“I can believe whatever I want.”
While this may be true to some degree, it probably feels truer than it really is. There are things that are so at odds with our understanding of the world that you would reject them without thinking, although they may be technically believable. There are propositions that clash with many of your already dearly held beliefs so that to believe them would prove extremely difficult. Some beliefs might clash with others you hold but can coexist so long as they aren’t considered too deeply or forced to brush up against each other too frequently. Some may be deeply considered and supplant previously held beliefs. Others slot in naturally and compliment your existing beliefs. You might not even realise you acquired them. So perhaps we can’t choose what to believe in all cases but we can certainly exercise some agency. We have the ability to identify and reflect critically on our beliefs and decide if they are useful and reasonable.
“What I believe doesn’t matter to anyone else, it’s my business. You believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.”
We should be free to evaluate propositions to see if we believe them and we aught to be able to ask questions in an environment that is free from coercion. That said, your beliefs hold real world consequences, not just for you but for others around you too. Beliefs can be powerful and life-determining. I’m reminded of Yeonmi Park who fled North Korea. Even in the safety of South Korea she wouldn’t allow herself to think negative thoughts of the North Korean regime because she believed that Kim Jong-un could read her mind and would punish her. What you believe impacts on the decisions you make and how you behave. If you believe for example that the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine could give your children autism then you might decide not to vaccinate them. If there is a significant causal link between MMR and autism (there isn’t) you may have lowered their risk of having autism but not diminished their risk of having some pretty nasty illnesses. If enough people believe in the vaccine/autism link then conditions are ripe for an epidemic. There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom to believe as we wish and challenging beliefs that are potentially harmful.
“We may not all believe the same things but you should respect my beliefs.”
This begs the question, why? Generally the word “respect” is used to mean “admire” or “honour” and I wonder if those expressing this opinion genuinely reciprocate. I think we should be respectful of people and respect ideas/beliefs that merit our respect but we should not expect any particular beliefs to be respected automatically. This should be true of all beliefs including those that are religious or about the supernatural more generally. Problems can emerge however while evaluating each other’s beliefs that can cause dialogue to shut down. For example, asymmetries in what people consider to be persuasive evidence can make discussion around beliefs very challenging. Let’s say I was involved in an air traffic accident and as a result I believe that air travel is so dangerous it should be banned. You could show me all the statistics in the world about how safe air travel is compared to travelling by car but in my mind the emotional weight of my experience will trump the stats. Some beliefs are more intertwined with our identity than others and the more those beliefs feel like a part of who we are the more any questioning of them feels like a personal attack. The answer to these challenges may be to find common ground where we’re able to agree on standards of evidence and build trust so that we are comfortable with asking each other questions. I think if I felt uncomfortable with any of my beliefs being earnestly and politely questioned, I would take it as a red flag, as a sign that I need to consider this belief more closely.