On Being Wrong, Intellectual Honesty, and Acquiring Belief

Let's face it. We hate being wrong. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent individuals who acquired beliefs through reliable and sophisticated means. Many of our important beliefs --especially those political, moral, and religious -- were "placed on us" by our parents, teachers, and family members. We generally trust people who are close to us and don't thoughtfully investigate everything we hear simply because we accept beliefs on some sort of [undeserved] authority. It's impossible to verify all of our beliefs - or at least try to have beliefs that are as close as possible to reality.

Some people honestly don't care or are intellectually lazy. People will hold positions and won't [be able to] defend them if asked or pressed. Some take the mantras of "People can believe what they want to believe" and "Everyone has the right to their own beliefs" as a get-out-of-discussion free card. People often don't challenge others' beliefs because they feel that it's impolite or because they want to "make everyone happy." These trends need to stop and intellectual honesty, instead of laziness, should return to a center of importance.

We often won't admit that we are wrong about something and we'll defend a belief even when the position is hopeless and terribly lost. In areas of religion, for example, people will interpret passages to fit their needs and beliefs instead of actually looking at the verse in context. Oh, you don't like that idea? God must not have inspired that verse. Oh, that passage is a good one? God must have inspired that one. Ignore the bad. Love the good? I've had African-Americans tell me that "slavery was different back then" in hopeless attempts to defend the Old Testament. If we don't like to be wrong (and that's most of us, right?), we can admit being wrong today to be correct for the future.

Shouldn't caring about what is true and holding as many true beliefs as possible (as opposed to unjustified or false beliefs) be a major focus of life? If we hate being wrong so much, why don't we journey to discover the truth? If any of my cherished positions are met with great arguments from the other side that seem to challenge me and shake my foundation, I'll reformat my beliefs and amend to be right.

Shouldn't important positions be held with a high standard of warrant? If God/religion/belief is so important to you, for example, shouldn't you read the arguments from both sides and come to a conclusion that you feel is correct so that you're not wrong about the matter? When I was a theist I asked myself, "Is there good reason to believe? This is an important matter, so I should find out whether there is good reason or not." I wasn't concerned about being comfortable. I was concerned about being right. I admitted that I was wrong about my former positions and changed my beliefs...and now I feel that I'm very justified in non-belief because I've encountered the arguments, had the debates, and did the research. As an atheist, I know so much more about Christianity and the arguments for and against God than most theists my age. It's quite sad, but I suppose that it makes sense.

Ironically (?) enough, I've met few theists who actually can demonstrate that they've read both sides of the arguments...people say stupid phrases like "Well, what if you're wrong, you're going to hell," "God exists because the Bible says so and the Bible says it is true," "You just don't believe because you hate God," etc. Serious theists (or even all) should have advanced actual arguments and be able to dictate their position and why they believe quite easily.

I'm convinced that many theists simply are "doing it wrong." Instead of starting from the default position of "I don't know" and then DECIDING to become a Christian, they first start as a Christian and try to justify the position...or in most cases, their parents are Christians and they are children of Christian parents. Non-belief should be the default position...why should we accept a claim before having good reason to accept it.

Imagine that a salesman came to your door and told you that if you bought his product, you'll never have to worry about "x" again. Would you accept his claim or would you first find reasons to accept his claim. You'd certainly ask questions and feel that you're justified in your position of believing him before buying the product. Christianity should be the same way. You should feel justified and have good reasons for belief BEFORE you accept the claims and call yourself a Christian.

If a theist comes to me and tries to "sell his product," I'll certainly accept the claims, but until that happens, I won't believe. I simply can't accept the claims of Christianity without justification.

Ask yourself, for any given important belief:
  • Why do I hold this position? Is this belief the result of yearing for truth or just comfort or custom?
  • Where did I get the information from? Is the source reliable?
  • How would I be able to defend my belief to the most adamant detractor?
  • What are the best arguments against my position? Can I provide good responses?
  • If this position is important to me, what's more important: being correct or just holding the position? If being correct is important (and it should be), you should choose the side, if applicable, with a good defense.
  • Why do people disagree with me on this matter? Why do they hold their positions?
If we're able to look at positions clearly while maintaining the idea that being correct for the future is most important, we can more reliably arrive at justified beliefs. Follow the evidence, reason, and argument to where it leads...don't use the evidence just to support your previously held position.

Positions shouldn't be held without justification; if you have no justification, you simply shouldn't have the belief. Have the courage to admit to being wrong today to be right tomorrow. Prioritize intellectual honesty...especially for important positions.