My previous post, “The Blinding Fog of Religious Moderation“, drew some criticism from people who felt that I was unjustly lumping moderate believers together with fundamentalists. So, in this post, I’m going to try (again) to illustrate why I find even moderate religious beliefs to be wrong-headed, by means of an analogy. I’d like to take credit for this analogy, but it isn’t mine: the concept originally came from Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, though the proximate source is from my friend Greta Christina, by way of the commenter Brownian on Pharyngula.
Let’s say that you meet a person who says to you, “Every morning, I hear messages for me coming out of my hair dryer. They tell me to picket the funerals of AIDS victims and to demand that it be made illegal for gay people to buy health insurance.”
Now let’s say a second person cuts in with, “That’s not true! Every morning, I hear messages from my hair dryer, and they tell me to donate money to the poor and volunteer at my local soup kitchen! That first guy has just misinterpreted the message of the Holy Hair Dryer.”
Is the second viewpoint an improvement over the first? Sure. Would I rather live in a world with people who profess the second viewpoint rather than the first? Of course. But at the same time, isn’t it obvious that there’s still a problem with it?
If we want assurance that someone’s personal moral philosophy will produce good results for human beings, it has to be based on something real – on facts and reasons that exist in the real world, things that anyone can examine for themselves. If two people disagree about, say, whether starting a food bank would do more or less good in a community than a job-training clinic, then that’s an empirical question that can be resolved by studying people’s needs and comparing the relative costs and benefits of each plan. But if two people claim to hear different and incompatible messages from their hair dryers, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a way of settling that debate. At best, it will be a deadlock; at worst, it will be a holy war.
Listening to household appliances just isn’t a trustworthy or reliable way of making ethical decisions, and that’s still true even if some people sometimes use this method to come up with good choices, because it can produce evil just as easily as good. If the commands you hear from your hair dryer can’t be overridden or disproved by evidence, then if those beliefs are producing bad results for people, you have no way of knowing it; you have no means of self-correction.
But when I point all this out, the second guy says, “You shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because of a few misguided individuals. Making decisions based on the will of the Holy Hair Dryer is a sacred and venerable tradition that should be respected!”
Replace “hair dryer” with “God”, and you see the position that atheists are in. We see people treating others with callousness and cruelty, because they base their morality on a strange and unsettling fantasy – and we see other people, even good people, defending this way of thinking as legitimate in spite of the harm it causes.
We believe that attacking only faith’s worst manifestations, while giving faith itself a pass from criticism, would be like treating a sick person’s symptoms without curing the underlying disease. As long as people are using the presumed will of imaginary supernatural beings as the basis for their decisions, there will be those who use this method to justify doing evil. And as long as that’s the case, we atheists will keep pointing out the fundamental flaws of this method – and arguing for a better alternative, a morality based on reason and concerned with this world.