Saturday, 3 February 2007

Belief is not enough

If someone said he wanted someone locked away because he believed the person posed a threat to him, would we allow him to do that, or even help him just because that was his belief? Of course not. And in anticipation of those raging cries of “Are you calling me a liar!”, we can calmly remind them everyone can make an honest mistake. People can sincerely hold a belief but nonetheless get it wrong. There is nothing problematic with that unless someone starts to behave as if his belief is all that matters in how he behaves.

If we permit people to do whatever they want on the basis of what they happen to believe – regardless of the evidence available – then chaos beckons. Beliefs can be spectacularly wrong. People can believe utterly harmless individuals to be the most dangerous enemies who must be struck down. People can believe that they have a uniquely correct view of what the social order must be and others must conform to it or face retribution. People can believe the deranged voices in their heads to be divine commands to bring misery or even death to others.

Sadly when a few rhetorical speeches about the pride and glory of someone’s unshakeable belief ring out, all too many people start to hesitate about challenging the behaviour of the believer and his followers. Worse still, they even fall backwards and concede that their sincere belief gives them a right to act in accordance with their beliefs.

For centuries, women, children, those in poverty, racial minorities, have been mistreated by others who hide behind their self-righteous belief that they have God, tradition, or whatever else they want to invoke on their side. But the stupidity, nastiness, callousness, in how they deal with those weaker than themselves are as real as their deeply held beliefs are erroneous.

The post-modern anti-enlightenment culture which embraces any kind of groundless belief totally beyond the validation of objective evidence, so long as the belief is held faithfully has enabled people to brush aside restrictions to their actions, however misguided and harmful these may be.

Children can be taught that human babies first arrived on earth courtesy of a few mysterious storks or created through any equally absurd means with no reference to actual biological processes. Girls and women can be instructed to be submissive and let the men folks take charge of the public as well as the private domains. People who resent the aggressive stance of groups who pick on their appearances or private behaviour can be told to accept their lot. All this can go on so long as someone says “In good faith, that is what I believe.”

No, no, and no again. Belief is not enough. Beliefs which cannot be justified – and let’s not forget, the grander the claims contained in a belief, the higher the critical threshold should be set for its validation, not lower – have no place in paving the way for ill-conceived and hurtful activities in society. And the next time you hear people try to hide behind “But my belief transcends evidence”, tell them they can indulge in their groundless belief so long as they do not try to ruin other people’s lives in its name.

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