January 07, 2012

Religion vs. Belief

Jerry Coyne recently posted some notes on Steven Pinker's latest book ("The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"). The posting concentrates mostly on (and basically agrees with) Pinker's defense of the idea that religion is at least as responsible for violent death in the 20th century as atheism, if not more so.

This sort of thing irritates me — it just feels like a self-righteous sideshow or smug righteous dick-waving. For me, the relevant dimension isn't religionists vs. atheists, it's Believers vs. non-Believers. "Believer" (upper-case "B") here is shorthand for people for whom certainty is more important than curiosity, and / or for whom personal revelation and personal authority are the most reliable sources of truth (and for whom the idea that there's a coherent and consistent absolute Truth is generally not a particularly troubling notion). That sort of attitude and divide transcends religion: you don't have to delve too far into politics, culture, economics, and history to find Believers attempting to impose their Beliefs at sometimes great cost to the rest of us, and with little or no regard for logic or evidence.

You don't start a revolution or war or crusade with the word "maybe". You don't typically kill enthusiastically in the name of a diffuse sort-of-belief in openness, curiosity, and reasonableness, you do it in the name of a burning lip-smacking belief in a just and loving One-True-God, or the self-evident righteousness of a particular splinter group's infallible interpretation of Marxism-Leninism™ (or something similar, perhaps cynically faked). Us and Them in other words, with Them as the evil or the class enemy. Religion (as usually understood) is only one way to channel that into death and destruction. It's the desperate need of a significant proportion of humanity to believe (at any cost) and to believe they're (radically) different that's at the root of the problem, rather than what it is they believe.

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