Yes, what you believe actually matters

By Jeremy Fejfar, July 05, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Yes, what you believe actually matters

“Why does it matter what people believe? It doesn’t affect you; just let people believe what they want. It’s not like you are going to change anyone’s mind.”

This is a critique I hear, sometimes in response to one of my columns. While I fully support freedom of thought — and everyone should be free to believe what they like — I also think it’s best when our beliefs are based on reason and evidence. When sufficient evidence comes to light that contradicts our beliefs, we should be willing to discard the debunked notions.

One does not need to pay attention to national and international events very long to see the consequences that beliefs can have.

Seven children die in a New York City house fire when a hot plate is left on for 25 hours because their community’s interpretation of sacred scripture told them that a god would be displeased if they pressed a button on Saturday. This is the fourth deadly fire in this community in the past 15 years due to this belief.

In many parts of Africa, people with albinism are slaughtered and their body parts are sold off because of local beliefs that they are magical.

Scarcely a year goes by where a child is not injured or killed because the parents choose to forgo modern medicine, blood transfusions or immunizations in favor of ineffective pseudoscientific or prayer-based modalities. Further, children too are often victims of dangerous and sometimes deadly attempts to exorcise non-existent demons or devils.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, U.S. Sen. James Imhofe, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, does not see a need to intervene to halt escalating greenhouse gas emissions because of one of his favorite Bible verses, Genesis 8:22.

Earlier this year, an 18-year-old man and his 6-month-old daughter were killed when they were rear-ended by a car and thrown from their horse-drawn buggy. Because his religious beliefs left him and his daughter unrestrained by a seat belt or infant car seat, what would have been a minor traffic crash became a tragedy.

As of this writing, more than 800 Muslims have died in Pakistan amid a major heat wave. The fact that Ramadan is currently being observed is compounding the danger of the heat, as millions of Muslims forgo all food and drink during the daylight hours in observance of the month-long religious ritual.

Beliefs are not inconsequential. What we believe is important because our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions have consequences. It’s rare that our beliefs and our actions do not have effects on those around us. We, individually and as a society, live much happier and healthier lives when our beliefs mirror reality to the greatest extent possible.

For example, the person who believes that drinking battery acid is good for them will not lead as happy and healthy of a life as a person who has beliefs regarding battery acid ingestion that more closely reflect reality, all other variables being equal.

Faith in the supernatural is not a good way to arrive at a reality-based understanding of the natural world. People from all over the world have arrived at vastly different conclusions when using their faith or scripture as a basis for their beliefs. However, when people base their beliefs on what the evidence shows and what is revealed using the scientific method, people from many different cultures converge on same beliefs and conclusions.

As Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” has stated, there is a reason we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra.” People from all cultures and religions will arrive at the same conclusions when they use the scientific method, make testable claims, experiment to confirm or reject them, and have peers review and verify their results. Try saying the same thing for conclusions derived by using a faith-based, or non-evidence-based, system.

Lastly, there is the claim that one cannot change people’s beliefs. It’s true that beliefs can be entrenched and resistant to change; however, I, like many voices in the secular community, am proof that this adage is untrue. I don’t expect any one article or conversation to cause someone to change a strongly held conviction, but I know firsthand that sometimes all it takes is exposure to a different way of thinking about things to begin considering one’s own beliefs more critically.

If having beliefs that accurately reflect reality is important, then honest, critical evaluation of one’s beliefs, especially those one takes for granted, is essential.

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