If we agree that outcomes are what matter, we can analyze different ways of thinking relative to the outcomes they produce. Assumably, the outcomes that matter are those of suffering and well-being. We want less of the first and more of the second.
If those are the endings we wish to reach, how we start matters a lot. We can start in one of two ways: by collecting evidence first or by concluding first.
Starting from Evidence
Starting out by collecting evidence is what the scientific method is all about.
This process begins with constructing a hypothesis, in this case a belief that we hope contributes to greater well-being or less suffering. We then collect data about the effects of that belief as they relate to suffering and well-being. Next, we analyze that data to see if the belief does in fact give us the outcomes we want. If we conclude to a reasonable degree of certainty that the belief adds to the overall level of well-being, we keep it. If not, we can discard it and test a new hypothesis (belief).
Starting from Faith
A second way of thinking is also possible. It is the ideological or religious mode of thinking that is based on faith.
In this process, we assume via faith that a given belief is correct and no evidence need be collected. This results in continuing to label a belief as good, regardless of the suffering or well-being it contributes to. Of course, this is typically done because the outcomes focused on are very different than the outcomes of suffering and well-being in the material world, and those outcomes are typically not falsifiable, such as the existence of an immaterial afterlife. One can simply not reason or argue against a belief from faith because there is no evidence that can be marshalled to falsify it. It is held entirely on faith and because there is no recourse to evidence, there is no ability to course correct.
Religious modes of thinking aside, ideologies use similar processes of thinking in which the conclusion is formed before the evidence is analyzed. One ideology that is particularly prone to this faith in an ideal is socialism - the belief that state planned production and equality leads to greater well-being than free-market production and liberty. If one views this belief as a hypothesis to be tested, the data is clear. If one views this as a belief taken on faith and true a priori, then none of the evidence that the belief actually causes more suffering than well-being matters.
Chance Benefit or Ensured Harm?
This faith-based thinking has serious implications for the desired outcomes of greater well-being and decreased suffering. It means that beliefs based on faith will contribute to greater well-being or less suffering entirely by chance. It’s possible that any given belief held on faith turns out to contribute to overall well-being, but if it doesn’t, there is no ability to course correct. Chance is not a good way to maximize well-being. Experimentation and data evaluation is. Any belief is likely to cause harm given enough time and that is why chance shouldn’t be relied on.
Furthermore, faith-based thinking, whether ideological or religious, provides no pathway to progress, which is the process of discarding ineffective beliefs for more effective ones. This type of thinking then acts as the soil for not just the banal, everyday harm we are accustomed to, but outright atrocity. One can only experience persistently awful outcomes if one is not willing to change one’s beliefs.
History is full of unflinching faith. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Russian purges, the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, North Korean famines, anti-contraception initiatives and the AIDS epidemic, denial of climate change, anti-stem-cell research, 9/11, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS. In all of these instances, facts and evidence had little or no impact on the people operating under faith.
Once the common thread of persistent suffering is found, i.e. faith instead of scientific thinking, certain very uncomfortable conclusions follow. Conclusions such as Christians are no different than the Nazis because they both rely on faith and chance for positive outcomes, so course correction will not occur even in the face of very strong evidence of suffering due to their beliefs.
That conclusion is so uncomfortable for people that it requires very clear explanations of what I mean. If we take ideologies and religions as simply collections of ideas, we can test those ideas for the outcomes they produce. Nazism had many ideas that are empirically awful. Christianity, or any religion for that matter, has many ideas that are awful. If you label yourself a Christian but don’t subscribe to any of the awful ideas, then the statement, “Christians are equivalent to Nazis,” doesn’t apply to you. I would then label you a nominal Christian, one who is not actually influenced by beliefs such as sin, damnation, heaven, salvation, etc.
Some of the worst ideas that make up the bundle of ideas inherent to modern Christianity include, contraception is sinful, cloning is sinful, stem-cell research is sinful, abortion is sinful, hell exists and sinful people go there after death, free will exists and therefore people are responsible for their actions and ought to be punished and/or feel guilt and shame at sinful acts, sex is sinful, etc. It is certainly possible to strip Christianity, or any religion, of so many of its central ideas that it becomes a vacuous concept, devoid of any substance. At that point, the labels Christianity, Islam, Judaism become meaningless anyhow.
However, to the extent that a person believes such ideas as true and does so on faith without recourse to reason and evidence, they are acting in a manner that is identical to that of Nazis who believed that Aryans were superior, Jews inferior, and that no amount of suffering and death could possibly persuade them otherwise.
Passive versus Active Harm
One might point out that deaths that result from ideas like contraception is sinful or stem-cell research is sinful are not equivalent to Nazi beliefs because they do not actively seek out and kill people. This is an argument that one’s beliefs aren’t bad if they result in people dying, so long as you aren’t the individual pulling the trigger. This seems morally arbitrary.
Not being responsible for suffering and death when participating in systems that passively cause them is morally arbitrary for a couple of reasons. First, we simply don’t operate that way most of the time in day-to-day life. Neglect is essentially the legal codification that holds us responsible for not taking reasonable action. So beliefs that cause passive harm are at a minimum held responsible legally in many, many cases.
Second, active and passive harm is an arbitrary distinction because it is not clear at what point something transitions from active to passive when discussing beliefs. If you believe that contraception is sinful and should be illegal, is it a passive belief only if you take zero action based on those beliefs? Is it still passive if you actively vote to make it illegal, but are then not actively responsible for enforcing the law and thereby outsource the responsibility to policemen?
We take actions because of our beliefs, so saying that responsibility doesn’t exist if you are passive in your beliefs is somewhat oxymoronic. Perhaps people simply mean that the belief is not strong enough to outweigh other beliefs, but that just puts us back on a cost/benefit analysis spectrum that attempts to decide based on consequences and wouldn’t obviate responsibility in arriving at obviously harmful actions based on pluralist beliefs.
One might also object that systems like capitalism cause suffering and death via passive participation as well, and that just because we participate in capitalism doesn’t make us like the Nazis. Accordingly, neither should Christians be labeled as equivalent to Nazis for their passive participation in harmful beliefs. But this is false equivalence.
The reason to support capitalism, or rather free exchange and trade of goods and services under institutions of law and order, is that it does in fact cause more benefit than harm. Capitalism has increased living standards and quality of life dramatically in the past 200 years with the percentage of people living in absolute poverty falling from well over ninety percent to under ten percent. Yes, of course, many people are suffering in poor working conditions, but focusing on that misses the forest for the trees.
The same cannot be said of belief systems that spit out ideas like contraception is bad. This causes suffering with no subsequent benefit. Furthermore, because this idea is arrived at on faith, there is no corrective mechanism, whereas economics endorses free-markets entirely on utilitarian principles of welfare, meaning that if capitalism turned out to be a net negative, economics would in fact not endorse it!
Until the majority of people agree to make decisions based on evidence by testing hypotheses with the aim of alleviating suffering and increasing well-being, the world will continue to have needless suffering. The example of capitalism above points out that it won’t eliminate all suffering, at least not immediately, but it will eliminate all needless suffering and progress will occur much more rapidly. It is simply untenable to hold that faith is congruent with the aim of increasing positive outcomes as efficiently as possible.
If you hold a belief on faith, you are part of the problem. Period. It is no unfortunate coincidence to find the two symbols being burnt in the picture above. Starting points matter.