Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.

4 thoughts on “Truth vs Comfort

  1. Deconversion was a painful process for me, near the end, but the liberation and peace I experienced afterwards were well worth the struggle. Unfortunately, it may well be the case that some people would never be able to cope with freedom from religion.

    (Sorry to go OT, but you’ve been tagged.)

  2. Pingback: Right Not To Think? « Right To Think

  3. However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental.

    The irony, of course, is that it’s the extremists whose views are most likely to be detrimental to the world around them, and hence who are most in need of deconversion (if you subscribe to the utilitarian consequentialist (ooh, big words!) view, which it seems you do, Eshu). I don’t labour under any delusion that we can make a dent in the faith of such people, so the whole question is pretty much moot, but as far as this thought experiment goes, I think if anything we’re under more of an ethical imperative to attack such beliefs. Quiet, mousy Anglicans who go to church to sing hymns on a Sunday morning and maybe have the vicar round to tea a couple of times are far less of a threat to society at large than the Discovery Institute or Focus On the Family.

  4. Good point, yunshui.

    Maybe the best we can hope to do in those cases is to de-fang extremists. To make them as harmless as possible by keeping religion out of politics, helping to de-convert those who are willing to listen to reason and so on.