The Politics of Belief

Aboriginal War Veterans Monument

Photo: Padraic Ryan (CC)

A tribal shaman was once interviewed by a skeptical anthropologist and asked whether or not he actually believed in the truths behind the spiritual medicine he practiced. The shaman’s reply was surprisingly candid, for he admitted that his technique was completely fraudulent, and yet he still defended it for the simple reason that it often seemed to heal the patients.  This brief exchange cuts to the core of the issue of why some people are religious and others are not. It all boils down to two simple questions – “Is it true?” and “Is it good?”

An atheist is someone who answers “no” to the first question, and usually (but not always), “no” to the second question as well. As such, there are a variety of tactics that atheists will employ in promoting arguments against religion. Charles Darwin, for example, was supposed to have been nudged permanently over the cusp into disbelief after having studied the behavior of a certain species of parasitic wasp. This particular wasp injects its eggs directly into the body cavity of living caterpillars so that after hatching, its larvae are provided with a steady food supply as they devour their unfortunate hosts alive from the inside out. Having seen this, Darwin could simply no longer permit himself to believe that a kind and loving Creator would cause or allow such needless cruelty.

Observations such as these, while interesting, and while sufficient reason for some to reject the claims of dogmatic religions, actually do nothing to answer the question of whether or not God exists. After all, perhaps he does exist but is in fact, a petty, cruel tyrant like those the ancient Greeks believed in, or like the vindictive monster found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. It’s the same when people such as myself point out all of the violence, oppression, and irrationality inherent in the worst abuses and atrocities perpetuated in the name of religion – things like 9-11, the recently revived “War on Women”, and denial of human-caused global climate change.

The main problem with this tactic – besides leaving open the question of God’s existence – is that it can also leave a lot of generally good, honest, moderate people feeling unfairly stereotyped or sidelined in the debate. The response it generates is often one of sincere and touching bewilderment, expressed in replies such as; “What’s wrong with being a Quaker? We don’t hurt anyone,” or, “I condemn the actions of terrorists. I support women’s rights to choose and to have access to birth control. I accept that humans are causing global warming. What’s wrong with me ‘just believing’ in a higher power?”

I’ll admit, these are perfectly valid points and they deserve to be addressed. Moreover, I also agree that it probably doesn’t feel very nice to be lumped in with the fanatics without being clearly shown the connections tying the two groups together (not that it feels much better once the connections are made explicit). The answer to these questions however, is not quite as straightforward as the black-and-white certitude that makes Bible answers so appealing. The best way I can think to answer them is to do as psychologists so often and irritatingly do; that is, to answer with a few questions of my own – ones whose relation to the questions at hand might not be immediately obvious, but which tie directly back into the first of the two fundamental questions about religion posed at the beginning of this article, namely, “Is it true?”

I’ll start with this one: “What’s wrong with believing that the moon is made of cheese?” Well, other than being false and making whoever holds this view appear ignorant, I suppose it’s relatively harmless, even kind of sweet if coming from a small child. So how about this one: “What’s wrong with believing that one plus one equals three?” Once again, the short answer is simply that it’s not true. It’s mistaken; it’s incorrect, and therefore at odds with the fact that we as humans seem to intrinsically value the truth, even at the level of brain chemistry. (*Recent studies have shown that we actually get a little hit of dopamine whenever our beliefs correlate with observable facts.) But equally as important are the practical consequences that come from being wrong about simple arithmetic – especially considering how important numbers are to our money-centric society.

So let’s now step it up an order of magnitude and ask this: “What’s wrong with just being racist?” Ouch. This one’s enough to make most people bristle, as immediate revulsion or defensive posturing kicks in. Racism is wrong because it’s wrong, right? We’ve been taught all our lives that it’s wrong. It’s immoral, it’s unfair; it’s judging people on something they can’t change (nor would they want to), and we’ve seen how ugly things get when it becomes policy or law. “But what about just holding the belief itself if you never act on it or let it affect your judgment in any way?” Assuming that such a mental separation is even possible, it would still seem that the belief is wrong simply because it doesn’t align with the facts of the world. There is no valid evidence upon which to base any ideas of racial superiority. Thus, for all of the above reasons, it’s easy to say that racism is neither true nor good.

Let’s then bring the discussion back to where we left off and look at what separates those who believe from those who don’t. Religion is a complex subject, despite its best efforts to vastly oversimplify the world, and despite surface appearances to the contrary. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly straightforward process to become a member of most religions. To become a Muslim, for instance, one needs only to recite three times the magical incantation, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” Bam. Just like that, you’re a Muslim (and if you should change your mind later on, the penalty for such “apostasy” is death – talk about reading the fine print before signing!) To become a Christian, one need only declare that “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” This can be done even if you’re a mass murderer on your way to the gallows. As long as you have never “denied the Holy Spirit” then all else can be forgiven and you’ve earned your entry through the pearly gates.

To be an atheist, on the other hand – especially in the modern sense – is not quite so simple. It requires a bit more time and effort, for to simply reject God without any good reasons for doing so seems rather closed-minded, and if popularity alone is anything to go on, probably not a very safe bet either. It’s exactly the process of gathering and reflecting upon those reasons and then assembling them into a rational framework that tends to make atheists so knowledgeable and articulate in their beliefs. True, there are crass and ignorant atheists just as there are in any other group of humans, but in general, atheists know far more about religion than even most religious believers. Recent polls bear this out and it’s easy to get a sense of it just by reading the commentaries attached to any online article about the subject.

But what about tolerance? Religious believers will often complain that they don’t like when atheists denigrate their faith by referring to it as “imaginary” or a “fairy tale”. It’s tempting to come back with the retort, “Well, if you don’t want people laughing, you probably shouldn’t have such funny beliefs,” but in all seriousness, do they really think atheists are the bad guys for mocking their beliefs when those beliefs include the assertion that all unbelievers and infidels are going to be tortured in Hell for all eternity? When those beliefs declare that one small band of one particular species, on one small planet, circling an ordinary yellow star, in the outer reaches of one of a hundred billion galaxies – that they are the hand-selected personal favorites of the Creator of the Universe and therefore they’re entitled to special treatment? The two positions hardly seem equivalent.

There is also the tired old fable still being pedaled by the Pope and many lay believers that atheism is responsible for all of the crimes of the twentieth century – that, and its corollary, that morality is impossible without belief in God and fear of his punishment. Let it be stated unequivocally that this is bullshit, pure and simple, and just because it comes out of the pontiff’s mouth doesn’t change that.

For starters, like the ruthless grand inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada who was responsible for the torture and burning alive of tens of thousands of accused witches across Europe, or the abbot and papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, famous for launching a medieval massacre of the heretical Cathar sect with the words, “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own,” Adolph Hitler was also a Christian, as distasteful as that fact may be. In Mein Kampf he stated, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator,” and his SS guards all wore belt buckles with the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God is with us).

Stalin may not have believed in the Christian God but that’s because he already had his own god, namely, himself. He had giant statues and posters of this god put up all over the Soviet Union to which he demanded unquestioning obedience – not exactly the spirit of free and open inquiry that underlies atheism. The same goes for Mao or Kim Jong-Il or any other brutal totalitarian dictator. The reason these men imposed their special brand of state-sponsored atheism is because they perceived (correctly) the Church as standing in the way of them controlling the populace, for the Church is not very accommodating to competition.

No one is in any way suggesting that America go down this path. I can only speak for myself but I think it’s fair to say that atheists – as a group and as a movement – have no desire to control anyone or anything. We simply want to see religion out of government as the Founders intended; and if it’s not going to stay out of politics, then it shouldn’t be given special treatment, like tax exemption. As George Carlin memorably phrased it, “If churches want to play the game of politics, let them pay admission like everyone else.”

As for the worn-out cliché that it takes fear of God to promote ethical behavior, it’s such an intellectually empty assertion it hardly deserves mention if not for the fact that it’s so often repeated. First of all, if atheists are such raving criminals, why do they account for less than one percent of the prison population? How are they not all in prison? Secondly, if the Bible is the source of all morality, then on whose authority do people decide that slavery, and death by stoning for adulterers, are in fact, immoral? The Bible fully supports these practices – who are we to disregard God’s word? And don’t come back with the excuse that Jesus came to repudiate the barbarities of the Old Testament, for he clearly stated, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

What it all comes down to in the end is that beliefs matter. Beliefs have real-world consequences. Hitler launched the holocaust because he believed that Jews were inferior and needed to be cleansed from the Earth. Osama bin Laden blew up the World Trade Center because he believed that America is the Great Satan and must be destroyed to make way for a global Islamic caliphate. Rick Santorum believes that homosexuals are an abomination; that women are subservient to men; that America is a Christian nation that should be ruled by Christian laws. How can anyone honestly believe that such views are harmless?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not promoting the idea of “thoughtcrime.” That’s something that only fascists and Christians do. When Jesus says, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28) he utterly ignores the fundamental distinction between thought and action. He renders moot the value of self-control; of considering an action and then, having thought through the possible consequences, deciding against it. Is merely thinking about breaking one’s diet by a having a slice of chocolate cream pie for dessert the same as actually having one? Does the thought alone constitute gluttony? Hardly. But if there’s any value at all to his statement, it’s the recognition that what people think is important. While absence of belief says nothing one way or the other about how someone is likely to act, strongly held, emotionally charged convictions are powerful influencers of behavior, and if those beliefs are irrational, then look out. This is why atheists will no longer remain silent as we watch our country heading down the road toward theocracy. We will not stand for it, and we are legion. Expect us.

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.  He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.

Colby Hess

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.

46 Comments on "The Politics of Belief"

  1. As long as we insist on blaming things that happen in this
    world on “God” (whatever that may or may not be) and fail
    to take responsibility for our own actions, as resulting from
    free will, then there’s really little chance chance for things to
    improve on this planet. 

    • The short answer is, we do, to an extent.  

      Most of us have stopped passively accepting our fates as God’s will.  When we see a problem, we try to fix it.  And,  In the US, we’ve roughly doubled our average lifespan over the last century.  We don’t get polio or smallpox anymore.  I could go on.  

      Granted, we still allow religious beliefs to slow us down with regards to things like stem cell research.   But, we’re getting there.  

  2. As a religious unbeliever who also isn’t convinced of anthropogenic global warming, I’m not sure quite where I stand with this guy.

  3.  Not that I’m a Christian and this was a good article but you too have boiled down what it mean to be a Christian to simply saying that you believe Jesus is the only saviour or some such.  I’d wager that most Christians would argue about that with you.

  4. Aya H Uasca | Apr 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |

    There are plenty of fascist atheists.  Being an atheist gives you no credibility in my book – because the term means almost nothing.

    If you believe that hoarding Federal Reserve notes is the most important aim in life, well, I don’t give a shit if you believe in God anymore.  Abrahamism isn’t the only delusional belief holding us back as a species.  Plenty of hardcore materialists wallowing in narcissism and psychopathy share the blame, refusing to examine their beliefs, religion or no.

    Let’s be good people first and foremost, and worry about your neighbor’s religion last.

    • I agree, in part.  

      The trouble is, defining “Good”.  There are plenty of people who will not recognize you as good unless you agree with their choice of religions.  

    • It would be nice not to have to worry about our neighbor’s religion. The problem is when religion enters the politics and public policies. Then the can’t be ignored

      • emperorreagan | Apr 4, 2012 at 10:22 am |

        You’re conflating religion with conservatism.  Many conservatives are also religious in the United States, but it’s not one in the same.

        Arguing against religion instead of conservatism bolsters the conservative argument – opting to directly attack a tradition that many conservatives hold plays easily into their broader narrative about the nation, traditional values, etc. being under attack.

  5. My goodness! A tribal shaman has more sense and honesty than a so-called ‘civilized’ christian, jew or muslim. WOW!

    • Gnomad1618 | Apr 4, 2012 at 11:18 am |

      This tribal “shaman” entered into his training as a skeptic. Beliefs are, indeed, strong. There is likely more to the experience than meets the eye, or meets the interpretation of the experience.

  6. Tom Peisinger | Apr 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |

    to believe or not to believe is not something you’re going to sum up in a few short paragraphs.  be careful judging certain ‘beliefs’ to be irrational…it goes against the essence of freethought and establishes an ‘authority’ on thought…which would be horrific, whomever that authority would be (  the church being the authority in the past) whether science or philosophy…

  7. Disinfo_censors_dissent | Apr 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |

    Let’s not forget the greatest secular religion, Marxism. As Kolokowsky wrote:

    >The influence that Marxism has achieved, far from being the result or
    proof of its scientific character, is almost entirely due to its
    prophetic, fantastic, and irrational elements. Marxism is a doctrine of
    blind confidence that a paradise of universal satisfaction is awaiting
    us just around the corner. Almost all the prophecies of Marx and his
    followers have already proved to be false, but this does not disturb
    the spiritual certainty of the faithful, any more than it did in the
    case of chiliastic sects.… In this sense Marxism performs the function
    of a religion, and its efficacy is of a religious character. But it is a
    caricature and a bogus form of religion, since it presents its temporal
    eschatology as a scientific system, which religious mythologies do not
    purport to be.

    • Adamsshadow | Apr 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |

       “The greatest secular religion, Marxism”

      I would say that the neoliberal free-market system as currently practiced in the U.S. gives Marxism a run for its money; far more people adhere to extreme capitalism these days than extreme communism, including Mother Russia herself.

    • LanceHardpound | Apr 3, 2012 at 7:41 pm |


      Kolakoski!?! You’ve got to be kidding…. right?

  8. an unexamined life is a wasted life – nothing like skating across the surface of a subject pretending to be profound.

  9. throwaway11 | Apr 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm |

    that is what is common with all atheists they are quick to offensively attack all religon based on their ignorance and they come to the wrong conclusion that believing in Allah (God) to muslims is based on blind faith.. what is ajoke is you think that being devoted to religon is being a fanatic and conclude that atheist hold no prejudce and not as much fanatics in defending and propgating for their idealogy so you in your gracious understanding intellegent mind give us your permission to us the idiotic muslims that believe in magic to continue to live in our dillision of there being a creator as long as we are happy in our idiotic belief.
    I find it amusing how westren people always say they have four freedoms but what they actually say you have freedom to decide your values as long as it is the same as our values otherwise you are a terrorist bigot who live in the dark ages.

    • Yeah? So what real-world evidence is your belief based off of? Care to enlighten us, or are you just complaining that the author doesn’t agree with your fairy tales?

    • I’m an atheist and I can’t say I offensively attack anyones religion (I might make a joke at the expense of someones beliefs). I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know, but from what little knowledge I’ve gathered I believe there is no grand designer or anything of the likes.

      Too many imperfections in a “perfect” being.

      • Monkey See Monkey Do | Apr 4, 2012 at 2:25 am |

        ‘I don’t know’ makes you more of an agnostic.

        • I prefer humble atheist =p but you’re right that is an agnostic thing to say. My opinion fluctuates between “Fuck religion and all its bullshit” to “mmmh I suppose you can’t rule out a supreme being who created everything”

          But the fact is no one really knows, so I get just as annoyed at atheists who seem to believe they know the great answers to the universe as I do with theists. That’s not to say having a subjective opinion on a objective matter is bad… Just don’t tell me I’m wrong 😉

          • Yeah, sounds like you’re more in the Agnostic camp.

            Quite a difference intellectually between “There’s no proof for this nonesense which is based on some sort of god of which there’s insufficient proof” and “There’s no god and there’s never been one anywhere at any time.”

          • Completely agree, obviously my analogy was on the simplistic side.

    • You didn’t read the article, did you?

  10. Ricky Jazzercise | Apr 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |

    Yet another article about spirituality which doesn’t make any attempt at addressing things like out of body experiences, psychedelic drugs, near death experiences, remote viewing, shizophrenia, alien contact experiences, shamanism, the occult….etc.

    Clearly the entire history of human visionary experience means absolutely nothing. Clearly. And that’s what I love about this modern atheist movement. They have no idea how influenced by the church their beleifs actually are. The church tells you they’re the only game in town and you say, yes, you are and you’re wrong. Problem solved.

    Unbelievably fucking stupid and basically the least rational thing in the universe. Hey science, how’d you solve that out of body experience mystery? Oh, you didn’t study it at all because you didn’t like the implications? Cool, thanks for explaining that to us.

    • Actually there are explanations for every single one of the things you listed. Not that you’d know that because you’re apparently too ignorant to look them up and I’m sure if you did, it would be a perfect exercise in confirmation bias.

    • yeah….science HAS studied all of those things, and…hate to break it to you…they all have scientific explanations. short answer: brain chemistry. long answer: do your research, you obviously have internet access. it’s amazing what you can discover if you actually look for it.

      • Intellectual Arrogance | Apr 4, 2012 at 12:53 am |

        So the universe is nothing more than brain chemistry?

      • Gnomad1618 | Apr 4, 2012 at 11:29 am |

        Actually, there are numerous experiments around these subjects, particularly with Near Death Experiences associated with hospital surgery, that brain chemistry alone does not explain. Near Death Experiencers often come back with knowledge of their immediate surroundings (not the “spiritual realm”) that is confirmable and otherwise unexplainable. Occam’s Razor doesn’t slice finer in some of these cases.
        Furthermore, you make a bold assumption that brain chemistry and non-physical reality are inherently separate from one another.

    • gnomad1618 | Apr 4, 2012 at 11:24 am |

      Ricky, I sympathize with what you are saying, but this article is about religion, not spirituality. If you start talking about OBEs, pyschedelics, remote viewing, et. al., there are plenty of Christians who will say you are dealing with tools of the Devil.

    • The experiments you describe are done by fringe scientists, not because the main scientists don’t like the implications, they’re not done by them because they’re dealing with intangible, unquantifiable data that can only be perceived by the person experiencing it and we don’t even know whether our perceptions of reality are the same what you see as red, I could see as you see green, but we’re both taught it’s red. I do think there should be more studies done on thought, so we can teach ourselves to use our brains more like computers.

      • Gnomad1618 | Apr 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm |

        I’m not really sure why you feel that clinical trials done at University are the only authentic verification of reality. 

        There are others, as well, including the story of the boy who may be a reincarnated figher pilot (easy google search). 

        I’m sure you will dismiss these as being anecdotal and stories made up by fame seekers. And that is your prerogative. But you must realize that many of the results of experiments by “non-fringe” scientists are modified to promote their own agendas (read: Big Pharma) whether conscious or not.

        You must also realize that virtually every ground-breaking discovery was made by a scientist working on the fringe. IMO, those scientists that merely promote the status quo are doing a great disservice to humanity and it’s collective evolution.

  11. Mostly strawman arguments, the one I will pick apart is the commentracism. Unfortunately we are innately xenophonbic. Everyone will notice differences and categorize. Some base more of this on unfair stereotypes than others, but that’s just the way our mind works. Expressing xenophobia through racist actions or comments is wrong. Holding socially unacceptable beliefs is the right of freedom of conscience, even if terrible.

  12. never understood why the only people skeptics like to talk to are those true believers of either side don’t believe in like on christianity, they fundamentalists are always presented as ‘the christian’ rather someone who thought things out like william lane criag

  13. “Christianity, in the end it wants to be paid well.”–Nietzsche   “Reason itself is a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”  G.K. Chesterton.  Nietzsche also pointed out the all is interpretation even the assertion that all is interpretation is itself an interpretation.  I think the Buddhists and Taoists have it right.  Buddhism is really not a religion at all and technically speaking does not posit a god.  It is a complex system of awakening.  There is much that will remain mysterious to us.  To claim to “know” of god or to “know” there is no god are both potentially arrogant suppositions.  We are nothing but beings that throw meaning out into the world to try and grasp and limit that which surrounds us.  The problem is, as has been written above, when those meanings/beliefs are wielded in a way that suppresses or limits the freedom of others.  

  14. “To be an atheist, on the other hand – especially in the modern sense – is not quite so simple. It requires a bit more time and effort, for to simply reject God without any good reasons for doing so seems rather closed-minded”

    The burden is on the believer to make a convincing case that something exists, not upon the atheist to come up with “good reasons” to “reject” something. I don’t sit around thinking up reasons why there must not be a God…I just haven’t heard anything that convinces me that there is one.  

    • Chempurecorp | Apr 9, 2012 at 10:22 am |

       You are open to an encounter with the Almighty and that is good. What convinced me was when he revealed Himself to me and I was changed in a moment. Nothing like meeting Him
      and knowing He is who He says He is, just ask Him out loud to make Himself known to you.
      Just say “Lord God in Heaven, if you are real please reveal yourself to me, I would love to know you in a personal way”. You don’t want a religious experience you want a Devine encounter with
      the best father you could ever hope for! Our Father in Heaven. I got to meet Him and He would love to meet you also, that is a living faith not a dead religion.

  15. emperorreagan | Apr 4, 2012 at 10:02 am |

    Government as the founders intended?  That’s the same drivel that the supposed theocrats spew.  Get on the shitty historical fiction train and extrapolate what George Washington would think if he could time travel to today and make a decision on some particular law.  Maybe you and Antonin Scalia can feed each other veal cutlets and give each other hand jobs on the dining car.

  16. Well, it started out interestingly enough, but then fell into the usual either/or binary of Resolute Atheism vs Abrahamic Religions, which I’m frankly getting more than a bit sick of. There are more belief systems in the world, and lumping every person of faith in with the Abrahamics is far too narrow a viewpoint for me to take seriously.

  17. David Cosgrove | Apr 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm |

    I think you all make it far too complicated. There is and has always been, only one true god and that is the system and there has only ever been one true religion and that is being normal. And if you want a bible verse that will soon be bandied about try Matthew 15:13

  18. John Hanson | May 12, 2012 at 7:13 pm |

    The shaman did not say that faith does not cure, only that the cure couldn’t be explained to the western scientific mind.

    One plus one equals three is the most natural math on the sphere; take a man add a woman and the result is a family. The statement that 1+1=3 is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that something good resulting from believing something false is necessarily impossible or wrong.

    In the spirit of love, all living beings are equal. But not in mind. There is valid evidence upon which to base ideas of racial superiority: the more selfless the race, the more superior. Native Americans, Chinese, Caucasians are the top three, in that order. Truth is welcome everywhere and to declare truths false just because you do not already know them is immoral, and unfair to listeners. Racism has to do with the love and stability that can come from all generalizations, which we need. Could secular society even exist without the generalization that atheists know far more about religion than most religious believers?

    Science and religion both evolve. Why not consider what might have happened if Jefferson tolerated the stamp tax? What stagnates in treachery regardless, is government. It is not that religious faiths are unaccommodating to governments, but vice versa is the case. The Founders did not want to see religion out of government or politics, Jefferson even edited his own version of the bible to make religious morality seem more palatable to those who could not believe in miracles. Tax exemption was necessary to keep the hearts of the people out the hands of those who preferred to control the economy. Atheists account for less than one percent of the US prison population because only two percent of the US general population are Atheists.

    The bible is not the source for all morality. Abraham began to understand his monotheism when his faith moved away from the common Babylonian barbarity of child sacrifice. Jesus further fulfills the law of love and does not support the practices of stoning and slavery.

    Question your notion of “the fundamental distinction between thought and action” like you would question your definition of the word moot, which is actually defined as debatable.

    “What we think we become.” – Buddha

    Mocking a belief is mean-spirited, whereas warning of an impending doom is direct from compassion and love. In common practice, the two positions are often equivalent to fundamentalism (with role confusions and archetypal role identification). Atheism a critical belief often associated with reason, which is actually the definition of soul. A clear belief in cause and effect would do that soul better than either the Catholic church or Atheism.

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