Beliefs about belief.

When faced with believers, nonbelievers tend to be as accommodating as possible, and to confront as little as possible. I think this is mostly part of the whole sanctity strategy that people in a minority group naturally adopt when they are in groups (“we don’t mean to harm you, we’re inoffensive, we just want to get along”). But this sort of attitude often leads one to say very absurd things indeed.

I can recall one particular occasion, when I was listening to an atheist Internet show ( which I will not name so as to not embarass them further) and one of the hosts said:

It’s okay to hold any belief you want, as long as you don’t act on it.

The host said it with the intent of appearing tolerant of other people’s beliefs, and setting “reasonable limits.” But if you think about it, it just comes off as plain insane. How can one hold a belief without acting on it? In order to accomplish this, one would have to be either mentally deficient or plain faking.

If I actually believed that a loaf of bread you had brought to my house was poisonous and deadly, would you berate me for refusing to eat of it, but not for believing it’s poisonous? If my belief is “okay,” then how can I be faulted for acting on it? Believing what I did, eating the bread would have reflected either mental incapacitation or plain faking on my part.

All of our actions are predicated on propositions, which includes beliefs. If not, then what could actions possibly be based on? To say that it’s okay to believe something but not to act on it, is to live in a fantasy world where there are beliefs on one side, and there is a “self” on the other side. Following such a policy would turn anyone, religious or non-religious, out of their minds.

What does “Separation of Church and State” mean? That politicians should not act in accordance with their religious beliefs. Then what should they act on? On your beliefs? On the beliefs of the majority? Why would anyone act on someone else’s beliefs?

A more common form of disconnection is the famous maxim “hate the sin, not the sinner,” promoted by religious people. A secular equivalent would be the diplomatic attitude, “it’s not you we’re against, we’re against religion.”

Yet it is hard to understand how one can make such a distinction. How can a religion be an ongoing concern without people who believe in it and act on it? How can sin exist without sinners?

This is not to say that we should not be diplomatic towards believers. That’s not the point, though. The point is that we must keep in mind that every individual in a society that gives sanction or legitimacy to a belief system, participates in its continued existence. And that applies to all belief systems existing, without exception. If you are against a belief system, then you must necessarily be against its concrete expression in the believer’s mind.

Seen from a more detached perspective, this attitude seems to me rather arrogant. It exhorts the believer not to take it personally when you attack his most cherished beliefs, because he’s just a poor sap caught in a memetic trap. We know that’s true, of course, but he doesn’t. And he’ll take it personally. That’s just how people are.

A much more fruitful approach in talking to believers, is to assume that they take all their beliefs seriously, and then examine the consequences of those beliefs (such as, for instance, using people’s innate belief in right and wrong against the moral relativism of Christianity or the State). Telling them that you don’t assume they take their beliefs seriously is just childish, and not an attitude a nonbeliever should have, however “tolerant” it makes you look.

2 thoughts on “Beliefs about belief.

  1. esun67 December 15, 2007 at 01:44

    Not until the end of this essay is it clear that you might be referring to God or even a Christian belief set (a sly implication on the ‘state’ as such too, kudos).

    Without getting into a Sam Harrisesque critique of the moral dimensions of belief, it might be appropriate to be less severe about the consequences of the original statement on the show (acting on one’s own beliefs)and draw an analogy into banal moral bantering of the typical fool.

    Have you ever heard someone say, I don’t care what you do in the bedroom as long as you keep it there ? While this may be the prototype attitude of the typical homophobe, it is a common place appeal for tolerance and implicit preference none the less. And while this might not be acceptable to the highly versed and critical thinker, the logical and epistemological implications are certainly not foremost in the commenter’s purpose. Granted the implications are not as clear as the original example.

    Clearly such an atheist favors a humble and polite believer in a world all too often handled with hamfists and recriminating encounters bolstered by the enthusiasm of the initiate. Thus the incautious comment is not a broad moral conclusion so much as a misplaced sympathy.

  2. kentmcmanigal December 15, 2007 at 19:58

    I don’t care what anyone else believes as long as they do not try to make me live as though I hold the same beliefs.

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