Comments on Rowlands on the ethics of belief

Posted on February 7, 2008

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I have just written some comments at the Secular Philosophy blog on a post by Mark Rowlands regarding the ethics of belief and I’m copying them here:

There’s a particularly refined form of this kind of misuse of rights talk that is also related to Pigliucci’s discussion of Wilson’s idea that atheism is a stealth religion.

When atheists claim to be different from theists, the response that atheism is just another ‘religion’ is a commonly made one. While Wilson’s analysis is much more sophisticated, the reasoning is sometime as simplistic as “Theists have faith in their Gods, atheists have faith in science, therefore atheism is a religion”. If so, then I am a member of the Church of The Chair I’m Sitting On as I believe, deeply and profoundly, that it will not fall apart under me. Still, as Wilson, shows it is possible to make a better argument for this kind of claim.

The problem comes when atheists demand that their beliefs be treated with the same kind of respect that is shown to the beliefs held by theists. At that point the theist response tends to be “Atheists don’t believe in anything so how can they claim these kinds of rights”. In other words, the theists not only claim certain rights – a claim that I agree is highly suspect – but also would withhold those rights from others while, at the same time, refusing to acknowledge a difference.

In truth, the question of people’s rights and their beliefs seems to me to be much more complex than the discussions around religion usually acknowledge (I apologise for using the clichéd philosopher’s move of claiming greater complexity). A number of years ago I was teaching an intro philosophy class about Pascal’s Wager when I realised that one of my students was crying. When I asked her what was going on she broke down and blurted out a mass of words from which I gathered that she was distraught at seeing her religious beliefs picked apart by logical analysis. I felt sorry for her and the anguish I had clearly caused her, and instinctively tried to reassure her by telling various anodyne halftruths about the relationship between faith and argument. I couldn’t care less about the woman’s beliefs but I had no wish to hurt her, even if the pain was caused by the conflict between what I was saying and beliefs that I find pernicious. Later, I felt I had been disingenuous but did not know what exactly I should have done. Indeed, really, I still don’t.

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