Thinking About: Beliefs & Opinions
Back in my youth – many years ago now – I used to argue with people, both on and off line, about religion. I wasn’t in the business of trying to convert them but I did try, reasonably hard at times, to show that they were wrong. These days I do far less of that sort of thing and only really get involved at all when someone who holds such beliefs tries to convert me to their way of thinking. The reason I don’t argue the toss so much now is that I’ve come to the conclusion that beliefs, not matter how strongly held, are nothing more than opinions and that arguing opinions is an almost complete waste of time. For one thing it is very difficult indeed to change someone’s opinion on a subject once they’ve made their mind up without a considerable amount of effort and evidence. In this case I can’t really justify the effort involved especially when the evidence is either non-existent or very hard to come by. For another I have realised that not only will we be merely trading opinion in this scenario but that our opinions are completely contingent – in other words the opinions or beliefs we hold so dearly are based on an accident of birth.
As an example let me bring up (again) a story my Mother told me shortly before my father’s funeral. During WW2 my grandmother fell out with the Catholic Church over a priest’s lack of basic charity and only went back when she realised she was dying. Because of that fact my mother and her siblings where never brought up as Catholics and because of that neither my siblings nor I had a Catholic upbringing despite all being baptised into the Church (on a side note none of my sister’s children have been baptised). If the priest in question had offered my grandmother the small amount of money she requested it’s very possible that I could, today, be a believing and practicing Catholic. It’s also entirely possible that I could hold those beliefs very highly indeed and be the kind of Christian who holds people like the actual me – a confirmed Atheist – to be as sinful as it gets. My beliefs, the ones I hold dearly and would argue with anyone, are the product of accidents of history. If I had been born in a different place and time I might well have held my ‘natural’ belief in Christianity (of any particular flavour), Islam, Buddhism or anything else for that matter. All beliefs, because they are, in my mind nothing more than opinion, are a product of the environment and culture we all just happen to be born in and grow up in. When we change our opinions it is because of people we meet and mix with, books we read and things that happen to us. If those things had not happened or had happened in different ways we would have either not modified our opinions/beliefs or would have modified them in different ways. A persons beliefs are the product of that person’s personal history which, rather inevitably, is part of the history of the culture they grew up in. So arguing which opinion or belief is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ has to me become completely irrelevant and definitely pointless. That doesn’t mean that I no longer think I’m right – I do. I’m an Atheist and I’ve heard nothing, read nothing and seen nothing that has persuaded me to be otherwise. But I recognise the fact that such a belief in merely my opinion. I can’t prove it to anyone else because there’s nothing to prove. I can produce arguments and maybe even some evidence to back my claims up but I don’t expect you (generic reader) to change your opinions because of that – because the contingent aspects of our lives will inevitably be different therefore you’re opinions/beliefs will not be my opinions/beliefs.
So I don’t argue the point any more. To be honest it’s no longer fun – except when two (or more) people can discuss such things as friends and simply agree to disagree whilst testing their own beliefs in a secure environment. Been there, done that, was fun for a while. But on the internet? Or with strangers who have no investment in rational discourse? No thanks, been there, done that, hated it. When people hold beliefs (which are really just opinions remember) as if they are facts and defend them accordingly you’re going to get a lot more heat than light produced. Wars have started for less and friendships lost. But I’m not asking you to keep your opinions to yourself. Opinions are part of, maybe a big part of, what makes us individuals. Just remember that they are opinions and that, in different circumstances, you could have held quite different ones. Maybe such an idea will take a bit of the heat out of things?