In the interest of not writing an entire book about it, I decided to break up last Monday’s post into two parts. Last week, for those of you whose fingers are too atrophied to click on the link provided, I talked about why I’m not content to simply leave people alone to believe whatever they want. The basic thrust of my refutation was that it’s a total myth that people keep their beliefs to themselves. Some people most assuredly keep their personal beliefs about God, or medicine, or whatever completely to themselves and you’d never know what they think. Part of the problem is that those people don’t seem to want to want to speak out against those who might share their beliefs, but who want to force those beliefs on others through the passing of laws.
There’s another part to why I am not content to leave people alone to believe whatever unsubstantiated nonsense (and I probably believe in a lot of unsubstantiated nonsense myself) they want, and it is a bit more abstract and philosophical. As such, I am going to resort to one of my favourite tactics: allegory.
Imagine for a moment that you are the only human person in existence. You have complete and total autonomy, since your actions affect you and you alone. You are perfectly free, therefore, to believe that the birds are sent from the gods to nourish you, that the moon is made of green cheese, and that your farts smell like rainbows. It doesn’t matter. You exist in an entirely valueless world, except insofar as you need to do whatever it takes to keep yourself alive. If those beliefs help you achieve some happiness, then go for it.
Now imagine that another person (Eve) pops into existence. She has her own set of beliefs – that birds are winged tools of the devil, the moon is the eye of Horus, and that your farts are quite disgusting. You have two options at this point if you wish to keep your faith intact: you can either completely cut yourself off from Eve so as to preserve your beliefs through ignorance, or you can convert her to your way of thinking. However, it turns out that you and Eve need each other to live. She’s the only one who has the capability to get fresh drinking water, and only you can gather food (for whatever reason). As a result, you can’t simply abandon her.
Eve stubbornly refuses to adopt your beliefs simply on your say-so. “Okay,” you say “Eve and I will simply have to agree to disagree about birds, be indifferent to the moon, and I will try to disguise my farts.” In this way, you are able to co-exist with Eve because you’ve kept your beliefs to yourself. Great! Well, it’s great until Eve gets sick, and the only food you can find is the birds you are able to shoot. Eve, however, won’t bring herself to touch the flesh of the devil’s creations, and would rather die than eat. That’s all well and good for her, but if she dies so do you.
How do we resolve this conundrum? Eve is simply exercising her right to believe as she likes, but in such a way as puts your life at risk. Does her right to believe preclude your right to live? Since (for the sake of this allegory) you are the only one who can get food, doesn’t she have a duty to you in the same way that you have a duty to her for providing you with water? Even if you don’t buy the whole “duty” argument, wouldn’t the world be a better place for both of you if Eve was to abandon her belief in devil birds?
There’s a very simple answer to this problem: look at the evidence. Why does Eve think birds are from the devil? Eve says it’s because only demonic power can explain their ability to fly through the air, whilst a rock falls to the Earth (the way all of God’s creatures should). Luckily, you are able to demonstrate through your advanced knowledge of physics the exact principle by which birds achieve flight. Furthermore, you point out other animals, like bats, that can fly. You also show her examples like flying fish and flying squirrels that don’t fly as such, but might represent “transitional forms” between land animals and flying animals. While you can’t ever prove that the devil doesn’t exist, there is no evidence that he does. Furthermore, there is a lot of reasonable evidence to suggest that birds fly for reasons that have nothing to do with magic or evil.
Joy of joys! Eve agrees to eat, based on your rational explanation of a process that isn’t based on a belief in the non-demonic nature of birds, but on verifiable facts and observation. Did you prove that the devil didn’t make birds? No, and of course that’s impossible. You just provided a better explanation that is supported by facts rather than superstition.
What does this have to do with anything? Here’s the thesis of the post: when different beliefs are in conflict, we can use logic and evidence to establish the truth. Not wanting to get into a ridiculous discussion of “what is truth?”, I will simply define it as what happens in the world whether you believe in it or not. I might not believe that anything exists unless I am aware of it, but if someone sneaks up on me and hits me with a cream pie, my lack of belief in them doesn’t make me look any less foolish.
While the “why can’t you let people believe what they want” fallacy is appealing, it is based on the flawed assumption that you exist in a world completely unconnected from any other human person. If you act on a belief, and it comes into conflict with someone else’s beliefs, there must be a resolution. The only fair way to resolve such conflicts is to look at the world around you and establish some facts. If your beliefs come into conflict with the facts, and the practice of your beliefs affects someone else, the burden is on you to either show how the facts are incorrect or to change your beliefs (which is a lot easier to do when they’re just ideas). To do otherwise is to insist that the world must revolve around your beliefs, despite the fact that they are not based on anything besides your own prejudice.
I’m perfectly happy to allow people to have whatever belief makes it easier to sleep at night (or to borrow a phrase, “whatever lifts your luggage“) only up until your beliefs and mine come into conflict. At that point, we need to have some standard by which to measure which belief is substantiated by reality. The world is a complex place, and we have to live in it with each other. Don’t we deserve real answers to tough questions, rather than allowing prejudice and superstition to ruin our lives?