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Why Do We Care?

June 7, 2006, 11:16 PM

"I'm unsure where I really stand on this book or the ideas in it, but would really love to know your true motives for writing the review. It seems so obvious, but if you actually believed (or didn't believe) what you claim, you would spend your energy elsewhere. Why do you care?"
--from a recent feedback received on Ebon Musings

"Doubt, like faith, has to be learned. It is a skill. But the curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I've often wanted to ask, 'Why do you care?' Their skepticism offers no good answer to that question. And I don't have one for myself."
--Mark Lilla, "Getting Religion", The New York Times Magazine, 18 September 2005

"This is the disturbing India of the Hindu widow, a woman traditionally shunned as bad luck and forced to live in destitution on the edge of society. Her husband's death is considered her fault, and she has to shave her head, shun hot food and sweets and never remarry. In the pre-independence India of the 1930's, the tradition applied even to child brides of 5 or 6 who had been betrothed for the future by their families but had never laid eyes on their husbands...

Ms. Mehta said she got the idea for "Water" a decade ago, when she was in Varanasi... One morning on the ghats she was horrified to see a widow scampering on all fours searching for her glasses. When the widow couldn't find them, she sat down on her haunches to cry, completely ignored by the people around her."
--Elisabeth Bumiller, "Film Ignites the Wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists", The New York Times, 3 May 2006

Why do we atheists care what others believe? I am regularly asked this by theists who apparently think it will stump me, and Lilla, a self-proclaimed skeptic of faith, poses this question if it were a weighty and profound mystery. It is no such thing, and he should have known better. The answer is self-evident to anyone who takes the time to think about it: We care because superstition hurts people. When irrational beliefs take precedence over conscience and morality, when societies cling to delusion and dogma, real people suffer. We care because we want to prevent that.

Skeptics are often stereotyped as cynics, embittered and lacking in human concern. But if that were the case, why would we bother to expend the effort to debunk every new popular delusion? Surely a true cynic would not bother; such a person would take the attitude that the gullible deserve whatever they get. But that is not my attitude, nor the attitude of any other skeptic I know. When we see people being taken advantage of, or when we see people being led astray, conscience rouses us to take action, to try to help them by pointing out that they are being deceived and that there is a better way. We care about skepticism because we care about people.

The harm done by irrational belief manifests in a wide variety of ways. When the sick seek out faith healers and "alternative" doctors who encourage them to forego evidence-based medicine in favor of unproven and implausible treatments, they throw away what may be their best chance to get better, exchanging it for much needless suffering and, sometimes, a premature and unnecessary death. When the bereaved seek the help of fraudulent "psychics" who take their money and exploit their grief for personal gain, they receive nothing in exchange but lies and bland platitudes. When snake-oil salesmen and smooth-talking con artists offer ludicrously easy solutions to our society's problems, people may be less motivated to take the difficult but necessary action needed to solve them.

But most insidious of all, because it is so widespread, is the harm done by religion - to men as well, but especially to women. Whether it is the Christian groups who try to punish women for having sex, or the Hindu groups that expect a widow to live the rest of her life in poverty and loneliness, or Muslim societies that consign women to lives of slavery and enforced isolation under suffocating veils of cloth, women have always been the greatest victims of religious dogma taking precedence over human rights and happiness. But we must not forget the endless holy wars waged by believers against "infidels" of other faiths, the endless money spent on propping up corrupt church hierarchies, the endless prejudice and bigotry defended by appealing to God's will, and all the other outrages wrought in the name of religion throughout humanity's long history and still ongoing. It is concern for all innocent people everywhere that prompts us to speak out against injustices such as these and to call for an end to the beliefs that cause them.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." We skeptics can offer a similar explanation for why we care. There is only so much mind space, only so many things that a person can care about, and everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do. Every newspaper astrology column, every cold-reading psychic pretender with his own TV show, every homeopath and chiropractor railing against the medical establishment, every political demagogue that whips the masses into a frenzy with veiled appeals to prejudice and sentiment, every church that tells its parishioners God will bless them if they only donate generously to support the luxuriant lifestyle of the head pastor, every creationist group lobbying to undermine the teaching of science in public schools - every such eruption of credulity and unreason takes away attention and resources that could have been used by real people doing the hard work needed to find out how this magnificent, complex cosmos we live in really works and to use that knowledge to improve the lives of everyone.


Why Do We Care?

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