Questionable Motives

November 16, 2009

Respecting beliefs: why should we?

moron‘Belief’ is one of those words that comes packed with various meanings. It is usually used in the sense of a conviction, a level of confidence and trust, an opinion, impression, even a feeling. Of course, it is also used to describe some level of acceptance in the truth claims of a creed. But in all cases, belief in something relies on justification… a rational justification. People have a reason or reasons to believe in what they believe. If those reasons are ill-founded or poorly constructed, then surely the quality of the belief must be effected. If someone believes that the Earth is flat, for example, simply because someone told the person it was flat, is that reason enough to ‘respect’ the belief even though it is inaccurate? If someone believes that certain people deserve special privileges or special sanctions without good reasons to inform the belief, is that belief alone worthy of respect?

From The Telegraph, regarding a police worker fired for his belief in the power of mediums that should be placed on a par with more mainstream religious and philosophical convictions:

Mr Power’s case follows a landmark ruling last month that environmental views should be considered equivalent to religious and philosophical beliefs, following a legal challenge by a green executive at a property firm.

At a tribunal in London, Mr Power will claim that Greater Manchester Police broke the law by sacking him for believing that mediums should be consulted in criminal investigations.

In an initial judgement seen by The Independent, Judge Peter Russell said that the case had merit because his Spiritualist views “have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

The judge wrote: “I am satisfied that the claimant’s beliefs that there is life after death and that the dead can be contacted through mediums are worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

Sufficient? Isn’t that an interesting word? What does sufficient mean in this sense? Is there evidence to inform the belief with justifiable reasons or is this simply a case of mouthing the comforting words that any thing is worthy of respect as long as enough people lend weight to it? And even so, where is the data? How many people does it take to turn a belief into something worthy of respect?

When truth becomes a popularity contest where the most popular belief wins, then what value is there in what is informs the belief? Why bother forcing the pharmaceutical companies by legislation that they must prove efficacy and safety before their products are allowed to be sold? Why not level the playing field and allow pharmaceutical companies to compete with CAM products simply by popularity, and allow belief in what works to be equally worthy of respect? As long as toy manufacturers produce a popular toy, why should they have to comply with safety regulations? After all, according to recent legal rulings, what informs beliefs doesn’t matter. What matters is respecting beliefs… as long as the beliefs are sufficient in popularity.

Respect? Inform a belief with reasons, reasons of what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct, and I think a belief becomes worthy of intellectual respect. In other words, let’s respect justified beliefs and stop respecting unjustified beliefs. We harm ourselves when we respect beliefs because they are beliefs.

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