Thursday, November 01, 2007

Placebo Paradox

In my last post, I found myself trying to make a rather subtle point about the perception of religion. I'm fairly sure I failed.

The point was this: there's a popular perception that religion can be split into "good" and "bad" religion, and that atheists ought to restrict themselves to attacking the latter sort. The problem is that this dividing line is, paradoxically, only visible from outside the religion.

The cause of this paradox is quite hard to explain, so I'm going to hijack the superb explanatory powers of a blogger called Skeptico. Please read this article on homeopathy.

To summarise Skeptico's point: the idea that it's bad to treat malaria with homeopathy only makes sense if we acknowledge that homeopathy doesn't actually work. If we believe that homeopathy does work, using it to treat malaria is clearly the right thing to do. This is the paradox: the only people who have standing to say that homeopathic malaria cures are dafter than homeopathic cold cures are those who don't believe in homeopathy!

Exactly the same paradox applies with religion. Atheists are commonly enjoined to restrict their attacks to the "appropriate target" of extremist religion. But this dissection of religion into "moderate" and "extreme" only makes sense if both variants are equally false.

When used in an argument against an atheist, the distinction makes no sense. So can the commentators in this debate please stop spluttering with horror when we turn our guns on the beliefs of people they happen to like?

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