16 October 2010

Is ignorance bliss? Not when it harms others

Recently a friend and I were discussing an online debate on the motion 'This house believes that religion is a force for good'. Our talk on the subject of religion naturally segued into the subject of values, and whether objective, universal values exist or not. I believe that they do, and that such values can be derived from a naturalist source without recourse to divine authority. In the aforementioned debate, the writer and neuroscientist Sam Harris was against the motion, succinctly arguing that "religion gives people bad reasons for being good where good reasons are available."

My friend - playing devil's advocate - countered Harris by stating that "the ends justifies the means", implying that whether religion gives people good or bad reasons to be good is irrelevant, so long as the good is ultimately being promoted. He further mentioned that naivety and ignorance can be positive forces, since presumably they foster an innocence conducive to being and doing good. On that point I strongly disagreed. What follows is a more-or-less verbatim transcript of my response to my friend's suggestion that ignorance can be something good, and my expounding on the connection between ignorance, religion and secularism.

I do not think that naivety and ignorance can ever be objectively good. Perhaps they may be subjectively good for naive and ignorant people because they are spared the intellectual exertion of having to reflect on things in depth, or make tough decisions by carefully considering the available facts (and even figuring out if these 'facts' are actually correct!). The thing is, most fuck-ups on a personal and social level are due to either naivety or ignorance or a deadly combination of the two (I distinguish fuck-ups from horrible events in general, which can be caused by intelligent, well-informed people with a focused, calculated intent to cause harm, like terrorism).

Ignorance may be bliss for some, but it sure can be hell for those affected by serious mistakes caused by the ignorant. Like anti-vaccine activists who think vaccines cause autism in kids when it has been proven that they do not, and the evidence to validate the safety and importance of vaccinations has been made publicly available. And so ignorant parents forgo their kids' vaccinations, which results in those kids contracting diseases that have been almost wiped out in developed countries (measles, rubella) and putting other kids they come into contact with at risk of contracting these diseases. This is just one example of how ignorance can harm innocent people apart from the ignorant.

So, to tie this in with religion's potential to do more harm than good, it is because religion tends to encourage ignorance that makes it culpable for the widespread anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reason, ultra-conservative, populist demagoguery that panders to people's base instincts of fear and hate. It's certainly not in religion's interest for people to be well-read, knowledgeable, intelligent, rational, critical-thinking individuals.

Religion may have once served an important role in maintaining a code of ethics for people to live by. But now that we're in the 21st century, it's time we realise that a lot of religious ethics is severely outdated and increasingly irrelevant to the complexities, pluralism and dynamism of contemporary society. And the more science reveals about the natural, evolutionary origins of human (and even non-human animal) morality, the more redundant religion becomes as a source of such morality. The rise of secularism is partly due to the fact that we're increasingly recognising that you don't need God in order to be good. And often believing in God(s) can make you think it's good to do really bad things to those who don't share your belief.

Secularism won't usher in a Golden Age where nobody does bad things anymore, or where there's no fighting, suffering, bigotry or cruelty. But by acting as a check on the harmful excesses of religion (which include the fostering of ignorance), secularism is vital to the well-being of individuals and society at large, because it ensures that there will be one less source of harm affecting people as they each try to live their lives the best way they know how.


Many thanks to Pertra Penh for the engaging conversation that inspired this post.

No comments:

Post a Comment