More on abuse

Continuing my thoughts on abuse from the previous post....

It is sometimes argued by theists that we don't actually need to address people's faith in order to sufficiently address problems of faith-rationalized abuse. From a discussion with my older brother, a devout Christian (the quoted paragraph is my own, followed by his response):
"We can't just say "x constitutes abuse" when people are saying their religion makes it right. You have to address the fallacy of their beliefs."

On the contrary, that's exactly what we do by majority rule in our society. For example, if an Appalacian snake handler hands their kid a venomous snake, DHS will remove that child. Religious rite or not, it's child endangerment. Addressing underlying belief systems is not at all a prerequisite to protecting kids.
Let's think of it this way: Research over the last half-century has shown quite conclusively that spanking children is an ineffective and often counterproductive form of discipline. Yet, millions of parents still spank their kids, be it because of tradition (they were spanked), or because of religious belief ("spare the rod and spoil the child"). Now, if we want parents to raise emotionally healthier children, we can't simply haul them off to jail and throw them in a cell with the snake handlers because they spanked their children; rather, we need to educate them on the science of the issue and present them with more productive, healthier alternative forms of discipline. If these people refuse to acknowledge the scientific data because it conflicts with their religious belief, then indeed we must address the religious belief itself.

We should never shy away from addressing the underlying beliefs that motivate people's actions. Religious accomodationalists are fond of making arguments such as the one made by Michael De Dora in a post at the Center for Inquiry:
"Atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer. As the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has noted, the larger predicament we face is uncritical adherence to ideology -- a problem that spans more than just religion."
I enjoyed Jerry Coyne's rhetorical response over at his Why Evolution Is True blog: "Would De Dora just have us go after 'irrational ideologies' in general without mentioning religion?" The reality is that religion undoubtedly influences people's behavior, just as any ideology can. As Sam Harris has often said (I'm very loosely paraphrasing here), we cannot underestimate the power of what people actually believe about the nature of reality to influence their behavior. If someone, on religious grounds, engages in a pattern of abuse because they believe their religion makes such behaviors wholly justified, it is insufficient to merely reprimand the behavior by "majority rule" as my brother suggests – particularly because many people living in fundamentalist or developing nations do not have the luxury of a secularized, religiously pluralistic majority.

We must challenge people to critically examine the dogmas and doctrines that so profoundly influence their behavior. Just as we must address a parent's belief about the efficacy of spanking if we desire to change their behavior, we must address the issue of religious belief if and when it becomes a rationalization for patterns of emotional or physical abuse. It's folly to suggest that we can separate people's beliefs about the nature of reality and right behavior from the ideologies that shape and define those beliefs, and that we can separate those beliefs from the behaviors in which they manifest.


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