The Danger of Blind Faith

A film that most Americans had never heard of or considered appears on U-Tube, and anti-American riots break out in Egypt and Libya, during which four Americans are killed, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. While recent information suggests that the demonstration was planned as a cover for the assassination, the fact remains that there was a demonstration in Egypt and the Libyan plotters had no trouble in rounding up plenty of outraged Muslims, and additional protests have since occurred in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Yemen. Some might dismiss this as a one-time occurrence.  Unfortunately, it’s not.  Several years ago, a Danish newspaper published some satirical cartoons of Mohammed, and that caused violence and uproar.  When the novelist Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers, forcing Rushdie into seclusion for years.

Some people might declare that things are different in the United States… and they are, in the sense that our population doesn’t have so many “true believers” who are willing to kill those who offend their religious beliefs or so-called religious sensibilities, but we do have people like that, just not so many.  After all, what is the difference between fanatical anti-abortionists who kill doctors who perform legal abortions and fanatical believers in Islam who kill anyone who goes against what they believe? Is there that much difference in principle between Muslims who want Islamic law to replace secular law and fundamentalist Christians who want secular law to reflect their particular beliefs?  While there’s currently a difference in degree, five hundred years ago there certainly wasn’t even that.

What’s overlooked in all of the conflict between religious beliefs and secular law is the fundamental difference that, for the most part, secular law is concerned with punishing acts that inflict physical or financial harm on others, in hopes of deterring such actions, while religious law is aimed at requiring a specific code of conduct based on particular religious practices of a single belief. The entire history of the evolution of law reflects a struggle between blind adherence to a narrow set of beliefs and an effort to remove the codes that govern human behavior from any one set of beliefs and to base law on a secular basis, reflecting the basics common to all beliefs. Historically, most religious authorities have resisted this change, not surprisingly, because it reduced their power and influence.

Thus, cartoons of Mohammed or satirical movies do not cause physical harm, but they are seen to threaten the belief structure.  Allowing women full control of their bodies likewise threatens the belief structure that places the life or potential life of an unborn child above that of the mother.  When blind faith rules supreme and becomes the law of any land, no questions to that law are acceptable.

When a specific belief structure dominates a culture or subculture, the lack of questioning tends to permeate all aspects of that society.  To me, it’s absolutely no surprise that there’s a higher rate of denial of scientific findings, such as evolution and global warming, among Christian fundamentalists because true science is based on questioning and true belief is based on suppressing anything that raises questions… and such societal suppression is the greatest danger of all from blind faith, whether that faith is Islam, LDS, Christianity, or even a “political” faith, such as Fascism, Nazism, or Communism.


10 thoughts on “The Danger of Blind Faith”

  1. Christoph says:

    Thank you very much for this. Belief is a mind-killer, and seems inevitably to lead people to mistreat other humans. I especially appreciate that you point out the toxicity of political belief along side the religious.

    Somewhat tongue-in-cheek: as a practical matter for a Buddhist such as myself, it is far worse to be around Muslims, who kill us, than Christians, who set up democracy and ask us to come teach.

    Advertisement: as far as my research takes me, the first instance of a human explicitly rejecting belief was the “historical” Buddha. His final teaching was to take nothing on faith, and not to believe anything they’re told, even by a buddha. Instead he instructed people to think and test and discover truth for themselves. Granted, this was mental testing through meditation rather than the material analysis of science, but I’d argue we could use a little more of that sort of thing.

  2. Jack says:

    I find it ludicrous that you compare the activities of any American group to those of murderous zealots in the Islamic world. To use an old saw, apples and oranges. Sure there are individual (insane) Americans who carry out acts of violence in what they see are justifiable. But, you never, ever see large swathes of American society marching in the streets, killing and burning. That particular honor goes to the followers of Mohammed. How many of their countries tolerate any point of view that conflicts in any way with their own? Why should Americans take into account the Islamic point of view in the exercise of the freedom of speech? We know how the Islamic monsters will react: Fire, robbery, rape, death. We know how Americans will react to the same: protest, gripe, move on to more important matters. That is the triumph of civilization over savagery.

  3. I’m sorry to have to disagree, but you apparently have both a short memory and a frail grasp of history. In my lifetime, I’ve seen Americans set fire to Watts and to parts of Philadelphia. I’ve seen riots across the country, including draft riots and flag burnings by U.S. citizens. And earlier in U.S. history, Americans showed their own share of zealotry, from the Salem witchcraft trials to the Southern “patriots” who zealously believed that enslaving,beating, and killing human beings of another color was their privilege under states’ rights. At the time of the Civil War, there were murderous draft riots in New York City. People in Illinois and Missouri attacked and killed more than fifty Mormons. In return, in 1857, the Mormons returned the favor by killing 120 members of an Arkansas wagon train headed to California. And at the beginning of World War II, we put tens of thousands of Japanese Americans in “internment” camps, even though most of them were natural born American citizens. Another good white native-born American by the name of Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killed 168 people and wounded more than 800 others. That was the second most murderous terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and it was home-grown.

  4. Kathryn says:

    From what I understand, some heavily Islamic countries have mass violence out of fear and it’s driven by the leaders. If anyone has read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, largely set during/after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there’s a massive shift in how extreme the country is. That extremity is not coming from the populace, it’s coming from the authority figures.

    That’s no different to how dictators in the past have used things to whip people into action, how some newspapers/media sources carefully use information to drive people to believe things (this is happening on an alarming scale with anti-Islamic biases, e.g. certain newspapers will make it clear if a criminal is a Muslim but if said criminal was Christian it wouldn’t be mentioned).

    Many Muslims are reasonable people, just as people of other religions are reasonable. You will find people of all faiths, creeds and colours who respect each other and their differences. It is, as always, a minority ruining it for the whole – even when you have demonstrations and horrific acts of violence like the brutal attacks on the Danish cartoonist, it’s still a minority response.

    But people don’t get that. We’re willing to distinguish between Catholic, Protestant, etc., but many people are ill-informed or simply ignorant of other religions and as such don’t distinguish between different groups within other religions.

    Largely I agree with you, Mr Modesitt, but I’m not sure why you put Communism in the same breath as Fascism and Nazism. Surely Leninism would be a better term to use? No modern culture has implemented Communism successfully (it’s pretty much impossible due to human nature), even if those cultures or countries (e.g. China) claim to be such.

  5. Leninism is probably a better term.

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    @Kathryn: aren’t kibbutzes (kibbutzim?) essentially communism (literally), albeit on a very small scale? (my theory is that it can only work among a group small enough that everyone can be personally accountable to everyone else; and such a small group can have other problems, to include the ideological equivalent of inbreeding)

    @L.E.: “Allowing women full control of their bodies likewise threatens the belief structure that places the life or potential life of an unborn child above that of the mother.”

    As written, that suggests a false dichotomy. Two lives, or perhaps one life and one specific potential life (with the state not qualified to make metaphysical pronouncements pro or con the unborn being actual vs potential life, save that a reasonable person might suppose that the unborn should be treated as an actual life at the point of earliest viability outside the womb, which is ultimately a technology-driven moving target). Certainly by the point at which two lives being involved is not reasonably in question, both lives should have some rights. The woman ALWAYS should have a basic right to self-defense as does any person…but self-defense does not extend to ending another life for less than significantly abnormally high threat to one’s own life or health. The entire premise that many arguments make, how to deal with situations where one can only save either one but not both, addresses what’s surely a very rare circumstance. Policy does not sit well on exceptions; rather, it should address the common instance and provide a mechanism whereby exceptions can be given special attention as needed.

    Now…the opposite extreme view would be that one doesn’t have a complete human being until brain growth is complete. When is that, exactly? When the skull sutures fuse? When the wiring becomes essentially fixed in the mid-20’s? Surely not. Some cultures have not treated infanticide as murder; do we want to go that far?

    A human being is a continuum of change, from the moment they have one specific chromosome combination, until the moment they die.

    So an abortion after earliest viability that is not needed to protect the life or grave risk to health of the woman, is surely murder, yes? As far as I know, even the AMA (not a bunch of anti-abortion apologists) has said there’s no known medical justification for partial birth abortions.

    To say that at some point before birth there are two actual lives involved does not place one above the other. Indeed, in the rare cases where a choice to save only one was necessary, it’s obvious that input into the decision is only available from one of the two, acting both in their own interests and on behalf of the other.

    That does not preclude the possibility that some few who are opposed to non-medically-necessary abortion may well intend to subjugate women by such a position; nevertheless, that does not represent the stance of most with such a position; there’s no case for casting it as subjugation vs abortion on demand.

    Some way to reason about such matters that neither subjugates anyone, nor treats anyone else as disposable (always a bad precedent to have a very narrow definition of human), nor requires imposing specific metaphysical assumptions on anyone, should certainly be possible…provided the matter can be discussed with reason rather than as absolutist alternatives.

  7. Joe says:

    I disagree that true belief is based on suppressing anything that raises questions. Most of our “knowledge” consists of “beliefs”. I believe that my car is unlikely to be stolen while I work, so I don’t check on it constantly throughout my work day. This is not knowledge: it is wrong the moment my car is stolen.

    There are multiple levels of strength of belief. My belief in what my neighbor says may be relatively weak, unless he proves untrustworthy, I’ll believe him, but I won’t be terribly surprised if he makes a mistake. On the other hand I would be very surprised if Newton’s laws were in error, given how much they have been tested.

    Max Plank quipped “Science advances one funeral at a time”. It was funny because only that which can be and is tested is scientific. Hallowed theories such as the aether bite the dust if proven wrong. Avoiding upsetting eminent scientists is human, so is erring.

    Many forms of Buddhism maintain a similar attitude. Buddha himself said to test his teachings in one’s own experience and if they do not match, then to discard them. The Dalai Lama’s statement that should Buddhism conflict with proven science, Buddhism will have to change follows the same precept. A famous Zen master, Ummon, said “What is Buddha? A dried shit stick”. (Nowadays we use toilet paper). The point ist that holding to dogma a weak form of belief: only experience stands up to merciless testing.

    Indeed, it is easy to test whether one truly believes something. If one does, others disagreements seem preposterous. For instance, I find it preposterous that the Indiana House of representatives considered redefining PI to 3, or that some people maintain that Jesus lived at the same time as dinosaurs. In the same way, I would have expected Muslims to have found the idiotic movie that caused all this mayhem totally preposterous. That they did not suggests either that they are rather insecure in their beliefs or that they are terribly misinformed about the sophistication of the average american. Today’s Onion’s “No One Murdered Because Of This Image” article makes this point crudely.

    As to the abortion debate, there are many shades of grey. Monty Python’s “Every sperm is sacred” sketch illustrates the ridiculousness of taking extreme views on the subject. Overall, I don’t believe people debate this topic rationally. The problem is that it is very difficult to prove other beings are conscious. We simply assume they are because they behave differently from inanimate objects. Foetuses rank very poorly on this metric. Ants rank better, followed by other animals. Chickens are significantly more functional than babies, but we think nothing of killing chicken for meat. Even though a baby might only be in its slug phase (when all they can do is wriggle) we are horrified if it is killed by a predator. Indeed, even if the other life in the balance were the last member of a rare endangered species, we would probably save a baby, While this may be a good response to boost the probability of the survival of the species, and may even be an evolved instinct, it is not rational. In terms of the effort required to restore it, and in terms of ecological niches destroyed, the endangered species is much more valuable than yet another human when our numbers are already stressing the planet’s ecological services.

  8. I think we’re into semantics. I was talking about beliefs resting on blind faith. You’re talking about belief resting on some sort of tested knowledge. There’s a significant difference.

    1. Joe says:

      I liked the way you had different meanings of words indexed by superscript in your book Empress Of Eternity (I think that’s what you were doing). It would help in this type of discussion.

  9. Sean says:

    You hit that nail in the head, this keeps popping up when people don’t or aren’t able to research what is really going on and just listen to the screaming heads. These guys go through a population and gather up all of the lint on the surface until it runs into a wall which they set on fire.

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