August 27, 2014

The Right to Believe

Nest of the flamingo according to old beliefs
Nest of the flamingo according to old beliefs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We hear quite a bit about one's right to believe certain things these days. I'm not sure why this is such a popular subject. It is almost as if many people are convinced that this right was somehow in jeopardy. But it is not in any jeopardy. None whatsoever. Nobody can take away your right to believe whatever you want. And as far as I can tell, nobody is trying to do so.

We all have the right to believe whatever we want, no matter how wrong we may be. Beliefs, just like all our other thoughts, are our own. They are private unless we decide to make them public. Nobody else can even know what we believe unless we choose to express it.

We do not have the right to express our beliefs without consequence, and we certainly do not have the right to act upon our beliefs without consequence. When someone wears a "god hates fags" t-shirt to a job interview with a politically progressive company, he or she is unlikely to get the job. If I list "atheist activist" under special skills on my resume, I won't get the job. When someone acts on his or her beliefs by shouting racial slurs at persons of color through a megaphone, he or she will probably face some negative consequences for his or her behavior. These consequences are about how one is expressing or acting on one's beliefs and not the beliefs themselves.

I suspect that the reason we hear so much about one's right to one's beliefs is that some people - especially some religious people - refuse to distinguish between the private beliefs that occupy their thoughts and what they do or say. That is, some people equate holding a belief with expressing it or acting upon it.

We have the right to believe whatever we want. We can believe things that have no connection to reality whatsoever if we want (e.g., creationism). While we cannot reasonably expect to be able to express or act on such beliefs without ever experiencing consequences we consider undesirable, we remain perfectly free to believe what we want. We just need to remember that believing something, no matter how strongly we may believe it, does not make it true. We can always be wrong.

Many religious believers are fond of claiming that atheists are infringing upon their right to believe, but this isn't the case. We recognize that they are perfectly free to retain beliefs that do not reflect reality. Those of us who still care about separation of church and state merely want these believers to stop trying to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us.