Freedom to believe

Does it matter if people subscribe to significant beliefs that have little evidence in their favour or are most certainly wrong?


Published by Dr Michael Heap

In my previous blog I discussed what it is that links all the diverse beliefs (I actually referred to claims and ideas) that sceptics choose to challenge and criticise. In summary I noted (i) that they are widely held; (ii) that if they were true then there would be enormous consequences for our understanding of the world; and (iii) that there is inadequate evidence to support them.

A fair question to ask is how much it matters if people subscribe to significant beliefs that have little evidence in their favour or are most certainly wrong. Some beliefs are of great personal significance for people and help them make sense of their lives, as with religious and spiritual beliefs, or they make life more interesting and exciting, as with the belief that we are being visited by extra-terrestrial beings. In a free society people have a right to believe what they do; moreover it might be seen as arrogant and insulting to one’s spend time and energy attacking people’s beliefs just because one thinks that they are wrong.

These are reasonable questions. Now and again I come across articles in the sceptical literature reporting surveys of beliefs and bemoaning the fact that such-and-such a percentage of the population believe in the Biblical account of creation or ghosts or fairies or astrology and so on. I must confess to taking all of this in my stride. Let me explain further.

In his novel 1984 George Orwell wrote: ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows’. So, if you believe that two plus two make four you should be free to do so. And if you act on this accordingly you should not go wrong. But what about the freedom to believe that two plus two make five? Shouldn’t people who believe this also be free to do so?

By their deeds ye shall know them
What exactly is a belief? To answer this question would require much more space than is available here, not least because there are different ways in which we use the term. For example someone may say, ‘I believe in the theory of evolution’, ‘I believe that Susan is a good person’, and ‘I believe murderers should be hanged’. These three statements represent different kinds of belief. Nevertheless the term seems to work well most of the time in everyday life.

How do we know someone believes something? From their behaviour. And most often from their verbal behaviour – what they tell us. For example, someone, let’s call him Fred, says, ‘I believe in astrology’. Does this mean anything more than something that goes on in Fred’s head? Suppose that Fred always reads his horoscope in his daily newspaper (let’s say the Sun). That’s evidence to support his declaration that he believes in astrology, but we really need more evidence, namely that he actually believes what he is reading; Fred may be one of those people who believes his horoscope when it is favourable but dismisses it when it is not. So suppose that one day his horoscope says, ‘This is definitely not a day when you should be taking any risks’. Suppose moreover that Fred had planned to put a £5 bet on a racehorse that day and after reading his horoscope he decides not to go ahead with his bet. Clearly Fred believes in astrology!

Now let’s construct another scenario. Fred is in hospital and is due to have an operation that day which, while important for him, does carry some risks. Suddenly his surgeon arrives on the ward, approaches Fred, and in his best bedside manner says, ‘Fred, I’m sorry. We are going to have to postpone your operation until later this week. I’ve just read your horoscope in the Sun and it says that this is definitely not a day when you should be taking any risks’. Well I can’t say this for certain but I would bet more than Fred’s £5 that he would be, to say the least, gobsmacked. I imagine that he would protest vehemently and demand to see the hospital managers. I wouldn’t hold out much hope that he would continue to have faith in his surgeon.

So, if my hunch is correct, would we now say that Fred believes in astrology? Surely the potential risks of the operation are much graver than those of his betting on a horse?

The fluidity of beliefs
I contend that beliefs are much more flexible and conditional than we often suppose. That is, we may believe something in one context and behave accordingly, even if it simply amounts to stating our belief, but in another context we may behave in a way that indicates that we do not hold that belief.

Why this fluidity in our beliefs? One reason may be that with certain beliefs many people implicitly see no reason to make their minds up about the validity of the belief. For example, if you are committed to science and scientific knowledge then you are unlikely to express any belief in astrology, ghosts, extra-terrestrial visitations, much of alternative medicine, and so on. If you are committed to a certain religion you may also reject some of these ideas and claims. But otherwise, why close the door? For most people it would make little difference to their lives if they came down on one side or another. It is therefore not irrational to leave the door open to the possibility that the claim may be true yet to carry on more or less as if it weren’t. After all, lack of evidence does not logically indicate that the belief is untrue since one day that evidence may present itself in indisputable form and we don’t like changing our beliefs, particularly when we have already publicly announced them.

Let me give an example. In a certain locality known to me people, as in years gone by, have reported sightings of a large cat that they identify as a lynx or panther. (Such sightings are widely reported throughout the British Isles.) Careful scrutiny of the evidence suggests is extremely unlikely that such an animal exists. However the local newspaper has interviewed people who live in this area and many express the opinion that ‘there may be something out there’. They will never be proved wrong and, however unlikely, they may be proved right. Yet none of them is calling for obvious measures to be taken in the interest of public safety – for example the area, a popular one for walkers, to be cordoned off, experts to be called in to track the animal, traps to be set, and so on. (I recall reading in a book about these kinds of sightings the author’s dismay that at one such place people who came to see if they could spot the beast allowed their children to wander around unescorted.)

People who believe that two plus two make five
I contend that a healthy society is one that is able to tolerate as wide a range of ideas, beliefs and practices as possible. It is thus a cause for celebration that there are so many people in our country who, against all the evidence, are prepared to entertain such a rich variety of unusual beliefs. So, are people who believe that two plus two make five to be allowed the same degree of freedom as those who believe that the answer is four?

In my previous blog I pointed to a fourth characteristic of unusual beliefs, namely that those who promote them are often making the claim to possess some special knowledge in an important area of life and this represents a claim for power and influence. Hence I do not, for a start, think that people who believe that two plus two make five should be allowed to teach mathematics or, for that matter, any science subjects in our schools. And if it is their religious teachings that require them to believe that two plus two make five, then I am sorry - it’s just too bad!