What Beliefs Should Be Respected? Part II17 June 2008
Unlike the last post that focused mainly on scientific ideas, this final part of my two-part series will focus on socio-political beliefs, as well as religious beliefs. I want to preface this post by saying I am not in favor of the government or any other entity censoring (or getting involved with in any sense) any of the beliefs that I do not respect except in certain cases which I will discuss later.
While a free-flow of ideas is a very important part of an open society, there are still certain types of beliefs that do not warrant the same sort of respect that others do. Some of these are strictly social, political, and religious in nature. Others however claim to use scientific evidence to support certain types of social messages and goals.
One such belief that does not deserve to be taken seriously is the idea that certain races are more highly evolved, and thus “fitter” than others. Historically, the most prevalent type of racism in the Western world has been whites (traditionally western and northern-European) looking down on other races, especially blacks. While this idea that non-white races are not as fit, and thus should be excluded and separated from the “pure” race, has mostly been demonstrated in social and political issues, many of those who hold to this belief have used “science” to back up their belief. Of course, science did NOT back up their beliefs, so they used faulty data in order to make the claim that their beliefs were scientifically correct. By manipulating scientific data, racists have attempted to mainstream their beliefs. Such manipulation is often a characteristic of beliefs that don’t really deserve the respect those who subscribe to them claim that they do. However, this is not the only reason that certain beliefs need not be respected. That said, the dishonesty of many racists is not the only reasons their ideas should be discounted.
Beliefs are not always simply abstract concepts that have no real-world consequence. Some ways of thinking can lead to truly terrible consequences. Others can lead to amazing discoveries. That said, should beliefs that cause harm to others be discounted without further consideration? It depends. There are many types of “harm” that we can discuss. The first is physical. There are many beliefs, mostly of the radical sort, that lead people towards harming others. Some such beliefs stem from fundamentalist religious beliefs, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Scientologist. The most obvious example is the suicide-bombings that occur in the Middle East, but other examples of religiously-motivated “harm” include radical Christians bombing abortion clinics. However, it is not the religious belief itself that is the problem in this case (although I do believe that religious belief in general can be a problem), it is the fundamentalist aspect of the belief. Because of the tendency that fundamentalist beliefs have to incite violence in their followers, I view them as problematic. This idea of “fundamentalism” goes beyond religious beliefs to fundamentalist social and political beliefs. Any belief that makes it so its followers are unwilling to maintain at least a possibility of being incorrect is problematic.
The second type of harm is mental or, what some would call “spiritual”. However, I think it’s important to distinguish between true mental harm and false harm. While it may be difficult to see how beliefs can be responsible for the first type, it is not hard to think of at least one example. The beliefs of many cults require members to submit to a range of practices that are derived from those beliefs. Some of these actions can have long-term psychological effects, and as such, cultish beliefs which usually contain the fundamentalist aspect of beliefs discussed earlier, as well as the dishonesty discussed earlier can be truly harmful, and do not warrant the same sort of respect from others.
Now, the question of government interference. When should the government get involved with legislating beliefs? Ideally I would say that it shouldn’t at all. That said, there are a couple times when I believe intervention is warranted. The first involves physical harm. In a perfect world, if a needless death occured, despite the reason the punishment would be the same. However, religious beliefs often get a free pass from government in the US (See my post Bad Parenting). Because of this, I believe laws should be clear. Child abuse/neglect (as well as other crimes that involve harm of some sort) should be dealt with the same no matter which religion the parents belong to, and no matter the supposed reasons behind the actions. The same can be said for psychological harm. Now, for a concrete example.
The behavior of the parents in this post was based on a fundamentalist religious belief: that faith-healing works in place of scientific medicine. This belief is based both on dishonesty and fundamentalist thinking, and it clearly has more than the potential to cause harm. These characteristics, to me, make it unworthy of the respect that other beliefs warrant. Now, that is not to say I do not respect beliefs that I disagree with. There are a lot of beliefs that I respect, in that I have no real issue with people believing them, that I also disagree with. Some people believe abortion is wrong. I disagree but I really don’t have a huge problem with pro-lifers, unless they take it to the extreme of harming those who disagree. It’s not so much the belief that is the problem, it’s the consequences of the belief, as well as how one supports a certain belief.