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A Response to an Agnostic Baptist Minister’s Advice

Do religious believers need to know the truth about the historical and philosophical problems that exist throughout the infrastructure of their religion, its evolution and its sacred text? The “need to know” is a sensible constraint when dealing with business or government secrets provided that the secret is not maintained to avoid responsibility for unethical conduct. But it is difficult to argue that religious debate should be restricted to keep proprietary or national security secrets (not withstanding that some people indirectly or even directly associate their particular religious beliefs with national security). Instead, one argument for applying the “need to know” criteria to limit religious debate is that non-personal debates over religious beliefs nevertheless become personally hurtful to some religious people. The Agnostic Baptist Minister argues that non-believers should consider avoiding religious debate to avoid razing the everyday hope provided to simple people with simple faith and because such debate is ineffective and counter-productive.

We all have primary responsible for our own beliefs. It is improper to hold others responsible for our own beliefs or lack therefore unless those others have deliberately misled us. Non-believers are not deliberately misleading anyone. Accordingly, former religious believers are unlikely to be angry or upset with non-believers who influenced them to abandon their beliefs no matter how slow and painful the “de-conversion” was. Loss, pain and adjustment are an unavoidable part of life and not always without benefit. Some of today’s self-avowed atheists were yesterday’s “simple people with simple faith” who underwent a painful “de-conversion”. the Agnostic Baptist Minister is not more of an authority on the cost to believers of exposure to non-belief than such atheists who apparantly view the cost/benefit ratio differently.

It is unfortunately true that there are situations where it would be better to conceal our non-belief to avoid conflict or misunderstanding. There are also many contexts where religious debate is inappropriate. The workplace, for example, is not an appropriate place for religious debate. However, the possibility that we will influence someone to take a potentially painful path of abandoning deeply held beliefs is not a particularly compelling reason for us to hide or publicly self-censor our non-belief during those times and in those places where such expressions of belief are otherwise appropriate.

Religious institutions arguably have a self-interest in promoting dependency on religious beliefs. The leaders of religious institutions may claim they are promoting religious beliefs in the self-interest of the believers and of society. But those claims are themselves self-interested. Institutional self-interest and an individual member’s sincere beliefs can coincide even when the individual member is an employee of that institution. And a proclivity to adopt religious beliefs may come naturally for many people. Nevertheless, dependency on religious beliefs is at least partly a product of self-interested religious institutional indoctrination. And it is also true that a proclivity to be skeptical may come naturally for many people. From this skeptical perspective it appears unbalanced to request that the non-believer hide their non-belief to accommodate the theist’s dependency on his beliefs. Since atheists are not responsible for the theist’s dependency on his beliefs neither are they responsible for the difficulties this may present to the theist. Nor are non-believers obligated to protect the self-interest of religious institutions.

The existence of psychological ideological dependency is itself a negative rationale for restricting debate. Indeed, a primary benefit of debate is to avoid the dangers of dogmatism and associated ideological dependency. One could argue that the belief of North Koreans that Kim Chong-il is a God helps them deal with their life, it would be hurtful to them to take that away and they would be resistant to accepting otherwise so therefore it would be wrong to challenge such belief. We shouldn’t be encouraging or coddling ideological dependency and dogmatism at the expense of free and open expression and open exchange of beliefs. Doing so undermines human dignity.

The Agnostic Baptist Minister believes that it is “a waste of time” to try to get a believer to abandon his faith. However, the success of vigorous and uncensored religious debate is not measured by the number of converts to a speaker’s viewpoint. It is more properly measured by exposing the listener to the strength of competing views that he or she does not share. By that measure such debate is anything but futile. The Agnostic Baptist Minister appears to incorrectly assume that nonbelievers seek debate to convert believers to nonbelief. While some do many do not. Most nonbelievers probably want nothing more than to go about their lives freely without feeling pressured to hide their nonbelief for fear of discrimination due to prejudice.

The usefulness of a belief is an important criteria in favor of that belief. It is proper to argue that particular religious beliefs should be encouraged because they serve a practical purpose in people’s lives. However, beliefs do not have to be religious to serve a practical purpose and religious beliefs that serve a practical purpose can also have practical drawbacks. And religious beliefs tend to be complex, large packages that are in some sense understood to be an indivisible. It is thus over-simplistic and one-sided to argue that religious beliefs should not be subject to challenge or dissent because such beliefs have some benefit.

The Agnostic Baptist Minister may be actively encouraging his congregation to believe what they want to believe and do believe. It may be that he is arguably not misleading them so much as they are misleading themselves. He may be talking to them in their own terms because that is a more effective way to communicate a message, the substance of which is sincerely delivered. However he is mistaken if he expects other non-believers to take the same approach. Encouraging atheists to keep their non-belief hidden from the believing public is a one-sided pursuit. It is unbalanced because not all ministers refrain from promoting negative sentiments towards dissent and dissenters as the Agnostic Baptist Minister claims he does. It is unbalanced because the stiffling of dissent itself implicitly taints the dissent with an inferior status. Non-belief is entitled to compete with more popular belief for the hearts and minds of people simply because non-belief is a legitimate alternative to belief.

It is unlikely that many self-avowed non-believers are guilty of pursuing the “truth at any cost” as the agnostic Baptist Minister claims. Truth is one of multiple sometimes competing considerations and non-believers are as likely to strive for balance in their lives between these competing considerations like everyone else. Leading people by knowingly assisting them to mislead themselves places truth in an inferior position relative to other virtues in most contexts. And our context is not the same as the Agnostic Baptist Minister’s precisely because he straddles both viewpoints and we choose to more actively favor non-belief. We may view religion more negatively or less positively than he does or we may view non-belief more positively and less negatively than he does or we may view truth as more valuable than he does relative to other values.

We cannot speak of beliefs as if they exist in a vacuum: Beliefs are linked to people and the nature of this link varies from person to person. We are neither wise enough nor impartial enough to know exposure to which beliefs should be suppressed. We cannot select in advance who will be better off not being exposed to one belief or another. The ultimate choice of beliefs must be an individual’s choice. That choice can best be made in the equally accessible presence of all relevant information and arguments. All beliefs must therefore stand on their own strength on a person by person basis without pre-censorship. Religious beliefs that are too weak to withstand critical scrutiny and competition do not merit special protection or exemption from such scrutiny and competition.

The agnostic Baptist Minister claims that arguments against belief have less impact on those whose beliefs are most dogmatically held. The implication he wishes us to draw is that exposure to the viewpoints of non-believers is driving the evolution of religious belief away from the moderation that he advocates and towards extremism. It is true that the more dogmatic religious believers employ more extreme and numerous belief defensive mechanisms and it is plausible that some religious believers have retreated into their fortress walls at least in part in reaction to exposure to competing beliefs. However, it is also true that the earlier, the broader and the deeper the exposure to the full spectrum of beliefs the less attractive that extreme belief defense mechanisms will be to people in the first place.

Religious extremism is more common in those countries where religious dissent is suppressed, either by government or peer pressure. The United States is itself a country where theistic belief exclusivity is sometimes imposed in such inappropriate places as oaths for government witnesses and appointees in legislative hearings, government owned and operated Boy Scouts units, Congressionally chartered national veterans organizations, the national pledge of allegiance, and the like. This government semi-establishment of theism helps to support bigoted religious intolerance towards non-believers in the United States. Hiding one’s minority dissenting non-belief from others is counter-productive to correcting this problem over the long term. Fortunately, the US federal courts have ruled on a number of occasions against the imposition of theistic belief mandates by government and places of public accommodation.

Debate can be polite or rude, respectful or disdainful. It is wrong and unfair to equate sectarian debate with disrespecting religious beliefs just like it would be wrong to equate political debate with disrespecting partisan beliefs. Those who endorse such a false equation embrace anti-intellectual dogmatism and ignorance. We ennoble our beliefs by politely and respectfully debating them and debase them by refusing to debate them. The Agnostic Baptist Minister has it backwards when he implies otherwise. Respect as a virtue is about mutually respecting each other as people independently of our beliefs. Respect as a virtue is about not pre-judging people with respect to ability or ethical and civic commitment on the basis of purely metaphysical beliefs.

Defenders of restrictions for religious belief debate seem to place religious beliefs in some special category apart of other beliefs. Religious beliefs and other beliefs have more in common than such defenders acknowldege. Developing psychological dependency on non-religious ideologies is little different than developing such dependency on religious ideologies. Conflating “truth” and facts with non-religious beliefs is no different than conflating “truth” and facts with religious beliefs. These less than ideal habits of thinking that tend to be encouraged by ideological institutions and traditions can also carry over to other areas of thought. Religious beliefs and non-beliefs need the same exposure to unrestricted debate as all other beliefs to help us avoid these pitfalls.

We do not need to know the truth about any history. Yet we spend a decade or more of our lives going to school. And most everyone understands that we are better off with school than without it. Indeed, in a democratic civil society we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to our fellow citizens to try to ensure that our beliefs are well-founded both historically and philosophically. And this is true for religious beliefs as it is for any other beliefs, particularly since religious beliefs are often intertwined other beliefs, including political beliefs, both in content and, not insignificantly, in the manner in which they are held.