I acutely felt this after I left religion and started to view the world from an empirical evidence-based worldview. And frequently still do when I encounter religious believers.
I see people scrutinizing over which shampoo to buy and which toilet paper brand is most cost effective. Yet they barely apply this same level of thought to their religion – an element of their lives with much greater significance. Rather they repeat the stories and mantras they were taught.
They seem to not hear what they’re saying and the actual meaning behind it. And that’s crazy to me!
Why are religious believers crazy?
“If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.” – Sam Harris
Religious believers are crazy because they base their worldview on myth (ie a made-up story!). They go around saying things (like Jesus is returning soon) and doing things (like eating pieces of blessed bread) as if this is all real. Image if I based my life on Harry Potter. I’d wave my wand around yelling spells and warning people of Voldemort’s return. If I seriously did that people would think I’m crazy.
Why is a life based on religious (or any) myth crazy?
It is crazy because it doesn’t guarantee a life based on reality. It creates alternate metaphysical realities in which anything goes. It causes people to think, say, and do things based on this false reality and to actually believe this mythical reality is more real than what empirical evidence shows. It causes people to disregard – even deny – empirical evidence. This is especially pernicious because someone who does not value empirical evidence cannot be reasoned with.
For example, a religious believer may think that prayer – rather than evidence-based medicine – is the remedy for illness. Well research studies show that prayer does nothing (ie has a non-statistical effect) on whether someone recovers from an illness or not. Evidence-based medicine, on the other hand, actually saves lives.
Religious parents who vehemently believe in prayer over medicine would let their sick child die, all the while believing they are doing the best possible thing for them. This is why laws have had to be created where parents are not allowed to deny their child medical treatment for religious reasons – because we collectively know that medicine works and that prayer does not.
What about religious people who also believe in some empirical evidence?
While such people may not be as prone to believing and/or following through on extreme mythical beliefs, they still maintain the cultural thread that religious beliefs merit respect. Moreover, they may rationalize their religious beliefs in relation to empirical evidence. For example, they may think that prayer in conjunction with evidence-based medicine (which is guided by God) is what cures someone from illness.
While this may seem harmless, I argue that this line of thought on the light side causes people to perform mental gymnastics in cherry-picking when to apply their religious beliefs and when to apply empirical evidence. On the darker side this leads people to waste time on useless ritual while thinking they’re actually doing something useful – when they could actually be doing something useful by doing research or basing their efforts on evidence-based research.
Why isn’t religious belief viewed as crazy?
The main reason we don’t say that current religious believers are crazy is because their belief is common enough to be accepted, even propped up by the dominant culture. If you were to shrink Islam down to a small secluded town in the middle of the desert, amidst the burkas, diet restrictions, and obsession with prayer, it would be considered a cult. However, because it’s followed by a couple billion people, these practices are considered acceptable.
Interestingly, though, while people in a dominant religion struggle to see their own craziness, they can spot it in other religions. For example, a Christian may be certain that their prayers have a real effect on outcomes. When they learn how ancient Greeks prayed to Poseidon for favorable waters, they recognize that it was obviously ineffective. But, because their religious belief has been normalized and ingrained into their metaphysical reality, modern-day religious believers can struggle to apply the same level of scrutiny to their own mythical system.
What can be done when you’re surrounded by crazy people?
Call out their craziness. When religious believers state claims that go against an evidence-based reality, question those claims and ask them to justify it logically.
For example, your aunt is certain that all the prayers from family and friends helped your uncle get better from his illness. You could point out that while it was kind of people to be thoughtful of your uncle, the doctors who treated him and researchers of the medicine he took probably had a lot more to do with his recovery.
Talk through with someone why they believe their religious myths and help point out where some of their logic isn’t consistent. (I’m a big fan of the street epistemology method). You probably will be hard-pressed to get them to drop their ingrained religious metaphysical viewpoint, but getting them to think critically – even just a little bit – could help down the road.
For example, a Christian person might say they know their religion is true because of personal spiritual experiences. Ask them how that’s different from a Muslim person saying they know their religion is true because of personal spiritual experiences. Moreover, how is it any different from an ancient Greek saying their worship of Poseidon is merited because of personal spiritual experiences. If they were raised in their religion, were they not taught to interpret the world in a certain way that confirms their religious beliefs (such as they felt uplifted during a church service, therefore that’s God’s spirit confirming that church is true)? Ask them if their method of analysis is a reliable one and how they would know if it wasn’t.
Ultimately, a culture where myths (especially religious ones) are given credence is harmful. At an individual level, it allows people to be easily duped, manipulated, and impaired by others (particularly authority figures) and causes them to have unhealthy ways of thinking and acting. At a macro level it stifles people from pursing actual truth and using that knowledge to solve real world problems – which ultimately prevent society from progressing as fast as it could.