To atheists who say "It doesn't matter what others believe as long as they don't harm anyone"

In my philosophy capstone paper, I wrote about the importance of justified true beliefs among other topics. Here are some excerpts from that paper:

Beliefs often inform actions and have the ability to help, harm, or inform others' beliefs. [Philosopher Jonathan] Kvanvig writes, “Without beliefs to guide decisions about what actions to perform, we would be reduced to the position of random selection of actions, hoping that one selected was useful” (Kvanvig 29). Humans do not live in 'moral vacuums' in which beliefs and actions have no effect on others. There are practical benefits for being concerned about holding justified true beliefs and globally applying a skeptical attitude toward all sorts of claims about reality: skeptics are less likely to be swindled, less likely to look like fools, more likely to arrive closer to the truth, and skeptics are likely to encourage others to think.

Philosopher Richard Taylor argues that truth is worth seeking because “it saves one from the numberless substitutes that are constantly invented and tirelessly peddled to the simple-minded, usually with stunning success … it saves us from these glittering gems and baubles, promises and dogmas and creeds that are worth no more than the stones under one's feet.” (Taylor 7) Taylor notes that beliefs that people can hold may not be the product of a quest for knowledge and evidence, but rather false illusions based on faith; he stresses, “Many persons spend their lives in a sandcastle, a daydream, in which every answer to every metaphysical question decorates its many mansions. … They find, in other words, a comfort born of ignorance” (Taylor 7-8).

Holding false beliefs can often have pernicious consequences. People who are not properly skeptical about certain claims can empty their life savings, contribute to unsavory causes, wager their entire lives on one idea or a group of ideas, and can even die. Members of the Heaven's Gate cult, a group of people who believed that 'the earth was going to be recycled,' committed suicide because they had believed on insufficient evidence that an alien spaceship was behind a comet. Those who believe Harold Camping's May 21, 2011 doomsday prediction are not concerned with the future and have abandoned their 'regular lives' because they really believe that the world is going to end. One doomsday believer, according to a National Public Radio article said, “I no longer think about 401(k)s and retirement. I'm not stressed about losing my job, which a lot of other people are in this economy. Another doomsday believer has experienced a rift in his relationship with family members who do not believe that the world is going to soon end and is also emotionally troubled because he is unsure if his family members will be raptured (Hagerty). Proper skepticism and concern for evidence, rather than faith, can provide a sort of mental armor for a person to be less likely to fall prey to harmful beliefs.

Milder beliefs can also cause disastrous consequences. In April of 2011, the United States government almost shut down because opponents wanted to defund Planned Parenthood and could not reach a compromise on the nation's budget. Although Planned Parenthood provides abortions, abortions are only a small fraction of the services provided by Planned Parenthood; the majority of services offered by Planned Parenthood include pap smears, breast exams, STD testing, sexual education, and birth control. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, notes that one in five women in the United States have visited a Planned Parenthood clinic and says, “For more than half our patients, Planned Parenthood is the only nurse or doctor they will see all year” (Rovner). If Planned Parenthood were defunded and the government were to shut down, millions of people would suffer because of actions that were motivated by insufficiently justified claims.

Richard Taylor notes that many people do not really consider issues without regard for research and evidence; Taylor writes, “Now the intellects of people are not as strong as their will, and they generally believe whatever they want to believe, particularly when those beliefs reflect upon their own worth among others and the value of their endeavors. Wisdom is thus not first what they first of all seek. They seek, instead, the justification for what they happen to cherish” (Taylor 3). Instead of holding positions based on faith, people should look for evidence to support their claims and be sure that adequate reason justifies their claims.

Time and time again, I've heard this following phrase from fellow atheists when discussing religious belief: “It doesn't matter what other people believe as long as they don't harm anyone.” In the past, I believe that I've been sympathetic toward this sentiment, but more recently I've found many problems with this position. Whether or not people are being harmed because of certain beliefs, I still care about what other people believe. I'm convinced that people really haven't thought much about their epistemic attitude of “it doesn't matter what others believe as long as they don't harm anyone” and will change their positions if they really thought about what they said.

Throughout this post and elsewhere, when I say “I care about what other people believe,” I am generally talking about important beliefs and beliefs that inform actions. It is very obvious that beliefs relating to religion can have a major impact while some other beliefs such as how many grains of sand exist on a beach do not (unless, of course, someone is in a position in which this does matter). Anyone who is not living under a rock realizes that beliefs informed by religion greatly impacts society (not just specific individuals).

The idea of “it doesn't effect me” that I often hear is no legitimate defense because it is missing a larger impact on society...and is just plain selfish. Some friends of mine and many others atheists who use the “it doesn't impact me” defense are seemingly apathetic to the issues of our time in which religion plays a negative role. While religious beliefs might not lead to something as drastic as the death of your family members , bricks thrown through your windows, or direct encroachments in your day-to-day activities, this does not entail that you are not affected. Even if you are not affected, this is no good reason to behave as if justified true beliefs do not matter.

Many atheists whom if I have interacted with in 'real life' and online care about what people think about medicine; they favor science-based medicine and reject prayer as a suitable alternative. These same people are horrified when children die because their parents do not send them to doctors or otherwise deny science-based medicine. While being mortified by deaths of children because of their parents' rejection of science-based medicine, they same people will endorse the sentiment of “I don't care what other people believe” in a different situation. Why is this? Is this dishonest? Is this special pleading? These people will care about belief when children die, but for some reason they do not when children aren't neglected.

Many atheists care about science being taught in science classrooms and reject idea of creationism and intelligent design being taught as science. On one hand, these atheists care about what people think here (they challenge the people who believe that ID and creationism are viable alternatives to evolution that should be taught as science in science classrooms), but they claim that they don't care about what people believe in regards to religion. Here and in my previous example, there may be a difference between action and belief, but we must not forget that beliefs inform actions; if people did not believe that prayer can be a substitute for medicine or that intelligent design and creationism should be taught as science, the actions simply not happen.

Why don't we ever hear phrases like these from atheists who say that “what people believe doesn't matter:” It doesn't matter if people believe that prayer is an acceptable substitute for medical treatment! It doesn't matter if people believe that creationism should be taught as science in science classrooms! Let people believe what they want! You shouldn't criticize these people or challenge their beliefs? While it may be the case that Joe Smo Catholic who has no real power on policy in our nation, has no children, and does not act on his beliefs (and this is really questionable, I'll get into this later), this does not entail that just because he is 'silent' we (or he) shouldn't care about justified true beliefs.

In a recent discussion on Facebook, one of my atheist Facebook friends noted that we should not belittle others' religious beliefs and should leave people alone. I asked for clarification of this statement and received clarification. Someone posted that she had a great time in church and a person responded saying that her beliefs have no basis in reality. Here, we should note that the idea of “belittling beliefs” is incoherent because beliefs have no cognition. Also, the responder here, I would say, was 'out of place' and was being disrespectful to the poster. This does not mean, though, that peoples' beliefs should never be questioned, but rather should show that we should respect other people and criticize beliefs when the situation calls for it. The responder would have done a better job if he/she said something like “What supernatural beliefs do you hold and why? I'm interested.” if he/she was looking for some critical discussion. A simple dismissal really gets nowhere.

After responding to the atheist who said that we should leave people alone and not belittle others' religious beliefs and including much of what I included above in this post, the atheist said that she doesn't care about what others believe and I called her out for being inconsistent and special pleading (she applies different standards for different areas when such a 'move' is not warranted). Why do people like this try to deflect criticism away from religious beliefs and 'stonewall' those who challenge religious beliefs? Why should atheists be accommodating to those who hold religious beliefs? I was soon defriended by the atheist and further noted, on my profile, that those who openly advocate a position should be willing to defend it instead of unfriending.

I've said before, in many contexts, that my gripes with the theologians at King's College (and others who are 'moderate' religious believers) are not as numerous as those I have with political officials who use religion to inform policy, fundamentalists, or people who have uninformed and hurtful opinions about atheists. Although many religious believers are out there who aren't doing harm (or perhaps are doing little harm), this doesn't mean that I'm perfectly okay with these people and think that their beliefs are intellectually justified just because they don't do harm. My arguments will be directed toward all fronts (and I think they would be most beneficial if the 'moderates' and other atheists heard them); I will not give the 'nod of agreement' and say that it's perfectly permissible for believe to believe things just because they aren't actively harming others (like the atheists who advocate the “it doesn't matter what people believe” position seemingly assert).

While it is important that we get along and live together, this does not mean that we shouldn't challenge other beliefs are believe that it is permissible to believe something as long as people aren't harmed. Another common misconception people have is that those who challenge others' beliefs are somehow being jerks for doing so (even if these people are very mild like myself). I have discussed this in other posts like this one.

People have been fooled into believing that belief is permissible and should not be criticized if people who hold beliefs do not harm others and this is quite a shame. Atheists who are in positions (whether anonymously or publicly) to levy much needed criticism are instead giving a nod of approval to religious believers seemingly only because they aren't harming others. Instead of taking this ridiculous attitude, we should care about justified true beliefs, and not only in the area of religion. Questions of form, of course, are a discussion for another day; people shouldn't disrespect others just because they hold silly beliefs, but rather instead should be respectful and offer fair criticisms when the situation calls for it.