Should We Care Whether Others Believe in God?

Here's Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, arguing that the organization shouldn't include the spread of atheism as one of its goals. The presumption (he seems to say) is that we shouldn't work to eradicate other people's false beliefs. 
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.
To make "passionate, prolonged efforts to persuade" we'd have to think holding the false belief is harmful.
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.
The harm ought to be either very serious, or other-regarding:
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.
Even when religious beliefs cause harm to others, he's reluctant to interfere with the beliefs themselves--
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.
So--a little bit of "passionate, prolonged persuading" can be justified, but where it's justified, it's least likely to be successful.


The whole question of how much we should care about others' false beliefs is perplexing and tricky.  The kind of caring that's normal and allowed is not dramatically different from the kind that's paternalistic and unjustified.

Normal and allowed. Caring what other people believe is part and parcel of simply speaking.  Every time you open up your mouth and utter a (declarative) sentence, your underlying goal is to alter the mind of the person you're talking to.  That's what speech is for--it's the way we get into the heads of other people and try to make their beliefs more like our own. Listening is letting other people into your head, and letting them make a difference to what you believe.

Everyday conversation and debate inevitably involves "passionate and prolonged" attempts to get other people to believe what we believe.  I recently spent hours trying to get someone to stop thinking plants have feelings.  The whole interaction couldn't have made sense if I hadn't cared what she thought.  And surely it did make sense--conversation and debate are good things.  

I could go even further without going awry.  I could write a book about how plants don't have feelings, attempting to stamp out this ever more popular delusion.  (The Plants-Have-Feelings Delusion, anyone?)  I wouldn't need an elaborate defense for writing such a book.

Paternalistic and unjustified. So when does caring about other people's false beliefs become problematic?  Perhaps the issue has to do with intentions. If I am just trying to make my own beliefs prevail, I'm on solid ground.  If I'm trying to prevent people from causing harm, I'm also on solid ground.  But when I try to alter beliefs in order to improve the lives of the people who have them, that's when my intentions become potentially problematic.  With some important exceptions, I shouldn't be trying to improve the life of someone who doesn't see her life as needing to be improved. That's disrespectful in some fundamental way.

So the issue is what we care about. It's fine to aim at changing other people's minds, and fine to care about spreading true beliefs.  It's not fine to think you know what's good for  people who have their own ideas about what's good for them.  Persuasion with the aim of making people better off is (often) problematic, but persuasion just to prevail in an intellectual battle is (almost always) fine.  (There's something odd about that!)


One could argue that the Center for Inquiry could work to spread atheism in a non-paternalistic fashion--not to help anyone, but just because it's true.  Wouldn't that be possible?  Surely I could form The Plato Society, and try to spread Plato's ideas, without any paternalistic intentions.  Couldn't CfI do the same sort of thing? Part of the problem is with inevitable associations.  Evangelizing about religion is a familiar thing, and it's almost always paternalistic.  It would be hard for anyone to take it seriously that atheist evangelizing had some completely different basis.


Rhys said...

I liked Ronald Lindsay's quotes. To me, the importance of a belief is not whether it is true, but whether holding it makes life better for yourself and others. If atheism is worth spreading, it would because it's better to be an atheist than a believer. If atheism is true but it's better to believe in God (if believing in God leads to increased happiness, has better outcomes for others, etc.), what is the advantage of being an atheist?

If there is no God to judge us for incorrectly believing in God, there's nothing in itself wrong with incorrectly believing in a God. Whether there is a God or not, the only reason to avoid believing in God is if believing in God leads to worse outcomes.

Similarly, if there was a God who didn't care whether we believed or not and our lives were better not believing in God, then atheism would be preferable even if it were false.

s. wallerstein said...

There a big distance between caring whether others have false beliefs and evangelizing them to change them.

I frequently see that others have what I consider to be false values,
and I care about that, but I shouldn't necessarily try to "convert" them.

Your comment that it's almost always fine to try to convince others for the sake of prevailing in intellectual battles is interesting. I doubt that most people outside of intellectual circles would agree with that.
Having been exposed to many polemics between professional intellectual such as yourself, I
have come to accept that more than I did at first.

paul h said...

Hi Jean

"Persuasion with the aim of making people better off is (often) problematic"

This is sort of what I do for a living! But normally people see me because they want help, so perhaps that makes it better. Nonetheless, often people see me because other people think they need help!

But the issue I constantly grapple with is when trying to engage in belief change is justified. I think it is very justified if the aim is reducing suffering *and* the person has asked for help. It is also justified on the grounds that a particular false belief interferes with a person's autonomy, but we must proceed with a very high threshold here, because engaging in belief change is itself a threat to autonomy (and, as you note, we all hold myriad false beliefs!).

Best, Paul

s. wallerstein said...

Not only is it decent to respect the autonomy of others,
but also the most important lessons in life, those we might call "wisdom", can only be learned on one's own or with others and through others, but with one as active subject of the learning process.

Simon Rippon said...

"With some important exceptions, I shouldn't be trying to improve the life of someone who doesn't see her life as needing to be improved. That's disrespectful in some fundamental way."

This claim needs argument, I think. I don't know which exceptions you have in mind, but the exceptions seem at least as numerous as the cases corresponding to the rule. Isn't "improving the life of someone who doesn't see her life as needing to be improved" exactly what parents, teachers, and some novelists and other artists rightly try to do much of the time, to take a few examples? If I'm about to inadvertently step into an open trapdoor, risking injury (or to knock my water glass into my lap, risking only minor discomfort), is it wrong for you to cry "Look out!"?

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, Yeah...I'm actually dissatisfied with what I said--it was sketchy and rushed. I'm finding it hard to back up the intuition that there's something wrong with evangelizing for a religious position, whether Christian, atheist or other. The explanation I gave needs a whole lot of work, because as you say, the exceptions are as numerous as the confirming cases.

Yet I still have the intuition. It's got to be possible to explain what's so annoying and inappropriate about the Christian evangelist, and whatever the explanation, I suspect it will carry over to evangelical atheism.

s. wallerstein said...


First of all, great novelists or artists don't preach. Tolstoy does in Resurrection, but few today would read Resurrection, if Tolstoy hadn't written Anna Karenina and War and Peace, where he doesn't preach.

Shakespeare doesn't preach nor does Homer nor does Cervantes nor does Dantes, since he assumes a Catholic worldview.

Great artists present us with a picture of the world and let us come to our own conclusions.

The religious views of people represent their core identity, one that either comes from having thought about Big Questions or from coming from a tradition which gives them dogmatic answers to said Big Questions.

In any case, when one criticizes their religous beliefs, one is questioning that core identity, which involves a lot more than theology in many cases and often has to do with their links to their family, for their culture, etc.

It seems to me that questioning someone's core identity is serious business. If I try to peddle an alternative to someone's core identity in the case way as I peddle a better brand of beer, I show disrespect for the being of that person. And evangelizing, whether for religion or for atheism, is a bit like selling beer.

That does not entail that I completely refrain from questioning the core identities of others, but it seems preferable to do it with tact, with knowledge of the other and often on a person to person basis.

Faust said...

I actually think the topic explored here is perhaps THE central issue in the bulk of the "religion wars."

In my view the reason it's not easily settled is because it touches on morality as such. While it is not quite right to say that Religion = Morality, it's close enough that we can understand why someone like Stephen Jay Gould made precisely that mistake when he developed his idea of "NOMA." It is also why, as Amos points out, these topics tend to involve beliefs that sit at the very basis of many peoples notion of "who they are," i.e. the moral basis of their person or "tribe" broadly construed.

When Jean writes "With some important exceptions, I shouldn't be trying to improve the life of someone who doesn't see her life as needing to be improved," we see precisely the kind of "dangrous attitude" that Harris would have liked to have overcome with his Moral Landscape. The whole idea of an objective morality gives us a trump card that lets us do precisely this: to determine when others are not behaving as they ought to...objectively speaking.

The quicksand gets thick fast in this area, which is why it is a debate that keeps going...and going...and going...

Simon Rippon said...

Thanks s. wallerstein. I don't know whether you'd say they "preach" or not, but I think the authors of "1984", "Lord of the Flies", and "The Lives of Animals", for example, could plausibly be described as in the business, in part, of trying to improve readers' lives in ways readers may not (in advance) see the need for. That's all I wanted to point out.
I actually agree with Jean that there is something annoying and inappropriate about some Christian evangelists, though I questioned her argument. Perhaps you're right that the wrongness involved has to do with questioning someone's core identity. But I wonder if it might have more to do with the fact that those evangelists who are annoying and inappropriate tend to exhibit unreasonable certainty in their beliefs, given their evidence. That means they violate conversational norms like "only assert that p if you have sufficient evidence that p". Having conversations with people who violate conversational norms tends to be annoying!

Jean Kazez said...

Evangelicals also violate the norm that says "don't keep talking when your conversational partner tries to close the door"!

But then that leaves it unclear why CfI should not get into promoting atheism as an organization. They could do so without violating any of these rules--just by publishing books, putting up billboards, and the like. No intrusion, no "in your face" tactics, and also no exaggerated certainty.

I'm scratching my head. My gut feeling is that Lindsay's conclusion is right but I'm not sure how to argue for it.

s. wallerstein said...


How interesting that you mention Lives of Animals! I just finished reading Elizabeth Costello, the book from which Lives of Animals is taken.

Actually, Coetzee undermines Elizabeth Costello's speech through his use of the frame story, in which Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, a philosopher, points out the problems with Elizabeth's arguments.

Evangelists generally do not point out the flaws in their own arguments nor question their own motives (Elizabeth's remark that she's trying to save her soul.).

Perhaps you could say that Coetzee wants to get his readers to think about the lives (and deaths) of animals, and I'd agree with that, but that is far from evangelizing.

It's been years since I read Lord of the Flies, and I'd agree that 1984 is a bit of a pamphlet, although a remarkably well-done pamphlet. Will people still read 1984 in 2084 or will be it considered a period-piece, the best example of an obsolete genre, the anti-Communist novel?