"Even standard sociological inquiries about beliefs and the history of beliefs can be found offensive simply because the attempt to rationally describe belief requires questions to be asked about how beliefs work."
“The sociologist of religion may also offend a person's religious sensibilities by subjecting his or her beliefs to rational scrutiny.”
"Gods in the Global Village"
Lester R. Kurtz (2007)
Atheists and scientists do not kill each other over their beliefs. The adherents of superstring theory have never killed opposing theorists, and Lamarckian Evolutionists never killed any Darwinian Evolutionists on account of their beliefs. Newton and Einstein may have disagreed, but they refrained from violently attacking each other's followers. Like them, Arius and Athanasius disagreed over theory in the 4th century, although in their case it wasn't physics, but about the nature of Christ. The Arians and the Nicene Christians, however, soon ended up damning each other to hell because of the other's "wrong" beliefs, and then resorted to murder, aggression and burning until the Arians had been wiped out. Well, that is one way to settle a theoretical dispute. But why is it thereligious way? There is something about religious beliefs that leads to violent intolerance. I think it is this: the beliefs that you cherish, but which you think are maybe silly or untrue, are the beliefs that you will defend most irrationally and most aggressively. It's a defence mechanism. Rather than subject dodgy beliefs to the rigors of debate and questioning, it is easier to claim outrage and act aggressively when dodgy beliefs are challenged. This is why scientists, who want to learn which theories best describe the truth, actively engage in debate without ever, in history, killing each other over their differences with other strands of scientists.
When it comes to disputes about the world, political and cultural differences between groups can often be dealt with democratically, through argumentation and debate, with both parties trying to convince the others that they are right. It continues because each side thinks it is possible to conclude the dispute through discussion. Compromise keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. But religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. Those with stern religious beliefs often believe various issues have a universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous10. It is the basis for fundamentalism. Religious differences often become violent, endless struggles, because both sides elevate their struggles to ones not between them and us, but between good and evil itself. By giving arguments a cosmic, absolute and universal significance, religious groups make violent solution the only recourse. The battles between Israel and its neighbours is a case in point.
A commentator said to me that it would do no good to eradicate religion. He said "then they'd just kill each other in the name of something else. Like which football team they support!". I still think we would be better off. Football teams do not claim to be divinely inspired. They do not force upon people any particular intellectual framework, nor link it to moral theory. Under footballism, people are still free to enquire about the world with a free mind. The fact that religions claim divinity, that they claim absolute truth and link morality, society, authority and philosophy all into one whole, makes people more likely to fight and die for them. What is so weak aboutreligious truths that they require defending with such bloodshed? It is this: People would rather cling to wishful thinking and false hopes, rather than face the complex realities of life. Simple answers appeal to people more than complicated scientific ones.
Because religious people secretly doubt religious beliefs, they do not permit them to be calmly questioned. They fear that their beliefs will unravel. Instead, they declare that faith is greater than intellectualism (in other words: they want to continue believing even though the evidence is against them). They declare that it is offensive to question their beliefs. They declare that questions are wrong! And if you persist in your questioning as a person, they'll declare you an intolerant bigot. If two such groups of faithful people meet, the consequences are dangerous for all in their midst. The starting point of this slippery slope was when individuals ceased to allow their beliefs to be calmly debated and questioned.
1.4. Suicide Cults
“In 1978 over 900 people died when the People's Temple (frequently known as Jonestown) murdered their (276) own children with poison. The rest of the community then followed suit, killing themselves (and shooting some). They had previously practised the suicide routine. Their leader shot himself. He was American Rev. James (Jim) Warren Jones, an ordained priest in the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).”"Religion, Violence, Crime and Mass Suicide: The People's Temple" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)
This is clearly a case of some 900 people having some very odd ideas about what actions are permissible and why. Their leader had followers who testified that he could cure cancers and disease with his hands. If members instinctively thought more critically, skeptically, and viewed reality through more scientific eyes (understanding the placebo effect, for example), such beliefs could not have been sustained. The People's Temple is by far not the only suicide cult to have some very odd beliefs.
“Another American group, the Branch Davidians, [...] started out with Biblical ideas about the cataclysms of judgement day, and ended up stockpiling weapons. It culminated with the Waco siege where over 80 of the religionists died during a shoot-out with authorities in 1993.
Irrationality and susceptibility to believe some unlikely things about the universe can lead to ideals and sectarianism that separate 'others' from their humanity, and allow despicable acts to be undertaken. Aum Shinrikyo was the religious movement responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway that killed a dozen people and injured thousands. The movement had also already murdered others in order to protect itself. The leader believed in karma, and preached that murder was justified because it stopped people accumulating bad karma. He had picked up Christian ideas, and preached that such actions were an act of mercy, and started preaching about Armageddon.”
"Religion, Violence, Crime and Mass Suicide: Apocalyptic Survivalism" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)
It is a similar story with the Order of the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, and others. All groups start out with some beliefs that are acceptable to many, but, the system of beliefs becomes built up, with idea on idea, until the entire group are completely impossible to understand. It is always a slippery slope, and at each stage, there are not enough people to stand up and question the validity of the principles behind the beliefs, the source of the experiences/revelations, and the possibility of mass delusion. People invest so much in these beliefs, defending them from outsiders, that they become more important than life itself.
This is why questioning beliefs is not something that should be restricted to "other people's beliefs". We should question our own beliefs. Our entire community of friends could be making assumptions about reality that are unfounded. Entire groups of people can misinterpret phenomenon and experiences, simply because they are unacquainted with the ways in which our thoughts can deceive us, and of how to approach reality in a scientifically-minded way. Questioning beliefs is not something that should be restricted to "other people's beliefs". We should question our own beliefs.
1.5. Religious Fundamentalism
It is easy to see how the acceptance of ideas and the interpretation of personal experiences without taking due heed for the way our brains can trick us, is a combination that can lead communities down paths away from normal society. Some groups such as the ones already discussed on this page become suicide cults, others remain as fundamentalist cells within mainstream religions, or sometimes become religious groups in their own right. It is dangerous when their beliefs become seen as unquestionable because they happen to be part of a religious worldview. Sam Harris in his book against religious fundamentalism and extremism (2006) warns that when we place someone's opinions beyond criticism because they are sacred to them, we place that person beyond rehabilitation to common sense.
Not long after the arise of Christianity, the Church Fathers argued that The Bible contains everything we need to know. This doctrine was deadly poison to science and to human development, and it found its greatest expression at a continental level during the European Dark Ages. The theologian Robert M. Price warns that even today many people use the Bible as a tool to make others bypass rational thought, often by "cultivating superstitious fears", in order to spiritually strong-arm others around to their own stern point of view.
“The authority of the Fathers, and the prevailing belief that the Scriptures contain the sum, of all knowledge, discouraged any investigation of Nature. If by chance a passing interest was taken in some astronomical question, it was at once settled by a reference to such authorities as the writings of Augustine or Lactantius, not by an appeal to the phenomena of the heavens. So great was the preference given to sacred over profane learning that Christianity had been in existence fifteen hundred years, and had not produced a single astronomer.”
"History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science" by John William Draper (1881)12
Harris argues that the blame doesn't only lay with the fundamentalists themselves, but with the majority of non-extremists who sit in the middle ground, facilitating an environment where crazy beliefs can foster without question. In all communities that place large parts of their mythology into a "holy", "sacred", "unquestionable" or "god-given" category, a large space is created for more extreme beliefs to take hold in the same categories, and lead the community down some potentially dangerous paths. The way to end all this is to put an end to the idea that religious beliefs should not be routinely questioned.