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.