Sagacity central
1 October 2016 01:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

First, do no harm

  • Jacques Rousseau
    jacques rousseau 02
    Jacques Rousseau

    Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

    When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

The great 21st century intellectual war remains locked – as it has been for centuries - between scientific reason and irrational faith. But can secular society wash its hands of guilt if it allows faith that causes harm and death?

On hearing that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, one response from a self-proclaimed man of God was the following on Twitter: “God 1, Hitchens 0”. The motivation for such a callous response to a usually fatal disease (fewer than 5% of sufferers are alive after five years) is easy enough to trace: Hitchens, along with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, is one of the “Four Horsemen” of a groundswell of resistance to the unreason exemplified by religious faith, and thus poses a direct threat to the mysterious legitimacy that faith-based claims enjoy.

What our divine scorekeeper does not, of course, dwell on is the fact that, according to his beliefs, all deaths are attributable to God, and that he could, therefore, just as well add another notch to this metaphysical bedpost if his mother, for example, were to die an equally unpleasant death. God’s victory is inevitable, as either she takes a believer “home” or she smites down an unbeliever. Either way, a civilised response to human trauma would be sympathy, rather than gloating.

Of course, the beliefs of this horrible man (the Tweeter, rather than the “Hitch”) are not representative of how most believers might feel. Yet I’d suggest that his is the sort of response that it is only imaginable for those who think that the moral calculus extends beyond our mortal existence, to be resolved in the hereafter rather than within the present. The reason they can contemplate saying such things is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the world in which they actually live and a world in which elves and fairies might as well be prancing about – such is the absurdity of many of their foundational beliefs.

For some, it is plausible that fairies do, in fact, prance about – or at least watch over you from afar. For others, it remains plausible that arbitrarily defined constellations from the time of your birth affect your personality. This belief is apparently not at all complicated by trivia such as the three major planets discovered since Ptolemy wrote the 1,900-year-old textbook of this pseudoscience.

I can understand how these collections of primitive fable and myth give some people comfort. What I cannot understand is why so many of us – speaking here of those who don’t endorse these insanities – so readily allow others to continue “infantilising” themselves, their children and whoever else is unlucky enough to be in their sphere of influence. These delusions are not restricted to the illiterate or otherwise unfortunate. A respected South African weekly carries content from an author who endorses Deepak Chopra and those of us who listen to talk radio are quite familiar with the babblings of Rod Suskind and his ilk.

Some might ask: “Where’s the harm?” Ask Kara, the Wisconsin child who died on the floor of her family home last year from a treatable illness, while her family stood around her and prayed. Or ask the Australian child who was also killed by her parents last year, because they insisted on administering homeopathic remedies (water, in other words) where regular medicine would have saved the child’s life.

Closer to home, you could speak to Leo Igwe, a Nigerian who is regularly imprisoned and harassed by police (along with his 77-year-old diabetic father and other members of his family) for “crimes” such as campaigning against Helen Ukpabio, who makes a living from victimising children she identifies as “witches”. Or perhaps, you could talk with the Somalis in Du Noon who, among others, are also victims of a similar disconnect between reason and unthinking grand narratives, here manifesting in the belief that “we” are more entitled to live and trade in a certain area than “they” are.

All of these issues have at least two things in common: One, they are premised on the absence of reason, and two, they involve harm. In the particular case of religion, and superstition more generally, the problem for those of us who aren’t victims of these irrationalities is that the question of where the harm lies begins and thrives in the privileged space where mysticism and quackery thrive.

There are no warning labels on the quackery you can buy at a pharmacy, even though the sugar pills and expensive water bought as homeopathic remedies can kill, if only through the complacent neglect for which they make allowance. Used responsibly (it is unclear what that might even mean), they would, of course, not kill. But the same could then be said of motor vehicles and alcohol, which do carry warnings. If the astrologer’s tepee had to carry a sign saying “for entertainment purposes only”, or the homeopathic remedy had to be labelled “only effective as part of a normal and sane existence”, I’d be less concerned.

But they don’t. And even those of us who dismiss these quaint follies when it comes to our own lives, know someone who takes these things seriously. And we allow them to do so because we think they do no harm. They might well not do harm to the Sandton socialite, but when someone who isn’t that privileged starts looking around for a remedy for their daughter’s illness, sees just how well these “remedies” do in the marketplace and reads the endorsements from those she perhaps aspires to be, is it not plausible that we become complicit in genuine harm?

As Sam Harris has persuasively argued in “The End of Faith”, the same could be true for religious belief in that, when violent extremists see that hundreds of thousands of regular folk believe the same things they do (albeit less fervently), how can that not provide encouragement to those prepared to actually invest their welfare – or their lives – in defending their beliefs?

Hitchens closes his memoir “Hitch-22” with this: “To be an unbeliever is not to be merely ‘open-minded’. It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” And this gets it just right, in that it is certainty, of some form or another, that allows us to feel justified when we enforce our will – despite incomplete or nonexistent evidence – on others who might not believe in the same things we do.

The safest course is undoubtedly this: To admit to uncertainty in cases where we can’t be sure (which is pretty much equivalent to “all the time”), but, in the meanwhile, to proceed in ways that are best justified by what we think we can and do know. Among the things we probably know is that (to quote Hitchens again) “the defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time”. And the enemies of science and reason are not always somewhere else – they are sometimes next door to you, or even sharing your bed.

  • Jacques Rousseau
    jacques rousseau 02
    Jacques Rousseau

    Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

    When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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