December 18, 2014

Being a Better Believer

English: A Raelian discussing his beliefs with...
A Raelian discussing his beliefs with a passerby in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"Everybody has the right to believe what they want." This statement, while accurate, is practically nonsensical. It isn't like anyone can prevent another person from believing whatever he or she wants. This is a "right" that is never in any real jeopardy of being impinged upon.

When people make statements like this, they generally mean something a bit different from what they say. They may mean that all beliefs are worthy of respect (they aren't), that religious beliefs should be immune to criticism (they shouldn't), or that all beliefs not readily falsifiable are somehow equally valid (they aren't).

While we each have the right to our own beliefs, we must recognize a couple of hard truths about what we believe. First, believing something does not make it true. Many beliefs are false, and the fact that many people hold false beliefs does not make these beliefs any less false. Reality is not determined by popularity. Second, some beliefs are harmful to the believer, to others, or both. Beliefs can involve bigotry, prejudice, bias, intolerance, and even hate. Such beliefs fuel tribalism, cruelty, discrimination, violence, and other adverse outcomes. Beliefs of this sort can be toxic. The belief in demonic possession readily comes to mind as an example, but there are countless others.

Rather than obsess about our "right to believe," we should devote more time and effort to learning how to maximize true beliefs and minimize false ones. That is, we should seek to believe things that are true and jettison false beliefs. Similarly, we should seek to identify and minimize harmful beliefs. And in both of these endeavors, reason, critical thinking, skepticism, and science are helpful.

Yes, we do have the right to hold false and/or harmful beliefs. But why would we want to? Because of tradition? Because they comfort us? To fit in with others? These are poor reasons for maintaining any sort of belief; they are especially poor reasons for maintaining beliefs that are false and/or harmful.

Far too often, we start with a belief, become emotionally attached to it, seek evidence to confirm it, and hastily reject evidence that runs contrary to it. This is how faith works and helps explain why faith is not a valid means of acquiring knowledge. While we do not always have the luxury of critically evaluating all the evidence prior to forming a belief, we would be far better off if we could learn to challenge what we believe, seeking evidence that we might be wrong and modifying our beliefs when they are found to be lacking. Doing so would make us much better believers and far more rational.
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