Monday, 2 January 2012

Why False Beliefs Should Be Fought
Police in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh say they have arrested two people who are suspected of sacrificing a child.

A seven-year-old girl was kidnapped and found murdered in a lawless tribal district two months ago.

An initial investigation suggested she was offered as a sacrifice in order to produce a better harvest.

Police say they are looking for more people who may be involved in the killing of the girl.
If child sacrifice really worked to help the harvest, or made sure the sun rise the next day, then we'd be faced with a serious moral quandary. But when it's clearly not the case, then that concern disappears and the horror of the act stems from its pointlessness. Who would think child sacrifice is anything other than monstrous unless it was necessary? When it's a matter of life and death, perhaps the act should be forgiven. But to those who can know better, they should be held to a higher standard.

A child who dies because their parents believe in the power of faith healing or in the curing powers of homoeopathy are preventable deaths. Likewise, when vaccine-preventable outbreaks occur, the blame lies squarely at the hands of those who pushed paranoia and dismissal regarding the efficacy of vaccines. It's not that we're in a state of not-knowing either way, but that we know that vaccines work while homoeopathy and faith healing do not.

The lesson isn't that these cases are typical of the action, in most circumstances taking homoeopathy is benign and sometimes even mildly beneficial. Or not getting vaccinated in areas where there's little chance of catching the disease (or there's herd immunity) mean that the decision not to vaccinate isn't going to have such harm. People, from their perspective, aren't seeing the harm that's being said these beliefs cause. The lesson is that these are what the false beliefs can cause, that "what's the harm" isn't for any particular individual but the broader consequences.

And therein lies the fractured nature of the personal choice defence. The harm of any individual believing in the healing powers of homoeopathy is going to be quite low, but the broad application of a belief is going to matter in severe cases. One might argue that any individual has a right to believe in whatever they want including to the point of self-harm; that if someone wants to treat an infection with honey or treat their cervical cancer with new-age woo, that's their funeral. But beliefs are not limited to the individual, nor do the effects of that belief stay with the individual.

Yes, anyone can believe in what they want. But the beliefs themselves are still going to be subject to criticism, and if the beliefs are known false beliefs, then those who propagate them should be countered. The anti-vaccination group, The Australian Vaccination Network are pushing misinformation that is at the expense of herd immunity and people are going to suffer because of it; all because they have a false belief about vaccines. It's not personal choice for those infants who are now contracting measles; it's a direct consequence of those individuals acting on a false belief.

Back to the tragic story in India, which seems so far removed from our petty squabbles over beliefs in an affluent and pluralistic liberal democracy. Those villagers may not have been in a position to have known better; their false belief perhaps passed down from tradition, or apparent divine revelation, or even a false pattern based on an inductive inference that it "worked" sometime in the past. Whatever the case, living in a remote part of India is far removed from the instance access to information we have the privilege of accessing. We have expertise devoted to researching such questions, and benefits from the countless hours put into trying to understand what works and what doesn't.

I don't particularly care what people believe, for the most part. Quite a lot of it strikes me as absurd. Yesterday, for example, I was having a conversation with a friend about a "lecture" put on by an "animal psychic". I just couldn't help but to laugh at the absurdity of an animal psychic, let alone that the local animal liberation society would even want to associate with such a speaker, let alone kick out my friend over him turning up to cause trouble at the lecture (which was to ask questions, such as whether the animal psychic could also talk to plants). If someone wants to believe that they can psychically communicate with animals, all the best to them. But the beliefs shouldn't be exempt from criticism because someone holds it to be true, and I care to the extent in which those beliefs can cause harm for others.

Despite my continual rantings on the issue, I don't actually care whether or not people believe in God. What I care about is the extent to which God belief silences free inquiry, freedom of choice, and is used to demonise others, or used as a justification for atrocities. To that extent I think there should be vocal criticism, not just coming from the non-religious either, but from every reasonable person out there. These aren't atheist issues, they are issues of basic human dignity, and unlike the little girl who met her abhorred end in rural India, we can and ought to do better. We know better - a statement not of Western imperialism dominating rival and equally valid modalities of culture, but a hard-fought triumph of reasoned critical inquiry.

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