Tuesday, July 17, 2007

There is No Right To Religious Belief

Part of the confusion in discussion about God concerns “having a right to believe” what you want, or people “being entitled to their opinions,” or “being free to believe,” or having religious freedom. It is clear from many things that believers say (usually it is some form of belief in God that is being defended by this route) in these conversations that they believe that these principles of freedom or entitlement are true, and that give us epistemic license with God matters that is unlike what we have in other arenas. You’d immediately find a new one if your doctor said that you have incurable cancer and only 6 weeks to live, and when you asked why she thinks that, she said, “Well, everyone entitled to believe what they want, it’s a free country after all.”

When people makes these comments about religious matters what they seem to be suggesting is that religious freedom is akin to physical freedom or the right to be unrestricted in your activities. You have a legal right to assemble, a right to free speech, a right to free movement and so on. And in all those cases, that moral and legal right preserves your ability to do and say what you want (with a few notable exceptions.) Those rights say nothing about the content of your free speeches and actions. They assure that a whole class of activities be available to you. So with freedom of religion or the legal right to practice and pursue the religious activities of your choice, you are entitled to the same sort of openness.

But having the legal and moral right to say or do a wide range of things should not be confused with having epistemic justification for them. Being free to do it doesn’t remove epistemic accountability or responsibility. Your entitlement to the opportunity to pursue a wide range of activities doesn’t render all of those activities wise, reasonable, correct, or true. You have a right to free speech, and that means you can stand up in a public forum and shout that 2 + 2 = 5, but obviously that doesn’t make it true. Legally and morally you have a right to fall down on your knees and worship the great Juju at the bottom of the river Limpopo. You can burn your house down as a sign of dedication to him, get yourself tattooed from head to foot with images of him (What does the great Juju look like anyway?), or you can go wait on a mountain top for him to come take you to the next realm of existence. But doing all of that would probably be completely silly. Given what you know about the world, such beliefs and activities are clearly irrational, even though you are entitled to espouse them and act accordingly.

Satisfying epistemic standards of justification is a completely different question than the question of rights. Being reasonable, as we saw previously, is a complicated matter. But at the very least, what will render a belief justified is that you have some evidence or some reasons that you take to be sufficiently indicative of the truth of a claim, and that pass some minimum standard of support that we all recognize as acceptable. People can and do ignore the evidence frequently. But it’s a deep confusion to mistake the fact that one can do it for good reasons that one should. You can go to the corner store and spend your entire retirement savings on jelly beans, but being able to do it doesn’t render the act justified. Consider the difference between a murder defendant who tries to excuse her actions by saying that she killed the victim because she had a gun and he was standing there, and the defendant who shot the victim because he had her cornered and was making it clear that he was going to kill her if nothing stopped him. The latter is a good defense, the former is no reason at all.

Let’s distinguish between a right to religious freedom, a right to assembly, and a right to have the religious belief of your choice. Once we look at it closely, it becomes clear that it doesn’t make any sense to say that you have a right to religious beliefs at all. That sort of right is unintelligible, so no such right exists.

First, the right to religious belief is nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The moral and legal rights we all have are of a different category than belief. Rights impose duties on others. When you possess a right, than creates some obligation on the part of others to provide something to you. In the case of negative rights, they amount to being assured of having the option to pursue a range of activities without encumbrance. No one can act to restrict you, and they fulfill their duty to you simply by not messing with you. Positive rights are entitlements to receive something more substantial from others than inaction—they have to get up off the couch and give you something to fulfill their duty to you. So your right to an education imposes a duty of paying taxes or some kind of response on others to make sure that you get what you have coming to you.

When we say you have a right to believe what you want, what could that mean in terms of duties for others? Is it a negative right such that they must not present any obstacle to your believing? We could oppose your believing something either with our words or with our actions. Does your putative right to believe impose a duty on me not to say something to the contrary when you claim you believe that 2+2=5, or that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, or that God created the world 6,000 years ago? No, clearly not. People can and do believe patently false things. But there are no good reasons for why the rest of us cannot say otherwise, try to talk them out of it, or point out that what they believe is patently false and contrary to the evidence. In fact, one might argue that when somebody has a crazy idea, especially if it is going to contribute to harm to the rest of us, the rest of us have an obligation to speak up. Your so-called right to believe doesn’t mean that I have to nod my head and agree with what you say.

Does your having a right to believe impose some duty on the rest of us to restrict our actions? Does it entitle you to not be harassed, physically coerced, kidnapped and brainwashed, tortured, blackmailed, or otherwise physically forced to say and act like you don’t believe it? The answer here is no too. You do have rights that impose duties on the rest of us to refrain from physically encumbering you, but it’s not your right to believe that imposes those duties on others. The reason I shouldn’t kidnap, harass, torture, or physical coerce you is not that your beliefs might be adversely affected, it’s that your body or your physical well-being would be compromised. Those things would cause you pain and suffering. And pain and suffering are bad in and of themselves, not because they have anything to do with your beliefs. It would be immoral and illegal for me to slowly burn a kitten to death, but the reason that would be wrong has nothing to do with kitty’s beliefs. Cat’s don’t have beliefs, nor do they have religious affiliations.

You have a legal and moral right not to have your physical freedoms encumbered, and that rules out those sorts of abuses. Nowhere in the Constitution, or American legal precedents, or in thoughtful theories of morality, rights, and duties will you find an assurance against physical abuses that is based upon a right to believe. Your right to physical freedom is a basic human right to itself and is not built upon something more fundamental like a right to belief.

We can make sense of rights talk about things like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, a right to vote, a right to legal representation, a right to be treated as an autonomous moral agent. For all of these rights other people can do things that will impair or prevent you from doing something. You might get physically prevented from voting--and we want to make sure that doesn't happen. You might be prevented from assembling--and we want to make sure you are able to do so. You could be deprived of a fair trial, and so on.

But what could anyone do to make you stop believing something? I can talk to you. I can argue with you. I can try to persuade you that what you believe is mistaken. But there’s nothing morally wrong with any of these. You don’t have a right to not have me criticize your reasoning, although you can walk away and not listen if you choose. If I kidnap you, threaten you, or brainwash you to change your beliefs, then clearly I have violated your rights. But it's not your right to believe whatever you want. It's your basic freedoms to be unencumbered. Arguing with you, making a case against something you believe, or showing you evidence that makes it clear that what you believe is mistaken are not things you have a right to protected from. You do not have a right against my claiming that something is false when you think it is true. I do not have a duty to refrain from speaking my mind when you believe something that is unreasonable. (And the same goes if I am the one being unreasonable.) Nor do you have a right to be protected from anything that might change your mind.

Torture, threats, and physical coercion don’t really seem to change people’s beliefs anyway. When the north Vietnamese tortured American POWs and made them confess their conversion to communism on film, what the POWs did to stop the torture was say the words that their torturers wanted to hear. But often they didn’t really believe them, and everyone watching the taped confessions knew that and didn’t hold the confession against him.

In some even more extreme cases, it might be possible to really change someone’s beliefs, but doing so seems to require a much more radical alteration of everything about them. The Simbianese Liberation Army kidnapped millionaire heiress Patty Hearst. After months of abuse, starvation, rape, and torture she was seen helping them rob a bank in San Francisco. A jury, unsympathetic to her defense that she was brainwashed and forced to collaborate, found her guilty of ban robbery and convicted her to 7 years in prison. This was perhaps the closest to successful attempt ever at changing someone’s belief structure, and it still didn’t work. What they did wrong to her should not be characterized primarily in terms of violating her putative right to belief. And her case makes it clear that we probably couldn’t really change your beliefs by force even if we tried the most extreme measures. So another deep flaw in the notion that people have a right to belief what they want is that there is any way to take one’s beliefs away. How can you have a right to something that can’t, even in the most extreme circumstances can’t be taken away? The POW and Hearst examples make it even clearer how thin and off the mark the “I have a right to believe what I want” response is when someone who disagrees presents contrary words to the view. The response is an ill-frame evasion, nothing more. No such right exists or is even intelligible. And the bogus right to believe certainly can’t be a defense for having no good justification for what you believe is true when you live on my block, vote for presidents, have children, elect school board officials, and a host of other actions that have a direct bearing on the lives of the rest of us.

So I really can't make any sense of the claim that you have a right to believe what you choose. Even if people have the right, that doesn't give anyone the right not to be criticized, corrected, argued with, or refuted by the evidence. And it doesn't give you the right to continue to believe something that is patently false when you know better and all the evidence is against you.

Furthermore, it’s not even clear that other people can do anything to stop you from believing what you want to, even if they tried really hard. I have certainly been in lots of prolonged philosophical debates with people where no argument I could muster and no reasons I could give were adequate to dissuade someone of something that I thought was totally unreasonable. Sometimes I can convince someone, and sometimes they convince me. But I didn’t violate their bogus right to believe by convincing them to change their minds, nor did they do some belief injustice to me by trying or succeeding in getting me to change mine. In fact, I consider it a great benefit to have someone straighten me out—they’ve given me something very valuable that they didn’t have to.

So the right to believe that people keep talking about really doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s not a negative right—it imposes no duties of restraint on others that weren’t already covered by your real rights. It’s not a positive right—I don’t have to pay taxes or make some positive contribution to your being able to form beliefs. You’re going to do that, no matter what I do or don’t do. Nothing I could do would make it possible for you to form beliefs whereas you couldn’t before. And nothing I might withhold will make it impossible for you to form beliefs.

What renders a belief reasonable is that a person has good reasons for it. They have done a good job of gathering the evidence, they have considered it carefully, they have reflected on the various ways in which they could be wrong, they have taken alternative views seriously, and they have arrived at an informed view about what the evidence indicates or supports. It doesn’t acquire justification and it is not reasonable simply because you can believe it, or because of some entitlement to religious freedom and tolerance. Our freedoms include lots of things that are positively stupid to do. Having a right to pursue those mistakes doesn’t render them wise, supported by the evidence, or thoughtful.

Another problem with the so-called right to believe is that no one really thinks it’s true. If somebody told you that a principle they live by, one of their fundamental beliefs, is that whites are superior to blacks, or that the Jews ought to be exterminated, you would not accept that they have a right to believe that. We would be scandalized if some claimed that for them it is an article of faith that the Holocaust didn’t happen. If a mother said to the cancer specialist that she has a right to believe that her son doesn’t have leukemia even though all the test results say otherwise we would say she’s unfit. Or imagine if the doctor asserted that he had faith that your child has leukemia. You’d go get another opinion. If a teacher claimed that he has a right to believe that the Earth is flat if he wants to, we’d take our kids out of his class and file a lawsuit. If a car mechanic told you that he just has a feeling that your car needs a $100 repair, but no more specific evidence, you’d find another mechanic. We would invoke more stringent standards of evidence for a mere $100 car repair than we demand from people concerning their most profoundly important religious views.

People can and do believe a lot of things, and many of them are patently and obviously false. Calling it a "belief" and invoking some mysterious right to it doesn't render it true or reasonable or well-supported by the evidence. In fact, you probably think that a person has a duty not to believe something as inflammatory and hurtful as the racial superiority claim or the leukemia diagnosis unless they could show that they have met the highest standards of evidence. So why is it with religious beliefs we have reversed this and the religious believer doesn't have to offer any evidential support whatsoever? We can't simply take it on faith that blacks are inferior, or that women are not as smart as men, or that homosexuals are pedophiles. So why do we give people a free pass when they take it on faith that there is a God and that God told them to do all sorts of things?


Jon said...

GEORGE CARLIN ON RELIGION (warning: strong language)

(the following is extracted from George Carlin's HBO special, "You Are All Diseased", recorded live at New York City's Beacon Theater on February 6, 1999)

In the Bullshit Department, a businessman can't hold a candle to a clergyman. 'Cause I gotta tell you the truth, folks. When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can't handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!

Joe Rogan

Rogan is best known as the host of NBC's Fear Factor and for his role on Newsradio.

A reader supplies some relevant quotes from his website:

"I'm one of those crazy people who believes that all human beings share one consciousness. So if you're mean and evil to someone, you're being evil to yourself. But I also believe in a lot of dumb **** like Bigfoot and UFOs, so it's tough to take me seriously. I just find it a little odd that the same government that denies the existence of UFOs insists on sticking to the "single bullet theory."

"Despite all the advancements in science, and all things about religion that are disproved it still marches on. The bottom line is that the only real, absolutely provable answers about life and our place in the universe are provided by science, and religion has been holding down science since day one."

"I saw a documentary on the brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking, where he said he had a meeting with the pope, and that the pope said to him that it's all right to explore the universe, but told him not to look into the origins of the big bang, for that would be questioning God's story of creation.


Just imagine that one of the greatest minds to come along in the last few hundred years, and he�s taking directions from a cult leader that wears big goofy hats.

That, my friends, is offensive."

"Every single religion that has ever been on the face of the Earth, ever, is a cult. That's all they are. Just a cult with millions of people in them. Meanwhile, they have a bunch of really bad ... stories that require more belief than an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie.'

"You're supposed to just go along with it. Meanwhile your brain is just spinning, going, "How is this real?' They will just not listen to logic. To me, that's fascinating that so many people are willing to buy into it. It's be cause people need answers. I'd rather have no answers than a(n) ... answer that makes me an idiot.'"

Retrieved from "http://www.celebatheists.com?title=Joe_Rogan"

This page has been accessed 8,616 times. This page was last modified 14:05, 22 June 2007. Content is available under Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Jon said...

I see your point, but could not the theist say: "I don't see gravity, but I feel it", then "I don't see the holy ghost, but I feel it". "My mother has faith that I love her, even if I can't really prove it to her without falling into some trap of egoism". Or something like: "Faith is pragmatic therefore true, if we have no faith, then we go insane from percieving the world too scientifically, or being worried that gravity will fail, and such and so forth.
I think the difference however, is that when someone says they feel the holy ghost, they are only feeling their own emotions, unlike feeling gravity. But I may not convince them of the difference.

Anonymous said...

"So why do we give people a free pass when they take it on faith that there is a God and that God told them to do all sorts of things?"

Because we don't want to hurt people's feelings.

And because we don't want to watch them freak out when we laugh at their magical, unsound thinking.

And all of that relates to culture and history -- we have been raised with the silly notion that we have to respect religious belief.


Tradition and a respect for tolerance, and in some cases, fear.

The idea of respect for the tradition/history of religion and the good things it has supposedly been responsible for blocks us from completely throwing it in the trash.

This is the Pyne argument: "If religion has been responsible for good things in the past, we should respect and tolerate it -- FOREVER."

But one can easily make the same argument inversely -- If religion has been responsible for bad things in the past...yada yada yada.

This is clearly an invalid line of reasoning -- bad metaphysics so to speak.

It simply doesn't follow that we should respect or tolerate or allow the continued existence of R simply because it did something arguably decent, ONCE.

We also fear theists, I think, in many cases -- we know they are a bit crazy and need the god fix -- to hold things together.

So what is the answer here? I think the need for a "right to believe" will erode as humanity grows up.

Of course we have to hope that the radical christians and muslims don't blow the whole world up first.

But how do we speed the growing up of humanity?

It's largely a political battle of will -- we atheists need to fight against the odds and keep arguing for epistemic responsibility.

We need to call a spade a spade; for example, the right to religious belief is simply a convenient excuse used to allow the defeated-with-facts-theist to walk away with their wounded pride and continue belieiving a child's story.

Anonymous said...

Dean 192
Tell me, who has the right? I chose not to believe and I am branded; find that I am no longer on the list to be invited to social gatherings; and people give me a wide berth. When one make the rational decision not to believe, it is as though you are an alien. I have to wonder why this is so. Considering of course that there is some truth to a church/religious conspiracy to control the masses in hopes of producing what they consider best for humanity. But one could consider that they hope to control the masses for some greater good, or do they hope to control the masses for some other gain—monetary, nation/state, or just because they get off controlling people.

If the theists are so convinced that man has free will, what is so difficult with giving everyone just that—free will not to believe? Is it that we are a threat to them, and if so how? 1) Perhaps we will crush they dreams of the afterlife; 2) or convince the masses that they have fallen prey to the biggest con-job ever.
In addition, to think of the significance of a political candidate when he/she has to make a religious statement to be elected can be frightening. Does anyone know when and atheists ran for an office?

In God we trust, how can this be so, when it appears humankind has considered itself the spokesperson for god (Oh shit, bend over and kiss your ass good-by).

Anonymous said...

Boy that's that a long rant. I only skimmed it. However your title "There is no right to religious Belief" seems to sum it up. I agree. Rights impose on us all. By impose I mean they create an obligation. The right to a trial by jury imposes on us the obligation to serve on juries. Freedom doesn't. There is a freedom to believe as you will but no inherent right assigned by a country. The right and the freedom is built into being human. It can't be stopped even by law or force.

Of course the reverse is true as well. "There is No Right To Atheist Belief". For all the same reasons you detailed. I'm glad you didn't use this for one of your 100 reasons.

Anonymous said...

"You don't have a right to believe that" doesn't imply "you can't keep me from talking to you," it implies "you are a stupid stupidhead and why don't you agree with me already, argh!" At least, that's the message I got from this essay. :P

Seriously, what the heck are you even trying to say? It sounds like you're saying freedom of speech is the right to inflict abuse on everyone that you think is Wrong on the Internet. And that "if you can't prove it to me, using methodology that I accept, you have no right to your opinion."

I'm trying to think of a response to that which doesn't include profanity, and it has nothing to do with whether the people you think have no right to their beliefs are religious or not.