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No Harm Done? On the danger of believing non-sense

By Carl S. ~

The other day, I watched a DVD from an old comedy series. A man had an argument about his girlfriend's psychic abilities. Because he was a psychiatrist/skeptic, the two of them decided that she would take psychic tests to determine her alleged “abilities.” This was done in a neutral setting by a professional scientist. Just before the test results were to be announced, the boyfriend decided that they “really didn't need to know,” because he was already trusting in her.

I suspect that there is quite a lot of this “really don't want to know” going on every day. Sometimes this must be simply out of caring for the beloved's feelings. But then too, the lover might not really want to know, but be content to wonder. The common explanation for this is “So what? No harm done. Let her or him believe seriously what we see as silly things.” Their delusions are usually seen as personality quirks in our society; the deluded are “offbeat, eccentric, or peculiar.”

For a few decades now, I've come into occasional contact with a woman who has a deluded vision of reality. I am not alone in coming to this conclusion. No amount of argument or evidence contrary to the way she sees things will change her mind one iota. Her interpretation of reality has led her to make bad decisions for herself and her relationships with others. While she lives in poverty, she sends money to Pat Robertson, has gone to at least one “faith-healing” which changed nothing of her increasing blindness. She gives money to a Catholic shrine when she visits it, and tells the most bizarre testimonies for the truth of her delusions that you’ll ever hear. She does this with bright eyes and self assurance. While her interpretation of the world is unchallenged, she is not doing herself any good financially or in her relationships with others who are viewed through the same judgmental microscope lens as she uses for her beliefs.

Throughout my life, I have met many who share her versions of reality, but to milder degrees, of course. But delusional thinking and prejudices are more widespread than I thought, usually with one person unable to see the other’s equally deluded ways. Yet, typically, this is handled by ignoring or writing off their effects. The world is running on lies. Harmless? It depends. Yes and no.

There are delusions people find comforting; security blankets for the soul, so to speak. Like teddy bears, booze, and romantic fantasy movies, there‘s entertainment in them. No harm. Even pornographic fantasies have their place. Like anything else in nature, addiction can make one sick. Some men argue that even pretend playmates might not be merely tempting, but attainable. What‘s the harm in that?

The other-reality world isn’t always harmless. What of “end-times” delusions, the blind belief that women adulterers must he stoned to death, or that the government of the United States was originally a Christian one which has lost its way and must be taken back via political and media subterfuge, lies, or even armed force? What if the delusions are more “real and moral” than established laws and evidence? Should they be exempt from inquiry because they fly under the banner of religious belief? Should governments be in the position of supporting superstitions via tax exemptions for them? Should religions not be required to show proof that their products actually work, that investments in them are another Ponzi scheme? And what of “truth in advertising?” Since religious institutions are entertainment, collecting from their audiences, shouldn't they also pay entertainment taxes? After all, magicians, singers, and all others who work to make people “feel good with fiction” must pay taxes.

“Who can overestimate the progress of the world if all the money wasted in superstition could be used to elevate, enlighten, and civilize mankind?” - Robert G. Ingersoll

In the I7th century,
Protestant Reformers were paranoically suspicious of anything that suggested Satanism, from the “Papist” practice of praying to saints to the old custom of leaving out milk for the fairies. It is estimated that in the century and a half following the advent of the Reformation, around 4,500 Scots - most of them women - were killed because they were thought to be in league with the Devil.”- Stephen Johnson. 2002.
Note: these were not Catholic Inquisition tortures and murders. Children in Africa suffer the same fates for the same reasons, today. The demon-haunted world still exists in many cultures, and many minds.

There are delusions people find comforting. [...] What‘s the harm in that?(My personal experience: During one friendly social occasion a few years ago, my wife and I were physically endangered. A disturbed young man there suddenly stood up and accused us of being agents of the Devil. He had to be restrained by two men. Had he been aware that I am an atheist, I might not be alive to write this today.)

What are the delusions driving “honor killings?” What sort of irrational and immoral, unchallenged traditions allow this to go on to maintain “honor” in families? How is it that killing your daughter brings you honor and not dishonor? Where is the honor or humanity in Sharia law? Why is murder the knee-jerk sentence for blasphemy, when blasphemy hurts no one, but murder hurts everyone?

Tens of thousands of children have been raped, and thousands have been enslaved child workers in Ireland, some of them also raped, for decades, unchallenged by authorities, their fates sealed by the decisions of bishops who offer “comfort and joy” to the deluded masses trusting them and their priests. A woman dies because she is refused a legal abortion which will save her life, and still the religion demands exemptions to the laws, allowing deaths like hers to continue. (Apparently, the threat of hellfire is totally discarded in favor of the promise of forgiveness, no matter how heinous the action.) Harmless delusions?

The trouble with the “no harm done” delusions is that they allow the harmful ones to prosper and grow under the same faith-greenhouse and enjoy the same privileged status, exempt from criticism, protected by the societies norms which would otherwise damn them outright. Moderate believers in Islam and Christians, by numbers alone, support the systematic radicals. So, no, not challenging delusional thinking does a disservice to us all.

The trouble with religions is that they erupt in fervor, sometimes to the degree of witch hunts and dominant political-clerical power in exponentially increasing delusions. It is wrong to feed the beast who will devour you, no matter how comforting and harmless it may appear to be.

Is religion harmless? Think about it.