Friday, April 17, 2009

The Right to Believe

It’s a common expression: “People have a right to believe what they believe.”

But do they? I think it’s time we distinguished between honest disagreement and willful ignorance.

“Honest” disagreement implies that the parties have made—and continue to make—a good faith effort to learn the truth about something. They may not understand the whole truth—who among us really understands the “whole truth” about anything?—but they have exerted some intellectual effort to learn, evaluate, and come to tentative conclusions.

I say “tentative” conclusions, because being honest implies being open to the possibility that there may be more to learn and understand. It means giving up the smug complacency of having everything all figured out and allowing for doubt. Intelligent, honest people always have doubts. People with intellectual integrity can tolerate uncertainty. They live at the edge of what they understand—not smack in the middle of some so-called “reality” they’ve constructed out of blind faith and other people’s ideas.

“Blind” faith is oh, so easy, so simple. Swallow this pill and life will be simple. No effort required.

What started me off on this particular rant was the death of a friend—a friend who died of a well-understood, curable illness. Her husband, too, died in his thirties of a curable illness. They belonged to a religion that told them that God would cure them if He chose. Their two sons, who had lost a brother, had now lost both parents.

My friend kept quiet about her disease, so no one outside her immediate family knew she was sick until she was gone. That was the “willful” part of her ignorance. She confided only in people who believed as she chose to believe and would not encourage her to get medical intervention.

Do people have a right to believe stupid things? Do they have a right to willfully blind themselves to arguments that might cause them doubt or confusion? I think not—for the simple reason that no one’s life is really his or her own. All of us are bonded to others who will be hurt and diminished if we are hurt and diminished.

I think people have a moral obligation to think with their minds, not their emotions. It’s one thing to decide what we want to believe (i.e., make an emotional decision) and then use our perfectly good brain to rationalize that belief—trimming the corners of truth so it fits into the round hole of our belief system. It’s quiet another to come to grips with what we have to believe—groping our way forward, moving from one rational idea to another, acknowledging that life is too complex for our entire view of it ever to be “finished.”

Is there a God who plays games with people by hiding truths and punishing those who miss them—who, as one so-called Christian once told me, hides dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith? What an evil deity that would be. And why, pray tell, would anyone want to worship him?


Anonymous said...

I agree that other people's beliefs can seem stupid, but how else do we get through life except to decide what we will believe and go forward. I offer my smpathies on the lost of your friend. But if she had compromised her religious views, maybe the mental agony she suffered would have made her life less enjoyable. I am interested in the move now to remove protections from doctors who do not want to perform abortions. Abortion is a legal procedure so they definitely won't be prosecuted for performing them. However, if s/he objects on moral grounds, should a doctor be required to perform a procedure simply because it is legal. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about an emergency situation. Just talking about your routine abortion.

Citizen Jane said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your points are well taken. We can’t tell people what to believe—and besides, as the old saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” But from the standpoint of moral values, I believe that we’re responsible for what we choose to believe—and sometimes the morally correct thing to do is to doubt or to relinquish beliefs that no longer fit the evidence. (This is not something we teach children in school!)

The example you raise about the abortion question is an excellent example of why we have to be able to have dispassionate, rational discussions about moral issues (rather than em-passioned arguments that just go endlessly around in circles). Few issues can ever be resolved by law “once and for all.” There are almost always cases in which judgments must be made (which is why we need courts and judges). Should a case arise in which a woman’s legal right to choose is in opposition to a physician’s right to act in accordance with his or her moral principles, compromises must be found and decisions made that honor, to the greatest extent possible, each person’s values. No amount of legislation is going to completely eliminate all possibility of things being decided on a case-by-case basis.

Getting back to your main point—clearly we do have to start with some set of core beliefs and “go forward.” It’s the “going forward” part that so many people seem to have trouble with! I think we have to accept—and teach our children to accept—that if we’re honest, time and experience will force us to change many of our core beliefs. (Clearly, that notion wouldn’t set well will many religious institutions, which rely on their members taking a great deal of their core values from a predetermined script based on “blind faith.”)

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments!