In general we owe it to others, simply as fellow human beings and partners in the collective rational search for truth, to offer them...what is best of ourselves and our unique perspective. It is our duty not to let our self-interest and self-deception, or our personal wishes and psychological needs take precedence over the evidence in forming the beliefs that shape our communication toward others and our actions that bear on their well-being. (p. 21)Allen Wood, in his great “The duty to believe according to the evidence,” clearly explains the need for an ethics of belief based on the evidentialist principle. In it, he takes apart attempts to argue that some beliefs should be immune from this ethical principle due to claimed positive effects or other justifications. I won’t repeat his arguments here, but, as I have many times in the past, recommend the article (which can be read in another form here). My argument here is that two of the oft-made ethical justifications for religion, which Wood addresses largely separately, are contradictory. These are the claims that religion gives people comfort and that and religion is socially beneficial. To be sure, both are wrong on their own, as Wood shows. But in ethical terms I can’t see how either can even be articulated seriously in light of the other.
It’s strange, and, to me it seems, hypocritical for theists (or accommodationists) to attempt any consequentialist arguments for religion. Religion is lye thrown on the tissue of consequentialist thinking. The moral value of the concrete, empirically demonstrable effects – individual or social – of beliefs is rendered irrelevant by religious belief systems themselves. What does it matter if holding a particular belief increases individual well-being or morality in a measurable way, if that definition of well-being or morality is not the one favored by a deity? To speak of the profane consequences of religious beliefs makes a mockery of sacred thinking, and vice versa.
These two consequentialist claims for religion, in any event, run up against each other. When I raise Wood’s argument about the ethics of unevidenced beliefs, the response I receive most often is that, well, these beliefs may or may not be true, but they provide comfort to individuals without hurting anyone else. In other words, religious beliefs provide private consolation (a questionable claim on its own, as Wood discusses, both empirically and in terms of comfort based on self-delusion being an actual good*), but are at the same time exempt from moral consideration or to be considered morally positive overall because they’re unrelated to other effective beliefs and exert no negative independent effects on behavior towards others. Now, I don’t think the people who put forward this quarantined-belief notion, who argue that beliefs about the nature of the cosmos, the existence of deities, human purpose, and so forth have no consequences beyond themselves, genuinely believe it – surely, they don’t think it’s true of all religious beliefs - but this is the claim.
And religion’s defenders are forced to resort to this untenable position, because they recognize at some level that if religious beliefs do affect other beliefs or actions in the world they have to be held to an ethical principle. But then elsewhere they argue that the beliefs do just this: that it’s precisely the religious beliefs that produce positive social consequences. If people didn’t hold these beliefs, the arguments go, they wouldn’t (or wouldn’t be as likely to) be good, join moral communities, be philanthropic, and so on. This is of course rubbish, but my point is that these arguments mean necessarily that they think religious beliefs influence other beliefs and actions towards other people, thus inherently having moral ramifications. How could it be otherwise?
Even if the two claims – personal/emotional and social/moral - for the value of religion held independently as ethical justifications, which they certainly do not, I don’t see how they could conceivably be reconciled with one another. Arguing that a belief in heaven is merely a comforting thought isolated from all other thoughts and actions and thus with no potential negative consequences for others means that you can’t ever contend that a belief in heaven makes a person behave better towards others. Both arguments are flimsy attempts to evade the need to hold religious beliefs to the same ethical-evidentiary standards as any other beliefs, and both fail on their own. But someone who makes one cannot make the other without demonstrating their, as it were, bad faith.
* In fact, he calls it cowardly, contemptible, and contrary to self-respect.
** Wood notes the obvious, that “any belief that is important to us and likely to have a significant effect on our lives and actions is also likely to have an impact on the well-being of others” (p. 20).