"Why would you want to take away someone's faith if it gives them comfort?"
If you've done a good job discussing faith/religion/god with a believer, then you'll probably hear something like this. To get to this point, you must have already disarmed all of their evidence and reasoning, or else they'd provide some more of that since, despite some people's behavior, everyone knows that it's immeasurably more convincing to present an argument based on facts than on feelings. That's why the first, knee-jerk attempts at these defenses of religion usually start with "OK, well if there's no God how do you explain…?". Tugging at your heartstrings by changing the discussion from "Is this true?" to "Why do you want to make people feel bad?" is the dialectical equivalent of sad puppy eyes. Please don't make me sleep in my room, Mommy; I'm scared!
Nevertheless, it is effective. Most people are nice and have a hard time with the idea of taking something away from people against their will. This tactic is designed to paint you as a cold, heartless, unfeeling robot with a defective compassion module – the kind of person who tells a kid her goldfish died instead of just replacing it while she's at school. You monster, you made your daughter cry! Never mind that it effectively concedes the question of the truth of the religion in question (What does it matter if it's true? It's the only thing keeping people from committing mass suicide!) Or that it is incredibly patronizing to assume that most people are so weak that they can't deal with the truth. What's really at stake here is that the argument has shifted to whether or not the believer should continue using their justifications (which they've already discovered are not very good arguments) to believe in something that they think is helping them, even if it may be only a fantasy.
I think at this point it's important to first redirect the conversation with "We aren't talking about whether it's comforting, we're talking about whether it's true or not. Do you think it's true?" Don't let the entire conversation be a waste of time for both of you by changing the subject just at the point where a conclusion should be reached. Also, if the answer is "I don't know", then that's a fantastic result and you should be happy; badgering someone into admitting they were wrong is likely to just get them angry at you and tarnish the conclusions with emotions. I feel like there are a lot of times when I've been at this point and not realized that I was moving the other person from a place of discovery and introspection to one of defensiveness and hurt (Sorry!). Let them struggle with it on their own. Think of it as a homework assignment.
Sometimes, though, that's not going to be enough. Sometimes someone will persist with belief in the usefulness of religion, even while admitting they don't know if it's true. This is basically a form of Pascal's Wager: "It might not be true, but I think it helps me so I'm going to believe it." I think this sort of clinging to a lost cause is even harder to reason someone out of than the good-old fashioned style of really believing in it, perhaps because in the latter case the problem is that the person is looking for the truth and just doing a bad job of it, while in the former case the problem is that the person doesn't care about the truth.
So what's so important about the truth, anyway (he said, halfway through the article)? Does it really matter if the little girl knows that her goldfish died or not? Why would a robot with a functioning compassion module (or a caring human being, if you absolutely insist) make the little girl cry by telling her the truth when there seem to be no consequences to letting her believe the fish is still alive, albeit a bit smaller and shinier? Three reasons:
First, hiding death from children just makes the first death that you can't cover up with a replacement that much more difficult to explain (assuming you don't have enough of these compassionate robots around to take the places of dying family members…). You're going to have to deal with it eventually, and it would be nice not to have to explain exactly what death is at the same time as having to deal with it yourself.
Second, should the kid find out that you've been lying to her, you're risking damaging her trust and potentially having the kid resent you for not treating them like a regular human being, or at least not expecting you to treat her like she has any agency whatsoever. Don't be surprised when she ignores your advice later because she thinks you see her as some helpless fool who can't take care of herself.
Third, suppose the replacement fish, Goldie II, dies a week later, then Goldie III dies a week after that, then Goldies IV, V, VI,… Eventually it becomes obvious that you're not very creative with names and that something is killing these fish. Now, had you explained that the fish died and talked about it, maybe you would have found out that your daughter has been giving the fish baths with dish soap, or adding salt to its tank every day because she heard you say that you "like your fish with a bit more salt" one night during dinner. Now you had to explain death to your daughter anyway, and now you can't even afford to console her with ice cream because you had to hire a plumber to unclog the gruesome evidence of your deception from your overworked plumbing.
Generalizing these reasons:
1. The best way to figure out how to make life better is to know what's really going on. Mental disorders are not caused by demons, and taking psychiatric patients to an exorcist is wasteful at best and dangerous at worst. Likewise, falsely believing you'll see your family members again in the afterlife is at best useless and at worst devaluing the preciousness of the time you do have to spend with them. Falsely believing that God is watching out for you is at best useless and at worst dangerously biasing you to take bigger risks than you should.
2. Treat people's capacity for self-determination with respect. Assuming that other people can't handle the truth and need the comfort of an unlikely religion is at best patronizing and at worst denying them the right to decide for themselves what to believe. (This is why raising children as "Christian children" or "Muslim children", or assigning any other dogmatic belief to them externally, is about as nauseating to me as the idea of raising them as "Democrat/Republican/Communist children".)
3. You never know what you're missing if you don't look for the truth. If you don't look deeper than the Bible to explain mental disorders, you'll never discover that some of them are treatable with medication.
If you never look deeper than your religion for comfort, you'll never notice all of the comfort that the scientific search for truth has provided us that you take for granted each time you proclaim that faith brings people comfort. Sure, the ancient Israelites were given some comfort by believing that God had a plan for them and would reward them, but they also lived an average lifespan of less than 40 years, dealt with infant mortality rates of around 25%, mostly couldn't read, starved when the weather changed unexpectedly, and had noxious breath and rotten teeth. I prefer the comfort of medical care, modern education techniques, agricultural technology, and toothpaste to believing that the consequences of their absence are a part of a divine plan any day. How about you?
Dustin Summy is an atheist and PhD candidate in Aeronautics at Caltech. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, he's seen the world from a religious perspective and is now a staunch proponent of the use of skepticism and critical thinking. You can read more of his thoughts on science, space flight, and religion at www.thedustinsummary.blogspot.com.
Written By: Dustin Summy