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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


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?

6 comments:

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I lIke hearing different arguments, and to a certain extent, I enjoy having my beliefs challenged. It makes me think deeper about what I believe and why. In the end I have to decide what makes sense for me and my life experiences, and either modify what I believe, or not. In the end, especially for religious belief systems, none of us know for certain, and maybe we never will. If I die and that's all there is, so I was wrong. I can live or die with that. :-)

CyberKitten said...

v v said: I like hearing different arguments, and to a certain extent, I enjoy having my beliefs challenged.

Ditto. It's good to bump up against other ideas from time to time.

v v said: It makes me think deeper about what I believe and why.

Indeed. It stops your beliefs from solidifying too much and can help you incorporate new ideas into an existing structure.

v v said: In the end I have to decide what makes sense for me and my life experiences, and either modify what I believe, or not.

Yes, and you're the only one who can do that. No one else can decide these things for you.

v v said: In the end, especially for religious belief systems, none of us know for certain, and maybe we never will. If I die and that's all there is, so I was wrong. I can live or die with that. :-)

Agreed. Though if I'm right I'll never know. Only if I'm wrong will I find out one way or the other. Quite ironic really [lol]

William Stachour said...

Interesting that we both should find our way to this topic independently. (Well, lots of people are interested in the subject, so maybe not so odd.)

I think your points indicate, to me, the futility of this discussion with others. I feel like I followed a process--perhaps pursuant to an inclination--to come to my current conclusions, but that most people simply believe what they're plopped in the middle of. And it's a characteristic either of the human mind or of this kind of belief that we resist having to change our minds, sometimes quite vehemently.

I think if I really thought about how UNlikely it was that I would ever change the mind of whoever disagrees with me then I would simply stop. It's a colossal waste of time.

And yet... I wonder if our collective disapproval of mythological thinking in public life isn't even now contributing to the larger and larger percentage of the population that declare themselves as "nones."

Vancouver Voyeur said...

William, you said "most people simply believe what they're plopped in the middle of," I think there's always an exception to that, which is probably why you qualified that with "most" and not all. Some people rebel against what they're raised in. I was raised by an atheist mother, yet I have a deep and abiding faith, that there is more to living and dying than we know. Maybe there's a God, maybe Karma, maybe none of that, maybe something we can't even imagine. I have no proof for any of it, that's the basis for faith I suppose. But I'm okay with exploring other ideas. I'm okay if I'm wrong and this is all there is. To me it's kinda like playing the lottery. If I hit the numbers right, I win, yippee! If not, most other people aren't going to win either, so what. :-)

CyberKitten said...

WS said: Interesting that we both should find our way to this topic independently. (Well, lots of people are interested in the subject, so maybe not so odd.)

I think it's just a numbers thing. SC and I just reviewed a pair of British History books on the same time period. Different authors, but still a coincidence. Had to happen eventually!

WS said: most people simply believe what they're plopped in the middle of.

Generally, yes - as has been proven in survey after survey. There are those who break the pattern but they're usually the exception rather than the rule.

WS said: it's a characteristic either of the human mind or of this kind of belief that we resist having to change our minds, sometimes quite vehemently.

Most definitely. Once an idea becomes integrated into your psyche it's very hard if not impossible to dislodge.

WS said: I think if I really thought about how UNlikely it was that I would ever change the mind of whoever disagrees with me then I would simply stop. It's a colossal waste of time.

That's pretty much why I've stopped arguing religion. Sometimes it can be entertaining and informative but is by and large a waste of time. There's too much emotion invested in a persons beliefs to discuss them rationally for long. Sooner or later one of the people involved tends to loose it.

WS said: I wonder if our collective disapproval of mythological thinking in public life isn't even now contributing to the larger and larger percentage of the population that declare themselves as "nones."

I think that the West is definitely becoming more secular decade on decade. I was thinking about it today. It seems that the old paradigm was Certainty hence religions such as Catholicism and Islam. The modern paradigm is doubt hence things like Science and Post-Modernism. Of course Science thrives on doubt where religions shatter and shatter again as doubt continually eats into whatever certainty they can hold on to.

CyberKitten said...

v v said: Some people rebel against what they're raised in.

It's often how culture progresses.... [grin] My background was an indifference to religion. I guess I could have become a hard-line Catholic except (as I found out much later) I couldn't really make any sense of the teachings... [lol]

v v said: I have a deep and abiding faith, that there is more to living and dying than we know.

Lots of people feel that way. You're certainly not alone with those ideas.

v v said: Maybe there's a God, maybe Karma, maybe none of that, maybe something we can't even imagine.

Quite possibly. If God does exist and is all that 'he' is cracked up to be there's no way we can understand him or what he's doing. It'd be like an ant trying to understand the Internet - just not going to happen.

v v said: I'm okay if I'm wrong and this is all there is.

I'm a complete materialist. I don't believe that there's anything except brute matter and variations thereof.