“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.” — Sam Harris (On George W. Bush, Letter to a Christian Nation)
One thing that aggravates me, and which I hear a lot from religious people, is that I shouldn’t criticize other people’s beliefs.
What they are really stating is I shouldn’t criticize their beliefs. Or more specifically, I should just let them have their beliefs just because, and calling their beliefs delusional or stupid (i.e., challenging their beliefs) won’t change the fact that they believe in whatever it is they believe.
Consider a recent comment I received from my dear Christian mother who posted it on my Facebook under public (as such it went out to all my family and friends and anyone who can read my Facebook, not that I mind, but notice the distinct message here):
“Quit being such poop head… Let people have their beliefs. They let you have yours. And yours are no stupider than theirs.”
Needless to say, because you believe something doesn’t make that belief true. Nor does it make the thing you profess a belief in necessarily true. In fact, philosophy, psychology, and science have shown us that our beliefs are more often than not mistaken.
The question I want to ask those who claim that my beliefs are no stupider than anyone elses, is really? Do you really believe that?
If, for example, I believe that traveling to third world countries once a year to do aid work and help with relief efforts is a justifiable good, am I right or wrong? Is this a valid belief to hold?
The question becomes: can we test whether or not relief efforts help relieve the economic turmoil and stress people feel after catastrophic and devastating natural disasters? Can we see the affects of charity benefiting those who are less fortunate and impoverished? Does building a school in an African village or impoverished region of Thailand improve their lack of education and give them opportunities they might never have had otherwise?
Does helping to finish a roof on a new hospital which will be used to give medical care to hundreds of people in need of it not seek to improve people’s living conditions and overall well-being?
In all cases the answer is a definitive, resounding, YES.
How do we know that the belief that doing good in this way is sound? Because doing good in this way gets the results I alluded to–we can see what the affect of our good actions or bad actions are. People with higher levels of education, medical care, and good health always seem to flourish, regardless of the culture or society, whereas those without educations, medical care, and generally poor health seem to do poorly and all too often suffer.
In the example of aid work, we can actually see to what extent the charity work improves the lives of countless people. The results of the actions only justify, and reinforce, the belief that helping in this way is not just worthy of our time and energy, but that, it is a belief worth having. Because it matters–and more importantly–it’s true.
If helping others didn’t improve their well-being and overall lives, even just a little bit, then the belief that building a hospital or a school, or any other form of relief/aid work, would be palpably false. If it could be proved false, then it would mean we are simply wasting out time, and that our belief that it is helping would be proved wrong. Gladly, this is not the case.
So why is it, when I point out a stupid belief that people hold, these people automatically assume I think everyone’s beliefs are stupider than mine? That’s not what I am saying. I am saying–we have methods of holding beliefs up to scrutiny. If a belief passes the test, then it is more likely to be a sound belief. If not, then not.
On the other hand, how would I know if my beliefs were stupider than anyone else’s? If, for example, I believed that Elvis spoke to me through waking visions, and wanted me to streak butt naked down the city streets, when the police arrest me for acting on this belief, would they merely say, “Oh, fair enough, since it’s one of your beliefs, then we must respect it equally. After all, your beliefs are no stupider than anyone else’s.”
Hell no! The police would arrest my sorry ass, and toss it into jail, where I would be waiting to undergo a psych evaluations for holding a massively stupid, not to mention, delusional belief.
I’m sorry to say, but some beliefs are stupid. Many more are unfounded, unjustified, and plain old wrong.
If you want others to start respecting what it is you believe, you have to give them valid reasons for believing what you do. Even then, if you have sound reasons for your beliefs, still they may prove to be wrong–and that is something we always have to be willing to face. We have to be willing to accept that, sometimes, our beliefs aren’t what we think they are cracked up to be–and if anyone can prove our beliefs complete erroneous, then we would be forced to seriously re-evaluated them.
The fact that I get the old schpeal of “just let them have their beliefs, because they let you have yours” does not apply in such situations where we are talking about the reality of the situation and whether a belief is justifiable or not. Indeed, I want my beliefs to be challenged, so I can replace the false beliefs with better ones. The only reason to ever claim that one must simply accept the belief as is, is when the person doesn’t want their belief to be challenged, for fear of it being destroyed.
It seems to me, that the emotional trauma, or more specifically the fear of emotional devastation one would undergo if their most cherished beliefs proved false, is often such a massive fear that they would sooner stop questioning the validity of their beliefs than actually have to face the truth. But the only reason to hold a belief in the first place, is because we feel it holds a modicum of truth. If not, then what purpose is the belief?
So whenever I hear someone state, “Let people have their beliefs. They let you have yours. And yours are no stupider than theirs…” I have to check myself. And then, I have to call bull-shit. Are you kidding me? Please!
Not all beliefs are created equal. That’s just a fact of life. The sooner you can learn to cope with it, the sooner you can begin to challenge your own beliefs, and hopefully, learn to formulate better more sound beliefs as you work toward a better understanding of what it is you actually believe, and not simply what you have been conditioned to believe.