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FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Is it necessary to discredit religious or theistic belief?

Asked by FireMadeFlesh (13827 points ) September 13th, 2010

This question is mainly for atheists, or more accurately anti-theists, but I would like to hear from everyone.

Religious and theistic beliefs have been mixed up in all manner of undesirable thoughts and actions all throughout history. Some prominent atheists use this as a reason to argue against religion and theism, because they regard atheism as part of the path to greater civility.

However I’m sure we all know theists whose beliefs are not harmful in the slightest. We are lucky enough to have several here on Fluther. While theistic beliefs may not be true (please leave this point for another thread – I’m trying to cover new territory here), surely arguing against the harmless forms as part of the whole is pointless.

Why argue the existence or otherwise of gods, rather than the effects that some forms of belief cause? Can we not gain wider support if we instead argue, for example, the right of every person to exercise personal preference, the right of a child to a balanced education, and the moral depravity of honour killings? It seems we are wasting our time on the issue of gods vs. no gods, when instead we could be teaching people to be moral despite their beliefs. Most Christians I know are good people, despite some of the despicable passages to be found in the Bible. I am quite sure intelligent, open minded theists would support such arguments.

Would it be more beneficial to spend time spreading ideas of ethics and morality, or is there a particular reason why it is important to discredit religious belief in itself? Does everything come down to actions?

Apologies for the length. I hope the question is clear enough.

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37 Answers

Ben_Dover's avatar

It seems to be necessary for those whose atheism is shaky.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

It isn’t necessary. In fact, I usually avoid that conversation. I don’t care if people believe in god… it has never bothered me. I struggle to understand it, but I completely respect that people have the right to have their own beliefs. The only time I argue is when someone starts with me. It isn’t like anyone is actually going to win the argument. :)

wundayatta's avatar

You know, I’ve wondered this, too. What matters is how people behave, not what they say they believe. People say things for a lot of reasons. Many people say they believe things because everyone else around them believes the same thing. Did anyone ever read Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown? It’s all about people being pious in public, and cutting deals with the devil in what they believe is private.

It’s hard not to focus on what someone says they believe. On the internet, that’s really all we have. We can’t really see them in action on the ground. Still, I think what people do is far more important than what they say they believe as far as predicting what they will do in the future goes.

NaturallyMe's avatar

I agree with you, and i must say that it’s not necessary at all, and have never understood the lengths and degree of argumentation someone would get into to try to disprove God’s existence – what’s the point?! There is often such hatred and rudeness in these God vs no God debates, and almost ALWAYS there will be insults involved (i must say that mostly it is the atheists – from what i’ve seen – that begin insulting theists, basically for being so stupid as to believe in a non-existent entity – their words, not mine).
The important thing is indeed to live a good, moral and ethical life, not what any person chooses to believe when their beliefs are not harming anyone. People really need to know when to mind their own business sometimes and leave people be….

LuckyGuy's avatar

I see society not availing itself of the next generation of medical improvements due theist resistance to stem cell research, or evolutionary theory with DNA.specific drugs.
Are there any atheists against stem cell research?
I don’t mind if someone wants to believe in Rah, Mohamed, Jesus, God, Buddha, Ganesha or whatever. But once that belief prevents me from receiving a certain medical treatment then push back is necessary.

As a side corollary, if you ran a research lab that does carbon and nuclear dating of soil strata would you wan it to be run by a Creationist who resists publishing any data that indicates anything older than 6,000 years because it is against his belief?

What would NASA be like if it was run by someone who believed the heavens were a shell and stars were holes?

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@worriedguy I wouldn’t for a moment suggest atheism is a bad thing, but maybe we can address one issue at a time rather than the whole raft of them. Shouldn’t we break down barriers on stem cell research, gay rights, and proper science education as separate issues, arguing from ethical first principles rather than religious assumptions? Do you think people may come to a logical conclusion without realising it is inconsistent with their religion?

Of course I wouldn’t want creationists running such facilities, but wouldn’t an evolutionist Christian scientist do just as good a job as an atheist evolutionist?

Cruiser's avatar

I regard atheism as a path to greater independent thinking about ones own existence in this universe. I despise the process of any discourse on religion generated just because someone does not subscribe to anothers thought process or beliefs.

zophu's avatar

Lack of self-determination is harmful. If a person is dependent upon exterior sources of determination, they lack the ability to fully reflect upon their own existence, and the existence of others. This lack of awareness can cause significant problems. Where a civilized person is well-adjusted within a certain environment, their behavior can become destructive if put in an environment where the exterior determiners they are dependent upon are not present. For example, they could turn to mob mentality, to various degrees, in search for a new determiner. Only when self-determination is prevented by theism or religion, (or any other set of ideas,) is there a significant problem.

Religion and theism don’t need to be discredited with any profound argument or collection of evidence. There’s no reason. It’s only when they get in the way of self-determination that they are a problem, and it is only because of that that they should be questioned. I doubt it’s the case that every person who considers themselves to be theistic or even religious lacks true self determination, but they are symptoms regardless. It can be enriching to challenge them if they are self-determined; and if they aren’t, it might still be for the best. People must draw confidence in their actions from the deepest introspection, not from devotion. This ensures that ideas are kept in check and so can be sustained.

Nullo's avatar

@zophu Who’s to say that the religious don’t have self-determination?

zophu's avatar

@Nullo I didn’t, not definitively anyway.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Only when beliefs influence policy that covers non-believers as well do I feel the need to express the fact that it’s not at all appropriate and that religion should stay with the believer without affecting those who believe differently.

Qingu's avatar

Even if falsehoods are “harmless,” I still think truth is important.

It probably doesn’t matter much, in terms of harm, if someone believes the Earth is the center of the universe either.

Trillian's avatar

I do not feel the need to tell someone that they are wrong because they have a different point of view than I in terms of religious beliefs. I am guilty of laughing up my sleeve at some, like Scientology for example. The whole thing just sounds so…ludicrous!
We all have things that we dislike or feel the need to point out in others, I suppose. My personal issue is what I consider to be stupidity. I struggle with it all the time. When I see statements that I consider to be childish, boring, stupid or argumentative for the sake of conflict I have a hard time just leaving it alone. The best that I can say is for every time I engage in this, there are twenty times that I manage to just ignore or walk away.
Those who feel qualified to malign or discredit the beliefs of others are welcome to have at it for all I care. I consider it a waste of time and counter productive to harmony and understanding, but that’s just me. Until I can leave stupid alone, I really have no room to talk.
Bottom line, I guess it’s just human nature. I think we all practice this in some form or another.

crazyivan's avatar

All of science began with the sumple question of “What is true?” and every step forward in the march of technology has been paved with this same question asked over and over again. Ignorance is a handicap. Believing in something that can be neither proved or disproved will limit one’s ablility to change one’s mind as new facts are illuminated.

It is never harmless to believe something that is not true. Whatever side of the argument you are on, this is true. Knowledge of our world is the strength that elevates us as a whole.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Debating the existence of a god or gods is vital, and I’ll explain why.

To start out I would first like to acknowledge that yes, there are indeed many religious people who are totally harmless, there are even religious people who actively do good deeds specifically because of their religious beliefs. You may consider this statement a disclaimer against accusations that I am generalizing in points I will make later on in my argument.

Now, would it be better to spend time debating ethics and morality? Yes. However, this is not really possible. If you ask a religious person where morals come from, hardly any will say that they come from empathy and a need for social cohesion, instead they will claim that morality is mandated by a capital monotheistic god, and that these morals are objective, absolute, and non negotiable. They will say that being gay is a sin, that masturbation is a sin, that pornography is a sin, and all kinds of other things. These people exist in their millions and millions.

When debating people like that, you have two basic options. You can debate if a god or gods exist or not, or you can assume that a god or gods do exist and then proceed to debate what that god wants. As soon as you allow that, you have lost, because they have a book, and their book already tells them what their god wants. No gay marriage, no drinking, no eating of certain foods, and so on. These people will never hypothetically assume there is no god and engage you in a rational debate about ethics and morality, because to do so would be denying that a god exists and in it’s self an immoral act. If not that, then a waste of their time as they already have all the answers. So, we can debate them on the existence of a god or gods, or we can have gods will dictated to us.

You can try and debate these people on morality all you like, it will eventually always come back to their book, or a threat of hell. Take the issue of homosexuality, if you take scripture out of the equation there is not a single argument that you can make against it that cant be debunked with a little logic. If you try and debate one of these people on the issue, they will usually first claim it is unnatural. Once you debunk that they will say it will make the children gay, and once you debunk that they will go with that it serves no purpose as they don’t breed, and after that something else, and once you have debunked all of it, they will say their book says it’s wrong and that their book is the word of god, and that god has the last say, and they will claim case closed.

If you want your arguments to go anywhere and make any kind of progress, first you need to discredit their beliefs, and debunk the existence of their particular god or gods. If you discredit their beliefs you also cast doubt on the so called absolute moral truth of their book. Once the existence of their god is being contended they no longer have a back door to run to when you debunk their arguments on morality. If you allow their religious beliefs to go unchallenged they can always close the door on any moral or ethical discussion any time they feel they are losing the debate. For this reason, I argue that your first step when debating a theist on anything, should always be to try and discredit their beliefs.

Spider's avatar

As could be my answer to pretty much any question posed, it depends… some people find it necessary; and others don’t.

For me, @Simone_De_Beauvoir eloquently summarized my main concern, but it’s solution isn’t necessarily dependent on discrediting religious belief, provided there is respect for other beliefs/non-beliefs. (Unfortunately, since many religions seem to deem non-believers as deserving punishment regardless of their actions, there doesn’t seem to be room for them.)

However, I think I disagree with @crazyivan‘s statement, “It is never harmless to believe something that is not true.” My critical mind wants to agree, but my life experience has actually taught me otherwise. (Examples provided upon reqeust.)

The flaw of both religion and science is that neither method truly answers all of life’s questions, and proponents of one or the other are more likely to overlook, if not completely disregard, the wisdom given by life experience than one whose mind is open.

Pandora's avatar

I agree with @Ben_Dover
btw, I love your alias. LOL

Ben_Dover's avatar

@Pandora I agree with Pandora… What alias?

Scooby's avatar

I have no problem with people who believe in gods, just so long as they don’t come knocking on my door. :-/
Each to their own I say, live & let live “Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer” I always say….. :-/
The problem I find is some Christians believe they have a divine right to interfere in other peoples lives…speaking for myself as an atheist, what they do or say to promote their beliefs is fine by me, just as long as they do it quietly among themselves & respect everybody else’s right to follow their own path, if they so choose.. Preferably without insult or slight, as is often the case with religious folk I find…..

Thomas Jefferson…. “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology“.

IMO, never truer words spoken. :-/
Peace to you all…….

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@poisonedantidote Brilliant answer, thanks.

ETpro's avatar

I know you asked us not to go there, but I have to note that it is central to human progress to constantly look for the truth, and to shed ideas such as a flat earth, a geocentric solar system, and a 6,000 year old Universe—ideas that have proved beyond any reasonable doubt to be completely false.

Nobody has conclusively proved whether theism is true or false yet, but we would never have proved geocentrism false either if we’d been unwilling to challenge the once universally accepted belief. So part of the drive on both sides of the atheism/theism argument is to hold out for what you believe to be true—and that is a good and necessary thing to do.

As an agnostic, I don’t tend to attack theism itself. After all, while I think the probability is very heavily stacked against all the interpretations of the mainstream religions, one of them may be right. The chance is very, very slim, but not nonexistent. I reserve my debating skills for things that are clearly wrong or harmful but are done in the name of theism. Claiming creationism is science and teaching it with, or in lieu of evolution in public schools would be an example where I would not hold my tongue.

jerv's avatar

tl:dr

It really isn’t necessary to discredit religious belief but it isn’t necessary to attack non-believers either! And truth be told, many of the religious people who get “discredited” are often so full of shit that my cat tries to bury them. I’m not talking about little things either. For instance, where in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt be condemned to the fires of Hell for voting Democrat!.”? Or, for those that like math, does ( 1 / ( 10^50) ) equal zero? I once had a long argument with a Creationist whose entire disproof of Evolution hinged on the “fact” that it did.

And then there are those believers that come out swinging and give their belief system of choice a bad name. In those cases, I prefer to go ad hominem since it really is unfair to blast an entire religion jsut because one person is a brainless fuckwit.

But I think that the real reason we argue is because we can. I mean, sometimes, you just have to have a fight :P

ETpro's avatar

@jerv Ha! GA. Still laughing.

Trillian's avatar

“The problem I find is some Christians believe they have a divine right to interfere in other peoples lives…”
One can say the same about PETA, or Islamic extremists.

ETpro's avatar

@Trillian Islamic extremists and the Fundamentalist Christians pushing to Talibanize American public education and life are most definitely theists. I totally agree, their right to swing their religious books stops short of other people’s noses.

Scooby's avatar

@Trillian

Very true indeed. As for PETA, or Islamic extremists. They haven’t as yet directly knocked on my door Touting for funding or a direct debit…..not yet anyways… :-/

Jabe73's avatar

Even as a “theist” I do not blame atheists or anyone for that matter in trying to debunk certain religious beliefs because many orthodox Christians are very aggressive with their beliefs. I’ve dealt with their attacks on my own spiritual beliefs myself. When people have to resort to name calling or telling you that you’re heading to “hell” or your loved ones are burning in hell, saying my beliefs are of the devil, attacking any scientific discovery that contradicts their teachings than the religious zealots in my opinion get what they ask for.

I do not rely on any religious book or belief for the absolute truth. If I oppose an atheist/agnostic on an issue it is because of personal experience or scientific reasons. I personally believe knowledge is virtually unlimited, there will never be a “Theory of Everything”, even if we are lucky enough to have our civilization exist in another million years from now. I do not need to believe in fairy tales because I have a feeling the undiscovered truth is probally way more impressive than any fairy tale or story. Sometimes certain theists do force the issue. I get it from both sides personally.

Qingu's avatar

I think it’s pretty silly to compare PETA to fundamentalist Christians or Islamic extremists.

The former have an entirely reasonable and empathy-based ideology (we should minimize animal suffering) with a godawful marketing campaign; the latter believe that women are inferior to men, homosexuality is a crime, and unbelievers should at minimum be treated as second class citizens.

iamthemob's avatar

@Trillian – I didn’t know that PETA thought they had a “divine” right to interfere in other people’s lives…

…although they do believe in Dog….

Trillian's avatar

Anyone who feels free to throw paint on someone for wearing a fur coat would seem to qualify for that category.
Whether you think wearing fur is right or not, you have no right to assault a person and destroy their property. We have a justice system in this country and you are free to try to change laws every day of the week if you want. You are not free to force your views on another person or try to harm them for having a different point of view.

crazyivan's avatar

Like Christianity and Islam, Peta is subject to the generalization of their most extreme fringe. Ah, well.

To expound on a point that many have already made (and one I think goes to the heart of this discussion), the fear is that if we pretend an unanswered question is answered, we will miss the answer when it shows up.

Qingu's avatar

@Trillian, there is a tremendous difference between (1) throwing paint on rich people and (2) blowing yourself up to murder multiple human beings.

Not even the same ballpark, not even the same mothafuckin’ game.

Trillian's avatar

@Qingu You have a habit of taking something a person says and making something else out of it. I quoted someone as saying “The problem I find is some Christians believe they have a divine right to interfere in other peoples lives” Then I mentioned a couple of other groups who seem to feel that same right. Do you see that phrase – ”...right to interfere..” ? I am not discussing anything other than the attitude here. People assaulting others who wear fur (FOR INSTANCE!) apparently feel they have a right, divine or otherwise, to interfere with other people’s lives. Your contention that they have justification because it is reasonable is fallacious. It is assault, interference, and defintely forcing one person’s point of view on another. If you are going to say that a “rich” person deserves to get paint thrown on them for wearing fur go ahead. I refuse to argue or even discuss that point with you. The fact that no one is being bombed does not mitigate an act of violence, and I never said they were the same magnitude, only that PETA among others also seem to feel justified in interference in the lives of others.

Qingu's avatar

But there’s a big difference between “interfering” and “murdering through suicide bombing,” don’t you think?

I mean, this isn’t a difference in magnitude; I think there is a fundamental difference between dumping paint on someone and blowing yourself up to murder people.

What bothers me is when people draw these equivalences between hugely different actions, because they both belong to some broad category like “interference” or “crime.” A vandal and a mass-murderer are both “criminals,” but they’re also different as hell.

crazyivan's avatar

@ Qingu but I see Trillian’s point. You are arguing a distinction that makes no real diffrerence in Trillian’s point. Obviously nobody is saying that paint throwing and suicide bombing are equivalent. And the whole purpose of categorization is so that an equivalence can be drawn between vastly different actions/things.

Think about it. If I made a statement where I generalized felines from tabby-cats to tigers. You could come out and say “I think there’s a big difference between a milk-licking kitten and a flesh eating tiger” and you’d be right, but it would in no way effect the legitimacy of my point.

Qingu's avatar

This is getting pretty meta, but I think the context of the original point wasn’t just some abstract form of taxonomy classification; it was a moral judgment. And I think we should be careful about drawing equivalencies when it comes to moral judgments. Nuance is important!

cynema's avatar

Its not necessary for ME to discredit YOUR Religious beliefs. Its necessary for YOU to do so, YOURSELF. What frustrates so many people regarding Dogma, is not the people BELIEVE things, its that most people who BELIEVE things have a fundamental inability to object to those beliefs and therefore, those who try to be objective cannot understand why you would desire to have such a faulted foundation for your beliefs.
For example, I was visiting Salem MA, with my parents recently, who happen to be Christian. I go every year, and was recommending we all see the Sacred Circle performed in the center of town, in memory of the dead. There was truly no need for them to participate, it was just an opportunity to see how another culture celebrates their New Year. At such time as I suggested this, my mother became upset and told me she didn’t want to be around that because she felt it was ‘evil’ and associated it with Devil Worship. I explained to her that she was projecting her beliefs onto someone else’s, since the Devil does not exist in Wicca. I further explained that I had been to this ritual years prior and all they do was break some bread, wear some robes, light a few candles, recite some words and maybe sing a song.
No dice. Its the devil.
My point is she simply could not turn off her beliefs and observe someone else, understanding that her beliefs have NOTHING to do with it. She could not frame it in her mind in such a way that allowed her to consider turning off what she believes.
I tried explaining that saying this way devil worship was no different than saying Tibetan Monks worshiped the Devil. Still no dice.
She simply could not, or refused to question her belief system.
This greatly upsets me as her son, because I realize that in thinking this way, she has and is injecting a type of neurosis into her psyche.
So, its not so much that those of use who believe in objectivity do NOT believe in subjectivity. Its that we recognize that subjectivity without an objective reality check is dangerous because it invites a distortion of perception into your thought processes.
To further illustrate that, we talked about this more in depth. It then became a question of how I needed to understand why she personally believed in evil, and therefore it DID matter to her if she observed this ritual. So she was once again, unable to allow herself to consider the situation without filtering it through her own subjective beliefs FIRST.
Any further attempt to converse about the subject objectively was met defensively as she became convinced I was attempting to challenge her belief system. No matter how many times I tried to explain that I wasn’t doing anything of the sort, she became more defensive. She simply could not consider the external world without filtering it through her beliefs. When you get right down to it, this is an incredibly ego-centric and self absorbed way of looking at things and I loathe seeing my parent trapped within it.
This is what many don’t get about Atheists. They have largely the same attitude a religious fanatic would regarding ‘saving someone’, for instance. I think that people who get angry with atheists are largely looking at a reflection of themselves that they are projecting upon them.
Unfortunately, it is far more practical l to try and save the world through inclusion than exclusion.

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