Agree or Disagree? Dangers of Unverifiable Beliefs

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. (Voltaire)

From Steven Pinker’s, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: (pp. 139-140)

Human sacrifice and witch burnings are just two examples of the harm that can result from pursuing ends that involve figments of the imagination. Another may be seen in psychotics who kill in pursuit of a delusion, such as Charles Manson’s plan to hasten an apocalyptic race war … But the greatest damage comes from religious beliefs that downgrade the lives of flesh-and-blood people, such as the faith that suffering in this world will be rewarded in the next, or that flying a plane into a skyscraper will earn the pilot 72 virgins in heaven. … The belief that one may escape from an eternity in hell only by accepting Jesus as a savior makes it a moral imperative to coerce people into accepting that belief and to silence anyone who might sow doubt about it.

A broader range of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them—or worse, who credibly rebut them—they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.



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