"It's amazing how much 'mature wisdom' resembles being too tired." --Robert Heinlein

The Church of Reality




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Respecting Beliefs?

I've been wondering lately about the topic of respecting beliefs. It seems that respecting beliefs is at issue most often when the particular beliefs in question don't deserve respect, because there is no empirical or logical support for them. It also seems that respecting beliefs is at issue most often when the particular believers are insecure about their beliefs, again perhaps because those particular beliefs don't deserve respect.

For example, I don't often hear people who believe in evolution complaining about a lack of respect for their beliefs. I do often hear about people who believe in creationism complaining about a lack of respect for their beliefs. Evolution happens to be the more empirically observable and logical of the two beliefs, and therefore deserves more respect than creationism, yet the creationists are the ones demanding respect.

It appears to me that when a person demands respect for his or her beliefs, it is usually because those beliefs are obviously wrong.

Given these observations, I don't see why I should respect beliefs. If somebody is actively espousing a stupid belief, I don't think he or she deserves respect, I think he or she deserves to be corrected.

There are more or less polite ways of correcting stupidity, but when people demand respect for their beliefs, they usually mean that you shouldn't correct their beliefs at all. By labeling something "belief", they expect others to leave it alone. And they expect others to leave it alone, because they realize that they have no reasonable defense for that belief.


So why do people bother to hold beliefs they can not defend against logic or empirical reality? Why do they care so much about these beliefs?

One reason to hold unsubstantiated beliefs is to facilitate rapid decision-making, because every day humans must make a variety of decisions without fully investigating all the relevant data, without fully understanding the probability distribution of the potential outcomes. For example, I believe that my Starbucks latte is not poison. I believe that the Metro car I board will take me to work without incident. I believe that Tod is not cheating on me when he says he must stay late at the office or the gym ;-)

Another reason to hold unsubstantiated beliefs is to avoid facing unpleasant facts or unknowable states. For example, a person believes that his beloved leaders are saintly, or that his children would never use illegal drugs. A person believes in life after death, and that such an afterlife will be spent in Heaven.

Another reason to hold unsubstantiated beliefs is to avoid feeling stupid, especially compared to others who claim to know something. Rather than admitting that he doesn't know something, he holds (or instantly creates) a belief of his own about it.

Another reason to hold unsubstantiated beliefs is to ensure group membership. Many groups define themselves according to shared beliefs. People generally feel happier and lead healthier lives when they belong to one or more mutually supportive groups, so people will often hold the beliefs shared by their reference groups simply because they are shared by the group.

There might be more reasons ... but I don't see why any of these reasons require that we respect beliefs, that we avoid correcting or even questioning beliefs. We could simply admit that many of our beliefs don't deserve respect, but that we hold them anyway, because that's what humans do. Humans believe.


I think the demand to respect a belief is really a demand to respect the believer, to grant the believer a power that nobody actually has: the power to create reality through the magical force of belief. If you take away their belief, you've destroyed their power, you've destroyed their make-believe (made-by-belief) reality.

Furthermore, people often believe that their beliefs would come true if only enough people agreed with them ... so they spend a great deal of energy trying to export their beliefs into other people's heads.

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