Faith and superstition are not harmless

The importance of criticizing unjustified beliefs

Ariel Pontes
Jun 20, 2017 · 14 min read
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What is faith?

What is superstition?

Why superstition is harmful

Let’s take some time to think about the fundamentals of moral philosophy using the classical trolley problem. Imagine you’re a bystander and see a trolley that is moving out of control towards a group of 5 people tied to the tracks who will get killed if nothing is done. Next to you is a lever that can divert the trolley to another track. However, there’s also a person tied to that track, but only one. Would you pull it? I would. It turns out that up to 90% of us would. Now, what if, after you kill the single person, it turns out that the 5 people you saw on the other tracks were actually fake, drawn on a piece of paper that you would have just ripped without killing anybody if you had refrained from pulling the lever? Does that make you evil?

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My modified version of the this trolley problem illustration.
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“OK, some superstition is harmful, but not all! Astrology for example is harmless! We should only fight against harmful superstition.”

Unfortunately, the line between harmless and harmful superstition is not as sharp as some would like to believe. Many superstitions start harmless but become harmful. Astrology may seem all fun and games at first sight, but when job candidates are rejected because of their zodiac sign, that’s not so harmless anymore, is it? Avoiding black cats because they bring bad luck also seems inoffensive, but when people start killing black cats we’ve got a problem.

Why faith is harmful

There are two things that cause people to believe in superstition: faith and ignorance. It is quite unanimously accepted around the world that ignorance is bad, but it is extremely taboo to criticize faith. What is absolutely perverse about our society’s social acceptance of faith is that, in the process of being nice to a few “religious progressives”, we inadvertently give a free license for irrational people to kill their daughters in honor crimes, blow themselves up along with several innocents in the name of invisible deities and beat the devil out of their children. Even privileged, western people who have access to modern education are compelled by faith to oppose wider access to reproductive health, basic scientific education, LGBT rights, etc.

Is there anything good about faith and superstition?

Many people argue that it’s simplistic to attack faith and superstition as being harmful because, although it can be harmful sometimes, it can also be beneficial in other scenarios (e.g. it makes people behave better, feel happier, etc.), and the net effect is positive. While I do concede faith and superstition may have their benefits sometimes, it is difficult for me to believe that their net effect is positive.

What should we do?

Once you acknowledge that faith and superstition lead to more pointless suffering than prosperity in the world, the logical conclusion is that it’s our moral duty to try our best to eliminate it completely from the face of the earth. So why are we not doing that?

“It’s intolerant!”

There is a wide consensus in our society that trying to change somebody else’s religious convictions is wrong. To an extent, I understand. I can imagine that it could be unpleasant to have one’s sleep disrupted by Mormons knocking on your door to talk about their unjustified beliefs. Because many non-believers are annoyed by such practices, there is a tendency among many of us to strongly oppose the idea of preaching against faith and superstition.

“There will still be violence and suffering in the world!”

There sure will, nobody said there wouldn’t. But there would be less. ISIS wouldn’t exist, faith-healers wouldn’t neglect their children, etc. Cynics who say “the world has always be and will always be like this” think they know better than the naive idealists who still believe in change, but they fail to see that they are the ones who are irrational. The history of humankind has been one of constant change and moral progress. A few hundreds of years ago superstitious people were burning women in Europe for reasons such as transforming themselves into cats. There are reasons this doesn’t happen anymore and not believing in shapeshifting is a crucial one. We are making progress. There’s no reason to believe this is our peak and things can’t get any better.

“It’s not pragmatic!”

Many insist that it’s impossible to convert billions of believers to atheism and that therefore attempting to convert anyone is futile. They say that instead we should merely encourage believers to reinterpret their faith in a way that is more compatible with our modern values and teach them to separate their religion from politics. There are many unwarranted assumptions hidden in this accusation, so let me clarify what I am not proposing we do here:

“But there’s no point, you can’t reason somebody out of faith!”

That is just not true. I have reasoned myself and others out of superstitious belief systems. Of course you have to know how to choose your target and when to accept defeat, but it is possible. If you doubt it check the Converts Corner on Richard Dawkins’ website.

Conclusion

Faith and superstition are harmful. Multiple strategies can and should be used in order to minimize their harm. Some attack the root of the problem and try to reason people out of faith and superstition entirely, others are more subtle and try to persuade people to abandon certain practices while maintaining their beliefs. Both are valuable strategies and it is optimal to use both.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

Ariel Pontes

Written by

Secular-humanist, M.A. in analytic philosophy, volunteer at @YoungHumanIntl, blogger at fb.com/gh0stlessm4chine. Support me at http://bit.ly/ArielPatreon.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

Ariel Pontes

Written by

Secular-humanist, M.A. in analytic philosophy, volunteer at @YoungHumanIntl, blogger at fb.com/gh0stlessm4chine. Support me at http://bit.ly/ArielPatreon.

Humanist Voices

Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

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