Saturday, January 27, 2007

The So-Called Right to Believe: Confusing Hoping with Justified Believing

Sometimes people use the word "belief" in a peculiar way. They use it to mean something like "hope" or "principle they live by" or "fundamental outlook." So they say, "I believe my husband will be home safely from Iraq by Christmas," or "I have to keep believing that I will pull through this terminal illness," or "I believe that everything happens for a reason." Or, most importantly, "I believe and have faith that there is a God." One of the interesting things about this usage of belief is that you have good reasons not to believe it. To watch the news, it doesn't seem like anyone is coming home from Iraq soon. Or the prognosis for the disease is bad. Or you are trying to hold on to hope that everything happens for a reason because some inexplicably bad things just happened to you and you can't see what good could come of them. The other interesting thing is that we praise and encourage people to "believe" this way. We reward people for standing up for their principles, and we have reverence for unshakeable faith. And a third interesting thing is that these "beliefs" are ones that we stubbornly hold onto no matter what. In fact, we consider it a sign of weakness of will and defeat if someone relents and gives one of these up.

I have a simple response: we shouldn't have any such "beliefs." Hope is fine. And it's not that I want someone to despair about the possibility of her husband coming home from Iraq. But the problem comes when we equivocate from this sense of belief to the regular sense of belief. You can and should hope for lots of things. But calling that a belief doesn't entitle you to treat it like an ordinary belief that is supported by the evidence and that plays a role as support for other beliefs. You don't get to actually think of it as true by calling it a belief. This is an idea you actually have good reasons not to believe. Calling it a belief doesn't entitle you to recommend that other people should believe it. And it doesn't entitle you to have that belief be immune from any kind of critical scrutiny or denial from the rest of us. And it doesn't sanction that belief to play a vital role in your other social, moral, personal, and spiritual convictions, especially when what you think about all of these things has such a significant impact on the rest of us.

"Oh, but I have a right to believe what I choose," lots of people say. "I am entitled to my opinion," is the standard response. What exactly does that mean? For one thing, you don't really think it is true. If somebody told you that a principle they live by--one of their fundamental beliefs--is that whites are superior to blacks, you would not be inclined to say they have a right to believe that. 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 (where is the part about freedom of beliefs in the Constitution?) 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 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?

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. One interesting thing about all of these rights is that other people can do things that will impair or deprive you of the right. 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. There can be nothing morally wrong with any of these. 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. But 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 to not hear me claim 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.) You do not have right to be protected from anything that might change your mind. 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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Proving the Negative

Here's a recent Powerpoint presentation on proving the negative: there is no God.

The short version:

1. There are lots of negative existential claims that we believe reasonably and that we have evidence for: there is no Santa, there are no unicorns, there is no Bigfoot, aliens don't make crop circles, dinosaurs don't exist, etc.

2. God has all the relevant features that makes it reasonable to believe that those things don't exist.

3. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist.

Treating Religious Affiliation as Ethnicity

We have a tendency to frequently treat someone's religious affiliation as a sort of ethnic origin. We say that they are from a Christian family or a Jewish family. Particularly when we identify children as one or the other, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, we are treating their religious affiliation as something inherited. They got it from their parents, like they got their blue eyes, or Italian ancestry. Someone says, "I was raised Catholic," or "My family is Baptist," and these claims could easily be substituted with claims like "I am from an Irish family," or "My father is Persian." And we tend to think of the resulting connection to that religion as something they are stuck with; it's in their blood. People will often offer explanations of religious beliefs by saying that so and so was "raised Anglican," as if their upbringing inflicted or caused them to be a certain way, and nothing can change that now.

The problem with thinking of religion this way is that we get fundamentally confused about what a person's freedoms are and what their responsibilities to the rest of society are. People can't help what ethnicity they are. And that's part of the reason that we think it is unfair to criticize them or discriminate against them because they are Italian, or Persian, or Kurdish. That was the point behind the civil rights movement. African Americans were being discriminated against for something that 1) made no difference at all, and 2) they couldn't help; their skin color.

And we often get mixed up about religion in just this way. We are concerned to have respect and tolerance for other people's religious views, just like we try to have respect and tolerance for their ethnic and cultural origins. People talk and act like they have a right to possess whatever religious views they want, and that they shouldn't be criticized, or discriminated against on the basis of them. And criticism of a person's religion has become almost as taboo in our culture as making an off color racial remark to them. We would no more say something like, "Catholics are nut jobs, they think that the wine and crackers literally turn into flesh and blood," than we would make a crack about blacks and watermelon.

But it's a serious mistake to treat religion this way. For one thing, people aren't just bestowed with a religion and that's the end of it. They have a choice. They don't have to be Catholic, or Muslim, or Pentecostal. They can change their minds. And by treating people's religious affiliation with so much reverence and political correctness, we've effectively given them a blank check to form whatever crazy ideas they want, and pursue those ideas, foster them in each other, encourage their kids to believe them, and pass them on to the next generation. And they can demand--because freedom of religion is a right after all--that no one say anything critical about it because that would be intolerant and bigoted. People will say, "I have a right to my opinion," and "Well, that's just the way I was raised," as if they ends all rational inquiry into the matter. Can you imagine a serial killer saying (truthfully), "Well, I was just raised so that from time to time you went out, picked up a stranger, and brutally murdered them."

But then as long as religious believers have a free pass from any kind of critical scrutiny, they, like all of us, are prone to get crazier and crazier. There are currently millions and millions of Americans who think that Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus is coming very, very soon. And they are going to vote on the basis of those religious views, they are going to get on the school board, they are going to teach in the classroom, they are going to make moral decisions, they are going to get married, they are going to fight wars, they are going to blow themselves up on a bus crowded with school children, and so on, all based on what their religion told them.

Religious institutions and religious beliefs are pernicious and warp into ever more dangerous forms in a way that skin color does not. Certainly we should be tolerant of people when they look different. We should always be tolerant of the free and open exchange of ideas. That was the point of freedom of speech, after all. We all need to be able to get those ideas, including the radical, unorthodox, and anti-establishment ones, out there. And we need to have an open, intelligent, critical discussion about them to sort them out. But that's the irony. For the sake of freedom of religion, we have made it possible for people be protected from the open exchange of ideas that might keep them in check. We've given them a pass to secret themselves away and cultivate the most outrageous worldviews. And we have allowed them to inject those ideas back into the society all while bypassing the most important part--the critical vetting. So they get to tell their kids that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, that angels exist, and that the wine and crackers turn into flesh and blood. And they also tell their kids that they have an absolute right to their religious beliefs. And the cycle starts over again.