Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

What do you say to religious believers who don’t care about reality?

I don’t mean people who unconsciously don’t care about reality. I don’t mean people who unconsciously resist or rationalize evidence when it contradicts the things they believe. I get that. That’s universally human. Everybody does that. Atheists, believers — everybody. Me, and you, and everyone we know.

I’m talking about people who consciously, intellectually state that they’re less interested in what’s really true about the universe than they are about their personal interpretation of it. People who consciously, intellectually state that reality can’t be completely understood, and therefore all interpretations of it are equally valid. People who consciously, intellectually state that it’s less important to understand reality than it is to not offend people by pointing out that their beliefs are inconsistent with the evidence. People who consciously, intellectually state that, even though there’s powerful evidence against the belief that (say) consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul that survives death, or that life was shaped into being by a loving God, or what have you… it’s still reasonable for them to hold those beliefs. People who consciously, intellectually state that, when it comes right down to it, they don’t care whether the things they believe are true.

And who firmly defend that position.

What do you say to them?

As an atheist writer, I’ve been having this weird series of conversations about religion with believers who take this position. Some of them take it in a very hard-line relativist way: they insist that there’s no reality other than the one we create in our minds. Or they insist that, even though there probably is an external reality, there’s no way to truly understand it… so it’s completely reasonable to live in the world as we create it in our heads, and to interpret reality in whatever way gives us comfort and pleasure. Regardless of whether that interpretation jibes with, you know, evidence about how reality works.

Others are more slippery about this position. They’ll state their religious beliefs… and then, when challenged to provide some evidence supporting those beliefs, they’ll say something like, “That’s just what I believe. None of us can prove for 100% certain whether our beliefs are right. We all choose what to believe. So what’s the point in debating who’s right?”

I’ll be honest: I find it very hard to argue against this position. Mostly because I find it so utterly baffling. The idea that reality matters? The idea that we ought to care whether the things we believe are true? To me, this is close to a fundamental axiom. And when people say they don’t care about that, it leaves my jaw hanging in dumbfounded silence.

But that makes it a topic worth getting into. I like questioning my fundamental axioms. I think they’re worth examining. So I’m going to examine this one.

Why should we care whether the things we believe are true?

Why should we treat the external, objective reality of the universe as more important than the internal, subjective reality of our personal experience?

Why is the universe more important than me?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet: Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not? To find out why caring about reality is both a practical necessity and a moral obligation — and why I don’t believe people who say they don’t care about it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

18 thoughts on “Do You Care Whether the Religious Ideas You Believe in Are True or Not?

  1. 1

    The response I normally give when this comes up is to say something like the following:
    Yeah, nothing is 100% certain, that’s why what I believe isn’t certain either. I’m pretty sure dinosaurs roamed the Earth millions, but I’m not certain of it. Convincing yourself that anything is certain when it isn’t isn’t good either. But taking that lack of certainty isn’t an excuse for lying to yourself about what the evidence actually shows.

  2. 2

    One of my responses is to point out that there is a technical term for people who advocate for a claim without actually caring whether that particular claim is true, because they are more interested in another agenda. That term is “bullshitter.”
    And what they are doing, is called “bullshitting.”
    Rule of thumb: you can’t argue with a bullshitter. They are not taking the subject seriously. Ironically, it’s the atheist who takes “God” more seriously, than the faith-based bullshitter.
    Generally speaking, the bullshitters take short-term, human-focused practical matters more seriously, than anything else. What they’re really into, is belief as a form of therapy. Being true means “helping others.” It means “becoming a better person.” It means “allows people to have a more satisfying life.” Spirituality, and religion, either work for you, or they don’t. And having faith means being the kind of person, who wants to be the kind of person, who has faith. It’s so beneficial. It makes you the best you can be. It works. It’s therapeutic. That’s what matters.
    These so-called believers who profess to not care about truth, don’t give a shit about God.
    Tell them they are intellectually dishonest. Tell them they are bullshitters. And then tell them that they’re real nice. So very nice. The only one they care about, should be that last one.

  3. 3

    Reading this article reminded me of a line I heard from George Carlin (quoting from memory):
    “People who say they don’t care what people think, are usually desperate for people to think that they don’t care what people think…”

  4. 4

    “Ironically, it’s the atheist who takes “God” more seriously, than the faith-based bullshitter.”
    Isn’t that the truth, Sastra.
    As Julia Sweeney says in “Letting Go of God”:
    “It’s because I take you so seriously [God] that I can’t believe in you any more.”

  5. 5

    Another smash. Fantastic, thank you.
    I think you’re mistaken at the end though – I think they really don’t care whether it’s true or not. They care that it be defensible, which is a very different thing.

  6. yb

    “All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.”
    ~Nail Gaiman, American Gods

  7. 7

    They do care. They care about how the universe actually functions in reality as indicated by evidence. They care every time they board an airplane or fill a prescription or ride in an elevator or drive across a bridge or download a song on their laptop or etc., etc., and etc.. Or, at least, they trust that someone cares. I don’t ever remember any of my engineering profs saying, “Well, kids, since we can never know with 100% certainty anything about the universe as it truly exists outside of ourselves (our brains), just go ahead and design those airplanes however you want. You’ll still get an A.”

  8. 8

    there’s really nothing you can say that will shake them from this – they are like conspiracy theorists who insist that the lack of evidence is proof of the conspiracy.
    heck, if NASA went back to the Moon in September and landed at all the sites the Apollo crews did – someone would insist that they went secretly in August to plant the sites
    he only worse conversation killer than I beleive what I beleive and nothing will change it
    is “will you read my screenplay?”
    people like that won’t change until reality intrudes on their lives in a way that their narrow mind can’t fold into their preferences.

  9. 9

    Nina, I think the order probably goes:
    3. “I believe what I believe and nothing will change it.”
    2. “Will you read my screenplay?”
    1. “We are the Knights of Ni! Ni! Ni!”

  10. 12

    People who deny the existence of an objective reality and claim subjective interpretations are all that matter are called postmodernists. I wonder how many religious people would appreciate being called postmodernists (the ones who know anything about it, at least)?

  11. 13

    Oddly enough, I once argued with a theist who claimed that *atheists* are the ones who reject the idea of an objective reality. He seemed to think that you needed a god to ensure your senses weren’t lying to you. It was a surreal experience.
    Speaking of bizarre arguments, the alternet comments are delicious. I particularly love the first one that straight out says they didn’t read the whole article. Perhaps alternet should institute reading comprehension quizzes that test people for a basic understanding of an article before they’re allowed to comment.

  12. 14

    “He seemed to think that you needed a god to ensure your senses weren’t lying to you. It was a surreal experience.”
    Ah, I hear that one a lot. I think I’ll call it God Of The South Park Gaps. It goes like this:
    1. Tricky (or tricky sounding) philosophical problem
    2. ???
    3. Prophet!
    “How can I tell what is rational when my only tool for checking my rationality is itself? Therefore, Jesus is Lord.”
    “How can we tell if we’re all brains in jars or not? Therefore, Mohammed is Lord.”
    “Does the universe even exist if I’m not directly observing it? I have no idea! Therefore, Yahweh is Lord.”

  13. 15

    DSimon: Proof 31!
    (1) Human reasoning is inherently flawed.
    (2) Therefore, there is no reasonable way to challenge a proposition.
    (3) I propose that God exists.
    (4) Therefore, God exists.

  14. Jon

    The creators of “Butterflies and Wheels” have an excellent book “Why Truth Matters”. See also True to Life: Why Truth Matters” by Michael P. Lynch

  15. Vic

    You may be fighting too hard. Have you read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn?
    All knowledge of reality is in the mind of the knower. That doesn’t mean it isn’t “out there” also, it only means we can never be certain that an external reality exists. We can be close to certain that our ideas of it will not be the same as it is.
    Keep up the good work.

  16. 18

    I’m so late to this but I thought I would still comment. As someone who was raised with religion i often feel like arguments like this are besides the point.
    I think most people who believe in some kind of higher power do not reject the fact that an objective reality exists. I cannot express it every well but religion is a tool; it is a strategy for navigating life. And belief comes from application. I believe in God in so much as when I was going through a rough time in my life the construct of religion provided me with a cognitive solution to coping with a problem. Does that mean I am interested in finding God physically exists somewhere? Not in the least.
    Science doesn’t bother me in the least because it is an explanation about reality not a personal coping mechanism. To me these are two completely non-overlapping areas. I know why my grandfather died from a biological perspective, but the idea of a soul gives me comfort. That’s all. Can atheists have their own values that serve the same purpose? Sure. I am just not sure why some atheists believe that people who subscribe to religion actually believe there’s a spaghetti monster down the street. So no I don’t “care” about objective reality or care to argue them because I’ve never had a problem with them and arguing about it does not actually invalidate the purpose of religion in my life–which is not to determine whether the laws of physics work but to navigate subjective interpersonal relationships and emotions and to provide a framework for living with uncertainty.

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