This I believe
I believe in the purifying power of disbelief and skepticism. The most important rule about belief, as shown by both the historical record and current events, is to avoid being so sure you are right that you deem it your divine duty to stamp our dangerous error.
I was led to this view — that skepticism is essential to a decent society — by the inspirational writer Eric Hofer, the San Francisco longshoreman who in 1951 wrote “The True Believer.” Hofer points out that much of the world’s evil is done by unthinking masses who accept uncritically a “truth” from above, believe it without qualification, and act violently to further that truth.
In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, 27 ”witches” were put on trial and 19 were executed. There were few skeptics in the community to question the reality of witchcraft, although many who did not doubt existence of satanic evil were nevertheless troubled by the chaotic nature of the judicial proceedings, which relied on testimony of hysterical school girls.
Thousands of witches and other heretics were executed by both Protestant and Catholic authorities in Europe for 300 years until Voltaire and the Enlightenment introduced a healthy skepticism in the 18th century.
All around the globe death and destruction is caused by those so convinced they alone possess the truth that they feel duty bound to see their truth prevail — by suppressing error, using force if need be. We saw it in India, where at the birth of Pakistan two million died in Hindu-Moslem rivalry. (Expect similar bloodshed between Shia and Sunni when we leave Iraq.) Catholics and Protestants in North Ireland killed each other by the scores. Somewhat earlier, Catholic-Protestant fighting reduced the German population from 21 million to around 13 million, in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
Britain’s Civil War (1644-1651) featured Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan led killing of Irish Catholics, including the slaughter of the entire population of an Irish town (Drogheda) in 1649. Cromwell attributed the incident to “the judgment of God,” an explanation accepted by his unskeptical followers..
Today, the Hindu Tamil Tigers, all True Believers, continue killing supporters of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist government, and various Marxist gangs from Nepal to Latin America continue their bloody work, convinced they are doing the right thing.
After the 1917 Russian revolution, religion lost out to Communism as the main killer of dissidents who dared to voice error. Millions died. Hitler enlisted millions of German True Believers to suppress or kill those who did not see the truth of his vision of a One Thousand Year Reich, and millions more died.
Thanks to Militant Islam, religion has once again become the central force justifying murder of evil-doers for their refusal to accept divine truth. I wonder how long we must wait for Islam to go through a Reformation and Enlightenment, undergoing changes such as led to religious toleration in the Western World?
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