"Belief Intolerance"

Throughout my tenure as a blogger, a contrarian, an activist, an out atheist, and whatever other labels one may affix to me, I've been called all sorts of things from offensive, intolerant, a person who doesn't listen to the other side of the story and just criticizes, pompous, arrogant, pompous, holier-than-thou, attention whore, a dick and a jerk, a dumb fuck, one of the most hated people in the 'valley,' the third most hated person in Luzerne County, a Nazi (or perhaps just a faggot), a "douche bag," and much more from the loving theists of Luzerne County and beyond. Many of these people and others who haven't directly sent hate mail to me or posted hate in a public forum have called me intolerant (but apparently, their comments were not) for publishing my views (which no one is compelled to read), for noting a church/state violation when the county officials and lawyers among others agreed with me, and challenging widely accepted beliefs.

I have noted in various posts of mine, specifically in a recent post in which I argued that disagreement should not be thought of as disrespect and beliefs should be thought of as separate from persons (not in any epistemological way). Many people, because they identify so closely with their beliefs and cherish their beliefs, consider any sort of disagreement as a personal attack akin to making horrible statements about one's friends and family members. Many have fooled themselves into the myth that "beliefs deserve respect" and "everyone has the right to their own opinion." This might be a product of post-modernism (or perhaps a "post-post modernism"), religious pluralism (the idea that everyone has a close idea of what God is and everyone is kind of right so they can be saved), a lack of absolute certainty (we can't be totally sure about things), past revision of beliefs we have held, and a koombyah tolerance that might have something to do with inter-faith events.

Whatever the cause, many have taken the bait and claim immunity from challenges to their beliefs. People will try to argue that those who challenge beliefs are doing something wrong and should stop doing so when considering many areas of life although this typically isn't a global phenomena; if someone says that one's favorite restaurant is horrible, for example, this might be permissible, but don't dare challenge religion or oddly enough one's favorite football team!

I completely reject the idea, as you might expect, that beliefs should be respected and that people should have a moral obligation to refrain from challenging beliefs. I have tried, in many situations, to determine what the phrase "respect beliefs" actually means, but the definitions I get are fuzzy and usually boil down to "don't challenge the beliefs of a person." One example that was given in a discussion that was productive and worthwhile was that if a person, for religious reasons, did not consume pork, slipping pork into one's food would be disrespecting beliefs. I don't think this is a matter of disrespecting beliefs at all, but rather being disrespectful of a person. Anyway...

If I am intolerant of anything, one might say that I am intolerant of beliefs because I don't think they deserve any respect. I usually reject this notion of "respecting beliefs" because it seems silly - beliefs have no cognition and can't be offended. I feel the need to challenge beliefs -- while 'picking battles' and being respectful, professional, productive, aiming to generate a positive outcome, and remembering that encounters I have with individuals might be the first or first few encounters with active atheists -- and I don't have to hold back, accommodate religion (or whatever else is the topic of discussion), or compromise my principles to do so. I tackle the arguments with no mercy rather than attacking persons.

In the case of beliefs about an objective reality in which a truth can be discerned (or not), a proposition is either backed by evidence, argument, and reason or it is not backed by evidence, argument, and reason. We might be able to offer an infinite amount of competing explanations for any given phenomena (faeries really generate the electricity in your lightbulbs... but they are invisible...and they are shy, so when you try to detect them they teleport away), but we can weigh competing explanations and even if we can't 'disprove' or 'prove' certain explanations we can determine, in many cases, what is most reasonable to believe based on the given evidence and criteria of adequacy such as testability, scope, fruitfulness, conservatism, and simplicity. 

In the case of "right to opinion," it might be the case that one has a legal right to believe something (a government won't arrest someone for holding a belief), but why should one have immunity from challenges to the beliefs that he/she holds and why should challenging beliefs be viewed as immoral? I will concede some points here to clear some confusion - I do not advocate that challenging beliefs is permissible in every situation and acknowledge that 'battles should be picked.' For example, it's probably a really bad idea and would be quite silly to run into funeral homes saying "You loved one is not with God!" or running into nursery homes and looking for rooms with crosses in them to tell people "You're not going to Heaven!" I also don't believe that everyone should be required to defend their beliefs (although people with high influence and especially those who voice their opinions really should and should be held to higher standards than laypersons...and 1 Peter 3:15 tells Christians to give a defense to those who ask for it). Regardless, people should have justification for their beliefs.

In a general situation, and especially in those in which someone brings up a topic such as astrology into a conversation, there should be no problem if one challenges the belief that a month one is born in influences his/her personality (especially when there is no scientific consensus supporting astrological beliefs and and a great deal of counter-evidence). I have uttered this following phrase many times, "If you don't want to talk about it, why bring it up?" A fellow friend of mine named Ashley knows I am a skeptic and an atheist, but she continues to ask me questions about topics (this is a good thing!) when she knows how I will answer...and then she gets angry when I answer. One such conversation went like this: "What do you think about astrology?" "I don't think the position of the stars have anything to do with your personality" and she was angered after saying "Oh, there you go again!"

In more general situations in which someone challenges beliefs you hold there should be no problems whatsoever with responding to criticism. A few weeks ago, I was selling candy bars for a fundraiser for my atheist group and an autism benefit group. A person in the room who is a theist, doesn't like the fact that I am an atheist, or a combination of both, said something similar to "I don't want to give money to a group of people who believe in nothing and believe they are going nowhere when they die." In the past, this person has made similar informed and ridiculous statements about atheists and when he is challenged he says "I don't want to talk about it" or otherwise exits the conversation in some manner. Apparently, for people like this, it is impermissible to challenge their beliefs, but they can make uninformed and ridiculous comments about others' beliefs and then claim immunity from follow-up discussion.

If I am going to be respectful of persons, aim to have a fair discussion, act professionally, and be charitable, what is so 'bad' about me holding an opinion that is different than yours and voicing it? Can't we simply talk about the issues and try to understand why we disagree? Why should I feel some moral obligation to sit down and shut up just because I don't agree with you?

Philosopher John Locke had argued that truthful propositions can stand inquiry and should be subjected to inquiry, but it's often the case that positions that can least stand inquiry are the ones that people frequently argue should be immune from inquiry [for fear of a person being offended]. It may be very difficult to convince many people that ideas should be subjected to criticism [for very good reasons that are mostly beneficial to the person holding a particular belief].

Challenging beliefs is beneficial because it allows people who are open-minded honest thinkers to carefully consider their positions, hear objections they may have never heard, and ultimately hold more justified beliefs and less unjustified beliefs. If we find that our beliefs happen to be wrong, we can correct our beliefs and be right in the future.

I refuse to 'sit down and shut up' and am 'intolerant of beliefs' in the sense of me not wanting to pay respect to them. I especially should not 'respect beliefs' that are responsible for a great amount of harm, are unsubstantiated, or are perpetuating falsehoods. Regardless of the harm a belief may or may not cause or whether a person acts on certain beliefs (even though beliefs inform actions), I am not going to 'leave beliefs alone' just because people claim that I have some moral responsibility to do so. In a general sense and barring special circumstances, I see no reason that should lead me to the conclusion that challenging one's cherished beliefs is improper.