Who are we to tell them what to believe?
“Who are we to tell people what to believe?”
“You can’t arrest me any more than you can any priest or preacher; all I’m doing is giving people hope.”
“It’s not about fixing things; it’s about belief.”
These are all lines from TV shows that I find very frustrating. One, they’re incorrect, and two, they’re condescending – and while they’re being condescending, they’re pretending to be enlightened and tolerant. But it’s not their fault they’ve got it backwards. I had better begin at the beginning.
“Who are we to tell people what to believe?” is the question. The answer is “other people, who have just as much information as they do about how the world functions.” We tell people what to believe all the time. If someone asks you for directions to the library, you don’t say, “who am I to tell you what to believe?” You say, “two blocks down on the left.” If someone says Mozambique is in Europe, you don’t say, “It’s not about fixing things; it’s about belief.” You say, “No, Mozambique is in Africa.” If the CFO being tried for false representation says, “all I’m doing is giving people hope,” you don’t say “gee, I guess we’ll have to let you go.” You say “no, you’re giving them a false sense of security.” The key word here is “false.”
Belief about God, like belief about anything else, is about truth and falsity. Saying “I believe Texas exists” is the same as saying “I think ‘Texas exists’ is true.” Saying “I believe in Marie” is (roughly) saying “I think Marie represents herself truly and/or is capable of fulfilling this role.” You either have good reason to believe Texas exists, or you don’t. You can be wrong about Texas existing. If you think Texas exists, and I think it doesn’t, we can’t both be right. None of this changes when you change “Texas exists” to “God exists,” or Marie to God. It is a question of truth or falsity, and by the laws of logic, if I think God exists and you think he doesn’t, only one of us is right.
So why are the characters at the beginning claiming that this contradiction isn’t a problem, that it can’t be discussed or debated or argued over like a normal proposition? The first explanation is that they don’t think there’s any proof on one side or the other. The first problem with this explanation is that nearly every human who’s ever lived has had an opinion on the subject, and some sort of reason for it. Most of these characters have not bothered examining the evidence for these claims. Secondly, even if valid, this point wouldn’t make all religious beliefs acceptable; it would make all religious stances except agnosticism illogical. But most of these characters aren’t agnostics, either, and don’t take this stance.
The only answer that I can come up with, then, is that these people don’t think the question really matters that much; it’s not worth arguing over. There is a vague notion in the back of the speakers’ minds that people don’t hold religious beliefs because they think them true; they hold them because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy and safe inside, or helps them connect with other people, or pleases their parents. (I swear I wrote this before Mark Zuckerberg said that facebook was an alternative to church because it creates community.) And so, even if religion makes people think kind of kooky things at times, these people smile and nod and agree in the name of tolerance.
But this is tolerance done backwards, the same sort of tolerance you give a child’s make-believe: you don’t correct it, because you’re not taking it seriously. If your child was wrong about something you thought mattered, like the way to school or the rules about shouting in the house, you would certainly correct her. The greatest compliment, then, the original compliment you can pay to another person’s worldview, is to take it seriously, even and especially if it disagrees with yours.
Real tolerance does not consist in passing over someone’s beliefs about the world because we don’t think them important; anyone can do that. Real tolerance only begins when we disagree with someone about the things that matter to us, and choose to respect them and their opinions anyway. You will find that the first kind of tolerance, the condescending kind, can very quickly turn nasty and intolerant when confronted with disagreement on anything it thinks is actually important.
If I tell you God exists, by all means, tell me that I’m wrong, if you have evidence to offer. But if you smile and tell me that’s all very nice for me, you haven’t really understood what I’m saying.