Ethics of Belief/Should We Leave Others Alone?

"Leave Me Alone!"

Many theists (and atheists) commonly say, “Why don't you just leave people alone and let them believe what they want to believe if it makes them happy?” Although this sentiment may seem attractive, it fails tremendously for various reasons. I will argue that it is intellectually dishonest and immoral to hold [religious] beliefs without justification, asking for people to not challenge religious ideas is something only done for matters of religion and almost nothing else, and people and beliefs have no right to be immune from criticism. I've touched on these issues in previous posts, but would like to focus on them here.

W.K. Clifford, in a classic essay, argues that “It is wrong, always, everywhere,and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

T.H. Huxley says that “It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”

Brand Blanshard says that “where great human goods and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral, the greater the stakes.”

Clifford's argument is basically this: A ship's owner checks his ship to ensure that the vessel is sturdy and safe for people to voyage in. He finds no good evidence to support his idea that the ship is safe and believes, without evidence, that the ship is sturdy and sends the ship on its way. The ship's owner is acting immorally in this case because he is putting people in danger [and is also intellectually dishonest]. If a belief-based action could potentially harm someone, the person holding the belief should have sufficient grounds for the belief being justified before holding and professing it. If beliefs lead to actions (as they very often do), all beliefs based on bad evidence could harm others; we should not hold beliefs without sufficient evidence, lest we are acting in an immoral fashion.

I find some exceptions to Clifford's argument: beliefs needed for survival that cannot harm others. Imagine that you're hiking down a dangerous snowy mountain and an avalanche threatens your life. In order to escape the avalanche, you must clear a crevice, but you know that you're not a good jumper...so you believe that you're an Olympic athlete before jumping in order to survive. Imagine that doctors tell you, right after a surgery, that you only have a 5% chance to live and may die tomorrow. Despite this, you believe that you have a great chance to live and fight on instead of resigning. These exceptions may be questionable, though. In case one, perhaps holding this false belief may cause you to fail the jump and you could just honestly think that you must clear the crevice in order to survive without believing that you are an Olympic jumper. In the second case, you can still have a positive attitude despite your chances of survival.

Clifford further argues “Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintainence and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to […] But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit for believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.”

The second part of Clifford's argument is very important. Praising faith, for example, and belief in the supernatural because of personal experience weakens us and establishes some idea that it's permissible to believe a claim without adequate evidence. This idea is counter to searching for truth, education, and being intellectually honest. We should hold beliefs because of good reasons that we can present, as Huxley argues. The Bible even prompts Christians to give reasons for why they believe in God when they are asked...and to prepare a defense for such belief (1 Peter 3:15).

It's very clear that our actions are often informed by beliefs and that we don't live in moral vacuums. Our actions and beliefs affect others – not only ourselves – even when we may not realize it. We should have greater intellectual honesty and have a more important duty to justify our claims when the belief is more important and has a great potential to affect others and ourselves.

If unjustified beliefs can cause harm to others, people who realize that the beliefs are wrong, can establish a case for why this is, and have the ability to debate well, these people are doing a moral thing in trying to dispel false and unjustified beliefs.

It's very seldom that we say “don't challenge beliefs” in life. This phrase is typically only reserved for politics and religion, but why is this the case. Sure, both areas are controversial, deeply-held, and often define a great portion of a person, but this does not mean that we should withhold from honest criticism and disagreement with others. Religious beliefs, or any beliefs, should not be beyond criticism and placed on a pedestal.

We shouldn't leave people alone just because they hold a certain position. I challenge religious beliefs because they're often responsible for a great deal of harm and they are unjustified. My position as an atheist is very justified because there is no good evidence suggesting that any gods exist. Religious beliefs often inspire people to ignore facts in other areas of life and hold a crazed position in matters of abortion, capital punishment, science, birth control, etc.

We need to throw out faith and stop promoting the idea that belief without evidence is a good thing. We need to have conversations. We need to be intellectually honest and only hold beliefs because they have a high degree of warrant. Forget comfort, tradition, pleasing others, or sticking to what you grew up with. It's time for society to grow up, start promoting critical thinking, start encouraging honest discourse, and for people to challenge beliefs of others that are often harmful.