human rights nonsense

Human Rights Nonsense (41): A Right to Believe

Stephan Lochner, ca. 1410-1451, The martyrdom of St. John the evangelist

Stephan Lochner, ca. 1410-1451, The martyrdom of St. John the evangelist. A martyr for his beliefs, St. John was apprehended by the proconsul of Asia and sent to Rome in the year 95, where he was miraculously preserved from death when thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil.

The right to believe as such isn’t nonsensical at all, on the contrary. Even “natural enemies” of religious freedom – atheists and religious fundamentalists – should be able to see the value of a right to religious belief and religious practice: freedom of religion means plurality of religion, and plurality of religion in turn fosters plurality of views in general, something which atheists should be able to appreciate. And I’ve argued here how even religious fundamentalists should – in theorie – espouse religious liberty. In short, a right to believe in the sense of religious freedom is crucial to human life. (The same is true, of course, of a right to believe in its wider meaning, namely freedom of thought).

What is nonsensical is this interpretation of the meaning of the right to believe:

Here is a true story. A young philosophy lecturer — let us call him Shane — is charged with the task of introducing young minds to the wonders of philosophy. His course, a standard Introduction to Philosophy, contains a section on the philosophy of religion: the usual arguments-for-and-against-the-existence-of-God stuff. One of Shane’s students complains to Shane’s Dean that his cherished religious beliefs are being attacked. ‘I have a right to my beliefs,’ the student claims. Shane’s repeated interrogations of those beliefs amounts to an attack on this right to believe. Shane’s institution is not a particularly enlightened one. The Dean concurs with the student, and instructs Shane to desist in teaching philosophy of religion. (source, source)

A right to believe doesn’t include a right not to be challenged or criticized. (Here’s another case in which religious believers claim that their rights restricts the freedom of speech of their criticizers). A right to believe is only actionable when outside forces destroy your beliefs; criticism is not such a force. If criticism changes your beliefs, it’s you who changes them, not the criticizer. If, on the other hand, we’re dealing with indoctrination, a lobotomy or another forceful modification of belief, your right to believe becomes actionable.

More human rights nonsense.


5 thoughts on “Human Rights Nonsense (41): A Right to Believe

  1. Yes, Filip, I agree. It is important that there is freedom to debate and criticise religion and belief. It can be very dangerous when religions attempts to restrict freedom of speech for fear of criticism/challenge.

  2. Isn’t a ‘belief’ – in the sense of religious faith – something which is supposed to be immune from ‘attack’?

    It’s not just religious ‘belief’. I can ‘believe’ jazz is the best musical genre by far. If someone points out jazz music rarely makes it into the charts they are not threatening my belief.

    This is different to asserting something is objectively true – and asserting it in public. In that case I am entering the arena of public debate where we are all open to ‘attacks’.

    In today’s dumbed down world millions of people are no longer capable of understanding the difference between a personal belief / opinion and making a claim of objective truth.

    • Belief is, I guess, resistant to persuasion, argument and fact. Yet the fear of the person cited points towards greater fragility. Whatever, a right to believe does still not imply a duty to refrain from criticism, discussion or pointing out facts.

      • “..Yet the fear of the person cited points towards greater fragility…”

        I re-read the source article. There is no mention of any fear.

        Instead (if we break it down) we have a case of someone with a faith-based belief going to a third party and getting them to force the lecturer to not say anything which contradicts that belief.

        In other words it is the *student* who is forcing his beliefs onto the lecturer, and in turn onto the rest of the class as well. His belief system obviously includes the belief that he has the moral right – and perhaps even the moral obligation – to behave this way (to impose his beliefs onto others).

        I wonder what he will be like when he grows up?

  3. Everyone should be free to believe in whatever they wish. I suppose the discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance is just too unbearable for some. Of course, it’s easy to feel that one’s beliefs are directly under attack if strong physical discomfort is felt.

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