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Are All Beliefs Harmless?

June 14, 2012

This is perhaps the saddest and stupidest thing I have seen in awhile…

Last year I wrote a post Empathizing With Delusional Christians. The point of the post was that some persons had been socialized and inculcated into delusional thinking, and simply had no good categories for interpreting reality. In a nutshell: their parents or socializing situation had made them brain dead.

As an example of this type of interpretive stupidity I featured, among others, Pastor Mack Wolford, a member of the ‘Signs’ Pentecostal denomination, who liked to handle highly venomous timber rattlesnakes during services as a demonstration of ‘faith’ in his ‘beliefs’.

A couple of weeks ago the “serpent-handling” West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before.

Read that last part again again: just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. He ‘believed’ that he could handle snakes because the ‘Bible’ told him so, and obviously years of intellectually stupid indoctrination, but somehow, regardless of that ‘belief’ reality still invaded his insulated delusion.

This reminds me of the story of 16-year-old Austin Sprout who lost his life when his parents, Brandi and Russel Bellew, opted for prayer instead of medical treatment. Similarly to Wolford,  Austin Sprout watched his father die in 2007 of sepsis after seeking prayer instead of medical treatment for a leg injury.

So we have two ignoramuses who have been indoctrinated into stupidity, but not just regular stupidity, a special breed of ignorance in which reality and modernity are completely ignored for fairy tales and magic. Even worse, their parents gave them the faulty cognitive framework by which to kill themselves!

The point of parenting is to raise children with the skills to be successful adults, husbands or wives, friends, and parents themselves. Teaching them magic or putting their lives at risk by refusing modern medicine, which has been shown actually to work, is grounds for losing your children. It is abuse, and like sexual or physical abuse other adults must stop it whenever and wherever it is occurring. But these fools have a ‘right’ to their ‘beliefs’… ridiculous.

Now, we have to be absolutely clear and understand that “Cognitive development is a process of socialization…” and that “intellectual development is organized and directed by the social world over the course of childhood. Although a single instance of thinking may be a solitary activity, cognitive development as a process cannot be meaningfully separated from the social context in which it occurs.” Socialization then is the “primary system through which children learn about the world and develop cognitive skills.” (M. Gauvain and S. M. Perez “The Socialization of Cognition” in Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, 588.) Ultimately, Mack and Austin were trained to be stupid. They simply had no good categories for understanding.

This is exactly where I empathize with many seriously delusional religious persons: they were socialized in a delusional setting; that setting, and the categories of intellectual non-complexity they were saddled with, are not their fault in many ways. Frankly, it would be impossible for them to have any other interpretive categories entering adulthood outside of some different socializing settings of their youth, say school and friends, though this is mitigated in some religious settings by insulating against outside influences.

But to remain this willfully ignorant and stupid is simply stunning… to pretend that you can do magic in the age we live in… to ignore the real, actual, predictable, repeatable, testable, provable knowledge that has been accumulated in the last couple of hundred years and to kill yourself for a ridiculous ‘belief’… *sigh*, on some levels I just don’t get it.

This is why I reject such ridiculous relativistic statements such as, “It’s OK to believe what you believe. I believe what I believe.” Are all beliefs equal? Are all beliefs harmless? No, because there is something that is called ‘knowledge’ and it trumps ridiculous, ignorant ‘beliefs’ every time.

There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’. There is such an important distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’. We can ‘believe’ a great deal of things that are nothing more than conjecture, we can ‘believe’ those things are ‘true’… and yet still be quite wrong! However, because I can have wrong beliefs it does not mean that I cannot pursue better categories for understanding, and gain real, actual, useful knowledge about the world around me and the universe I live in.

When I was a child I thought as a child…

I grew up in a charismatic church setting. I ‘knew’ a lot of things about supernatural power and how to access the unseen force. I ‘knew’ the earth was young (the Bible, my parents, and the pastor told me: what more do you need!). I ‘knew’ the dead were often raised from the dead, and that God regenerated limbs. Magic was everywhere! These were simply unexamined self-evident facts.

But you do not have to remain ignorant forever. It is possible to gain better categories for interpreting the phenomena that occur around you. While some beliefs you hold may not be as harmful as Mack’s or Austin’s, those beliefs may be just as ignorant. So while you can remain a product of your socialization context–and that I will empathize with, my question is: are you going to do anything about it?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 10:14 am

    As a fellow (long-since) recovered Southern Baptist, and current teacher of Chinese history and philosophy, I can’t tell you how envious of China Confucianism and Taoism make me. Imagine having at the center of your “religious” socialization a sage who was not intellectually suspect, but instead the real deal. To wit, Confucius: “To know when we know, and to know when we do not know–that is wisdom.” That single analect inoculates China from practically all the magical-thinking buffoonery that passes for serious spirituality in the all of the non-Chinese civilizations.

    And don’t even get me started on Zhuangzi, a sage with an honest-to-god love of clowning around.

    I grow yellower by the day.

    • Jon Hendry permalink
      June 15, 2012 11:34 pm

      How’s that rhino horn working out for ya?

      There’s plenty of magical thinking buffoonery in China, to the detriment of endangered species.

      • June 16, 2012 7:30 am

        Folk medicine and Religious/Philosophical sages: one of these things is not like the other.

      • 4xi0m permalink
        June 16, 2012 11:55 am

        To be fair, Clay, Chinese philosophy isn’t without its drawbacks. The painful and disfiguring practice of foot binding, for example, stems from the philosophical concept of yin and yang. It was widely perpetrated on Chinese women through the beginning of the 20th century. And I’d hardly count snake handlers–or most Baptist preachers in general–as religious/philosophical sages.

        • June 16, 2012 12:52 pm

          I’ve never seen foot-binding attributed in any significant way to Yin-Yang cosmology–I’d be curious to know the source of your info. The standard (and uncertain) roots of foot-binding started in the Five Dynasties Period after the Tang, and mushroomed in the following Song Dynasty when, much like anorexics today, elite women inflicted the practice on themselves and their daughters in order to compete with concubine dancers whose “golden lotus” dance accentuated their dainty feet. The Song commercial revolution resulted in a newly wide-spread practice of elite men buying concubines for pleasure–up to the Tang they were only bought when a wife didn’t produce children–so elite wives took to foot-binding themselves to compete with these concubines for their husbands’ affections, and to binding their daughters’ feet to increase their chances to of finding a wealthy husband.

          But this is all so tangential to the main point, which is simply that classical Chinese Confucianism is naturalistic and rational and, most importantly, radically skeptical about questions of gods, spirits, demons, an afterlife, and all the other unknowables that are common dogmatic fare in Christianity. The Analects, the Dao De Jing, the Mencius and Xunzi, the Zhuangzi–in none of these texts–the closest China comes to the “scriptures” of the monotheisms–will you find passages such as the following, attributed to Jesus in Mark 16:17-18:

          “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

          I don’t see how you can dismiss the snake-handlers and Baptist preachers as unrepresentative of Christian thought when their practices are rooted in the words of the Christian god on earth as revealed in its sacred scripture.

          Is China perfect? I never said it was. (And I could go on about how Taoism morphed several centuries later into its uncannily Christian-like Huang-Lao Taoist salvation religion strain, which was every bit as irrational and buffoonish as our worst Western snake-handlers or more mainstream televangelists, but was–luckily for the Chinese–stamped out by the Eastern Han emperor a century and a half earlier than Constantine danced the opposite way by converting to Rome’s similar salvationist mob, but I’ll spare you.)

          What I did say is simply that Confucianism and Taoism are, compared to Western and Middle Eastern religions, radically sane and radically natural. I’m open to any argument that Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi opened the floodgates to mob superstition and dogmatism anywhere close to the degree of that seen in the Ancient Near East and the West.

        • 4xi0m permalink
          June 20, 2012 12:26 pm

          I originally saw it on a documentary. But if you would like a book that discusses it, I recommend “Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China.” From what I understand, Confucianism was quite successful in relegating women to a profoundly subordinate role, and was frequently used to justify the practice of foot binding.
          I dismiss fundamentalist Christianity in all forms because it is factually, logically, and morally absurd. However, other forms of Christianity exist, and I would argue that they better represent Christian thought (especially since fundamentalism is a 19th century phenomenon).

          • June 20, 2012 1:28 pm

            4xi0m, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you start this thread by attributing footbinding to Yin-Yang cosmology, and when asked for a source, cite one that attributes it to Confucianism (which has next to nothing to do with the more Daoist Yin-Yang)?

            In any case, you’ll find nothing in the Analects, the Mencius, or the Xunzi advocating anything remotely related to women’s feet that could be taken, like our snake-handling analogue in Mark 16 quoted above, as a “scriptural” justification for foot-binding.

            And while there’s no denying that Confucianism is a hierarchical ideology, in which everybody works to fulfill their social role in relation to everyone else, everybody was subordinate to someone in the name of social harmony: not just women, but sons, fathers, brothers, friends. And what most Westerners don’t understand about these relationships is that Confucius laid utmost emphasis on the reciprocity and mutuality of these unequal relationships. (And mothers, by the way, had considerable power within the traditional Chinese family–including the emperor’s.) Measured by Western egalitarian and liberal-individualistic standards, of course, this emphasis on harmony and order is a bad thing; but scholar Wang Ping, in Aching for Beauty, pushes back against this “subordination is always bad” viewpoint with arguments showing how much power women enjoyed within this framework. (This is more a defense of Confucianism as necessarily bad for women, since the question of foot-binding, as stated in the earlier post, arose more from the commercial explosion of wealthy men in the Song who simply wanted sexual variety with small-footed women, and as far as I can see requires a huge stretch to be tied to anything related to Confucius–who only spoke of women three times in the entire 200+ passages of the Analects.)

            I took the info for the history of footbinding, since we’re naming sources, from Dieter Kuhn’s recent (and excellent) history of the Song in Harvard’s new series, The Age of Confucian Rule, which happened to be sitting on my bed half-finished when you replied (I just returned from a week in Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, from where the footbinding mania seems to have started to spread). Kuhn mentions no religious or philosophical root to footbinding; nor does the Cambridge History of China.

            Why do I go to the trouble to try to explain China? Because I lived there for six years, have taught and studied its history and philosophy for many more years than that, and find Western instincts to belittle it mind-boggling and sad. It has much to recommend it–especially, to return to the opening of this post, a spiritual tradition that, to quote Gernet, is a “wisdom that has no need of God.”

            Too bad the Chinese are so good at minding their own business that they don’t send their own Confucian and Daoist missionaries to preach to Westerners. We’d be way better off, as a world, if the monotheisms preached less, and the Chinese preached more.

  2. 4xi0m permalink
    June 16, 2012 12:03 pm

    Literalistic stupidity aside, where do they get these snakes? Is there a venomous snake breeder somewhere who has the corner on this particular niche market?

    • Len permalink
      June 18, 2012 6:07 am

      “venomous snake” breeder or venomous “snake breeder”?

      Either way, it’s a dying market.

  3. June 18, 2012 4:41 pm

    I do not know who is worse–those who mispractice and misunderstand what faith healing is all about or those who are ignorant of biblical teaching criticizing those who practice faith healing.

    God never said to NOT use doctors, He even used a doctor to write two of the biblical books BUT He did make sure that He told every one to consult HIm first BEFORE running to any physician.

    He alone knows the hearts of doctors, their skills, and the medicine they will prescribr and how effective it will be. It is wise for believers to consult God first and let HIm direct them to the right doctor where they will receive the proper care.

    People must be lead by God to reject medical attention as there are rules in place to ensure that God gets the glory when He heals supernaturally.

    The above preacher pictured did not correctly understand scripture nor faith healing and he paid the price for that lack of understanding and knowledge.

    • Brian M permalink
      June 19, 2012 10:16 am

      So, does “God” have office hours in which they can consult him before selecting a doctor? What if there is an emergency? Does he operate some kind of 24 hour physicians’ reference bureau, perhaps a divine Yelp?

    • June 20, 2012 9:07 am

      “Dr.” David Tee: With a comment this stupid, I now don’t know if you are a troll or a poe…

      • pastafarianfundie permalink
        June 21, 2012 11:10 pm

        The guy’s website has a post where he supports the Korean government censoring evolution out of biology textbooks. He’s gotta be a poe.

        I’m now going to go weep for the human race.

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