, provide reasoning, or it will be dismissed. This goes ESPECIALLY for claims and beliefs that aim to impact the way people live their lives. Religion is certainly no exception.  There is no particular reason to have belief, simply for the sake of having belief.