Madeline Neumann and Why Society Should Stop Insulating Religion From Rational Scrutiny
On Wednesday Marathon Country District Attorney Jill Falstad annouced that Dale and Leilani Neumann would each be charged with second-degree reckless homicide (maximum punishment: 25 years in prison) for their failure to seek medical attention for their ailing daughter – relying instead on prayer – who withered away and died of a treatable form of diabetes. This death and the suffering visited upon 11-year old Madeline was unnecessary and unjustified. Yet, at the same time, I do feel for her parents, as I’m quite confident that they meant well and felt that their years of relying on prayer to the exclusion of medical treatment as an exercise and demonstration of their faith was in their, their children’s and their believed-in God’s best interests. In terms of their reason and behaviour, I would not say that they were good parents (i.e., parents who could protect their children as could reasonably be expected of them). But in terms of their intentions, I have no reason to think that they didn’t mean very well. In this sense, it is quite saddening that apparently well-meaning people who have lived in a culture which generally shows a high level of respect for religious faith and regularly disparages those who do not are being sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence and being separated from their other children, family and friends.
This case is an illustration of the sorts of things that can happen as a result of a culture giving undue deference to religious beliefs and making some areas of honest and fair debate socially inappropriate. The culturally-enshrined practice of isolating religious beliefs from the type of scrutiny we can comfortably apply to any other issue of discourse absolutely has negative consequences. As in the case of the Neumanns, a culture in which unsubstantiated beliefs are treated as respectable – primarily because almost everyone has them – can readily lead to well-meaning people doing destructive things while feeling like they’re doing good. Moreover, it can provide justification to people who do not mean well to engage in destructive behaviours themselves. The facts that racism, sexism, slavery, murder, social ostrocism, wars, and various other forms of abuse and exploitation have and, for some of them, continue to be been justified by religious belief ideally would bring a lot more pause to more people than it is.
Saying what I just said, I can readily expect the first comments in the comment section to include posts from theists who I’ve angered citing Stalin, Mao, and other atheists who’ve done many horrible things themselves. It is absolutely true that there have been many atheists who have engaged in many inhumane behaviours. But it wasn’t atheism that led to or justified this behaviour. All atheism is is a lack of belief in a God. That’s it. Atheism itself is not a moral philosophy in any sense. It has no implications for morality other than that atheists will not subscribe to the teachings and fears encouraged by certain books. There is no recognized atheist moral handbook that says anything like “because there is no God, do whatever you want regardless of the consequences for others”. If there was such a book and it was actually subscribed to, we would have a very dangerous philosophical school of thought on our hands, and no one would feel any social or moral necessity to respect the beliefs of the adherents.
I’m going to make an argument often made by Sam Harris: this is not about encouraging atheism, it’s about encouraging reason, intellectual honesty and intellectual freedom. If a person’s thinking is unreasonable – whether in a religious, social or earthly sphere of contemplation – why should others be deemed to be misbehaving for pointing that out to the person? Are we doing the person, ourselves or society any favours by knowingly withholding an opportunity for personal growth for them and oneself by neglecting to start a discussion?
It seems that there are two core reasons for our entrenched inclination to tread sensitively around issues of religious faith: power relations and, to a lesser degree, compassion. Power relations come from lobbies for particular beliefs binding and saying that we will not tolerate criticism or a lack of intellectual respect toward our beliefs and us for holding them. They may exert this power in a top-down sort of sense in which they refuse to vote for political candidates who do not bow to their intellectual bullying, to shop or work for companies who do not condemn fair intellectual treatment of their beliefs (or who do not give their beliefs the same undue deference as other brands of religious thought), and so on. Today, believers will also pursue or threaten to pursue legal charges of religious persecution for having their beliefs seriously questioned or disrespected at work or within government settings – and of course the differential treatment of unsubstantiated religious beliefs as a whole versus unsubstantiated beliefs not affiliated with recognized powerful religions is the result of much the same type of political posturing as is being discussed here done many years ago by members of dominant religions.
As a result of holding strong defensive stances in the governmental and financial/work/business sectors, their bullying will sometimes result in compliance from top power-wielders in society (e.g., government agencies, CEOs), who will enforce similar compliance or strongly condemn a lack thereof from all those that are lower than them in the recognized social strata.
A secondary reason for our deference to certain types of unsubstantiated beliefs (i.e., the ones we call “religion”), though one that some people often hallucinate as being the primary reason (although for some it may well genuinely be primary), is compassion. People do not want to risk offending or hurting the feelings of others who take their protected beliefs so seriously. Why do I say that this is not the primary reason? It’s pretty clear that for most people it isn’t. We do not defer to all unsubstantiated beliefs equally. Even within the realm of religion many people accord differential degrees of respect. Are Mormons respected as much as Christians by everyone? Surely not. What the Mormons need to do if they want more respect is have a whole lot of kids, get more Mormons in powerful positions in society, and flexing their political muscles more often in order to gain the compliance of more political candidates, government agencies, corporations and so on. What about New Age philosophies? Do we respect these as much as Christianity? Generally, no. What about a new cult (which, by the way, are alternatively termed “new religious movements”) in a suburb of Chicago that we hear about for the first time next week; will it get the same deference as Judaism? Of course not! Even if a person of one of these “lesser” forms of belief were to start crying because people would not stop questioning their beliefs and pointing out the insufficiencies of their defences, many (though not all)people would still not be won over by compassion – they may well start laughing (more so).
I think a real problem is that compassion is justified in the first place. I’m not at all against feeling compassion for someone who is feeling hurt. But I’m concerned that people would feel so hurt about their beliefs being challenged and possibly being wrong. I’ve said it before, attachment to beliefs (as well as other externals) can be very personally and socially dangerous. This has been recognized by many religious and philosophical schools of thought. People have derived this meaning from the Christian notion of avoiding the worshipping of false idols. Buddhism speaks specifically of the dangers of attachment. Deep personal and social attachments to beliefs, possessions, even other people (if the grown person is not ultimately capable of independence), can be a great source of insecurity which can lead to great personal and social turmoil. When it comes to beliefs, I am of the belief (which is subject to modification given strong argumentation) that commitment to the products of reasoning (i.e., the beliefs) over the process of reasoning (ideally the maintenance of a neutral open-minded honest inquiring mind) is something that should be avoided in the interest of personal and social well-ness. Maybe if we lived in a world where more people practiced this sort of philosophy, we would not be afraid to question (or have questioned) certain types of beliefs, maybe we the world wouldn’t be quite so socially factionized, and maybe there would be fewer cases like that of the Neumanns for people like me to write blog posts about.
Hat Tip for Neumann story: Friendly Atheist