Based on the title, you’re going to assume that this is just another religion-bashing article. It isn’t. I hope you stick with reading it for long enough to see why.
Why would I choose this title, then? Because our country—our culture—needs to get past the point where saying “it’s my religious belief!” can be used as a tactic to end all discussion, and shut down all opposition. People have to stop believing that having a religious belief is an excuse to stop thinking. People have to stop thinking that other people must show respect for their belief simply because it is a “deeply-held religious belief”.
Having a deeply-held religious belief should be the beginning of thinking, and the beginning of questioning. No belief demands respect simply because it is “deeply held” or “religious”. Any belief might be stupid.
Some people have a very difficult time accepting, or even understanding, this idea. So let’s start more simply. Let’s not even start with the claim in the title of the piece. Let’s start with something even simpler than that.
Think about this statement: “Some religious beliefs (not necessarily yours) are stupid.”
Do you think that you can agree with that?
Plenty of people would argue that you should never say that to anyone, no matter what your opinion. Certainly, there are plenty of social and psychological reasons not to put that out there in a conversation. If you are trying to get someone to understand your point of view, calling their differing views “stupid” will not accomplish that goal. If you are trying to enact cultural change, labeling people’s religious beliefs “stupid” will accomplish nothing toward that goal.
So we can all agree that as a rhetorical tactic, it’s never wise or helpful to say to someone: “Your religious belief is stupid.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no stupid religious beliefs.
You may still feel uncomfortable calling any religious beliefs “stupid”. After all, nobody’s religious beliefs are stupid to them. This is a question of empathy. You might say that we must take a more understanding tone, and acknowledge that a person who holds a belief will not feel that it’s stupid.
That is absolutely true. And when you are forming a social and emotional bond with someone, that psychological angle is important for you to acknowledge and address. You should always remember that no person ever thinks that his own religious beliefs are stupid.
But guess what? That still doesn’t mean there are no stupid religious beliefs.
Deep in your heart, you know that you think some religious beliefs are stupid. Just think of all of those old mythologies that we always think of as fanciful tales and silly stories. Greek myths, Norse myths, Egyptian myths. Gods turning into animals and having sex with giants, gods who could be tricked by witches and ogres, and gods who went to war. In today’s society, we think of them as (at best) a culture’s way of creating symbolic moralistic tales that pass on cultural traditions, or (at worst) crazy stories that people came up with to explain things in nature when they just didn’t know any better.
But we have to be careful about looking at mythology through that modern lens. There was a time in the past when there were people who truly believed these stories to be literal truth. These were the deeply held religious beliefs of those times.
So back to the question that I posed before. Setting aside the fact that it is insulting or “culturally insensitive” and whatnot, do you believe that three all-powerful immortal beings who were born out of the armpit of a giant created the first humans by breathing life into an ash tree and an alder tree on a hilltop one morning?
No, of course you don’t believe that. That’s stupid.
In fact, you probably don’t even have to go back to ancient mythology to stumble upon a religious belief that you think is stupid. If you are a devout Muslim, you may think that the devout Christian belief in a talking snake in the garden of Eden is stupid. (The Qur’an does contain the story of the garden of Eden, but Satan Himself tempts Eve and there is no mention of a snake.) If you are a devout Christian, you probably think the idea of the jinn, creatures made of a smokeless fire, is pretty fanciful and silly, even though they are described in the Qur’an.
No matter who you are, or what religion you may adhere to, there are almost certainly beliefs of at least some other deeply religious people out there that you don’t get. If you object to the word “stupid” because it sounds harsh, then you can at least admit that you think they are silly, they are outrageous, they are fanciful and bizarre.
And you can explain it by saying that the people of those “other religions” are mentally ill, or fooled by Satan, or culturally indoctrinated, or anything else, but the end result is the same. However you want to word it, you think they have a deeply-held religious belief that is stupid.
But here is the problem: you’re human. Just like those “other people” who believe those “other things” are human. Which means that if they can have a deeply-held religious belief that is stupid…. then you might, as well.
Naturally, you don’t believe that your own deeply-held religious beliefs are stupid. You think your own beliefs are sensible and true… that’s what it means for them to be your beliefs.
But one of the most amazing intellectual capacities that human beings have is the ability to admit that they might be wrong, even when they think they are not. This is an ability that all people have, even if some people don’t exercise that ability nearly often enough.
Unfortunately, many people seem to think that saying “I might be wrong” is an admission of weakness. They think it is somehow an admission of a lack of faith or confidence. They think that saying “I might be wrong” somehow implies that the strength of their belief is less.
But none of those things is true. Saying “I might be wrong” is a simple objective fact about the nature of humanity. There is no reason to feel squeamish or awkward about acknowledging that you might be wrong about something… even if you are absolutely certain that you are not.
I believe in evolution. Is it possible that I’m wrong? Of course it is possible. I don’t think I am wrong. But as a scientist, and as a human being, the only possible true and honest answer to the question “is it possible that you are wrong?” must be “yes.”
Yes, I might be wrong in my belief that humans evolved from other species. Yes, I might be wrong that the earth is more than 6,000 years old.
I’m sure that I’m not wrong. I am in no way hemming-and-hawing, or being “squishy” on whether I believe in evolution. I really, really believe it. I know it’s true. I’m certain it’s true.
But it’s also possible that I’m wrong. I could be impossibly, ridiculously wrong. I could be absurdly wrong. At some point in the future, we might find out that we are all just a computer simulation in someone else’s machine and all of my beliefs about evolution and quantum mechanics and cell biology were not only wrong but downright stupid.
Sure. Maybe. I don’t think so. But it’s possible.
To admit that I might be ridiculously, stupidly wrong about nearly anything is to do nothing more than admit that I’m human.
And you are, too.
It is important for you to know that some of your beliefs might be stupid. It makes you a better person, whether you are a theist or an atheist. And if you are devout, I believe that it even makes you a better religious person.
Why? Because if you can say, “I know for certain that I’m right, but it’s possible that I’m completely wrong” then you will approach your own religion more thoughtfully. I have close friends who are deeply devout, and they always struggle with their own understanding of God and scripture. Could I be wrong in the way I’m interpreting this scriptural passage? Could I be wrong in the way I think the ten commandments apply to my life? Could I be wrong in my understanding of this parable? Could I be wrong about what God is trying to tell me?
In the end, they may come out of it by simply answering: No, I don’t think I am wrong. I feel very strongly that I am right. And their faith is stronger, and more robust, as a result of going through that process.
By asking these questions, they show that they are on a quest to truly understand God. In that process, these friends of mine become confident and secure in their faith. They have no need to shut up other people, or shut down debate, because they have actually spent time thinking through their own beliefs, questioning themselves, and praying in order to better understand a truer vision of their God.
To them, the fact that a belief is a deeply held religious belief is not an answer to a question or a conclusion to a conversation. They are never afraid or angered when someone asks them “Why do you believe that?” They know that belief is just the beginning, not the end, of the conversation.
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