On degrees of delusion

“…better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.” – Carl Sagan

Delusions are harmful, but some are not so much. Some may help people survive. These are called placebos, and many have been known to keep medical patients alive for months. Religion may be such a placebo. Neither does that make religion’s indefinite existence a necessity for human happiness, nor make religion more benign than harmful. What is better a placebo, or a reliable alternative? I would say a reliable alternative, that has strong data backing it up. A placebo may work for a few people, but keeping placebos indefinitely as the treatment for an illness is just silly. Why should we not get something better that gets better results for more people — a rational scientific alternative?

Delusions may seem benign, at first, but then may cause severe harm. If I believed that a wafer turned into the body and blood of Jesus (the transubstantiation), this would not seem like a belief that would get many people killed — until I found out someone was not handling it properly, and I harmed that person. This is, in fact, is exactly what happened in the Inquisition, when Christians used to go around slaughtering Jews for allegedly mistreating just the wrong wafers (the ones which would magically turn into the body of someone Christians worshiped). I could believe that Antigone could only have been written by the Creator of the universe, but when someone flushed it down their toilet, I would be compelled to seriously mistreat them for disrespecting my belief.

Despite that delusions can affect slaughter, delusions may help people do good things such as feeding the poor. However, what is a better reason to do something: doing something for faith in eternal reward, or doing something only out of genuinely caring about human suffering? I think the latter is a better reason.

Not only do delusions give people bad reasons to do good things, but also they cause distraction from more pressing issues. In this country, gay marriage is discussed as if it could bring about the end of civilization, while there should instead be more discourse on nuclear proliferation, which truly could end civilization.

However disruptive delusions may be, they do not deserve equal criticism. Believing that Thomas Jefferson is still alive should not receive as much attention and criticism as believing that the end of the world is near, or that evolution never happened, or that blowing oneself up on a bus filled with civilians is something to be proud of. To give every delusion the same treatment would be a gigantic waste of precious time and energy, and morally reprehensible. Let us try to marginalize the most dangerous and pressing ones first.


~ by jsacc001 on March 28, 2008.

One Response to “On degrees of delusion”

  1. But who will distinguish between dangerous delusions from those not worth our attention? Or, should we just leave it up to those in positions of power and merely respect, if that is the correct word, their better, hopefully, judgment?

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