The dangers of tolerance

As published in The Daily Maverick, a companion piece to my previous post entitled Suffer the little children (some overlapping content, sorry).

Julian Barnes’ novel “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” opens with the sentence “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”. This echoes a question asked by Daniel Dennett in “Breaking The Spell” – that of whether we care more about being able to believe that our beliefs are true, or about those beliefs actually being true.

We might have rational doubts about all sorts of beliefs, yet still want them to be true. Or find value in living our lives under the assumption that they are true. It would be impossible – or at least exceedingly difficult – to live your life feeling that your job was meaningless, that you were not loved or that you had no free will and no actual soul, despite the fact that one or more of those statements may be true. We seem to seek out (and perhaps that indicates need) some transcendence or metaphysics in our lives.

But those desires and/or needs do not make their objects true or real. We need to bear in mind the possibility that certain beliefs serve a social or psychological function only, and that “belief in belief” may take us as far as we can go. In other words, that no value is added by insisting on the actual truth of some of our beliefs. In particular, we need to contemplate the possibility that treating some beliefs as literally true could be harmful, rather than neutral.

And such is the case with the Roman Catholic Church’s child abuse allegations currently in circulation, where treating beliefs around concepts of infallibility as true, or respecting the divinely-sanctioned (so I’m told) separation between secular law and canonical law, stands a significant chance of allowing for some horrible crimes to go completely unpunished.

It is in the Church’s response to these allegations that its moral character, rather than the moral character of the abusing priests, is revealed. And here’s where we have a problem. It surely should not be the case that wearing a funny hat grants you immunity from legal processes. This is, however, the situation that has been allowed to evolve.

The historical association of religion and morality, which in most people’s minds entails religion being necessarily linked to morality, with God being the moral lawgiver, has allowed the Catholic Church to operate in a privileged space, immune (or at least shielded) from the sorts of criticisms that their actions might otherwise attract.

Religion and the religious are automatically treated with deference and respect, much like appeals to “culture” – however conveniently defined – are sometimes used in South Africa. We don’t want to offend, because we all “know” that religious choices and spiritual matters are personal and sacred, and we have no right to criticise the choices of others in this regard.

But that’s wrong. While we may have no right to criticise anyone’s metaphysics (and may feel no need to), if those metaphysics allow for, encourage or simply shield criminal behaviour, then the beliefs themselves become irrelevant, and we have every right – indeed, a moral obligation – to engage with the actions of believers, whatever they happen to believe.

The Catholic Church, and the pope himself, can’t be allowed to simply opt out of due process – there is no sustainable justification for separating secular law and canonical law. The only justification that exists is our habit of allowing this separation, and this is a habit that won’t allow for the punishment of any offenders.

The South African churches – as well as groups such as the National Interfaith Leadership Council which make claims to moral leadership – become complicit in these abuses if they fail to condemn them. Any granting of legitimacy to Rome’s desire to define these allegations as internal matters entails condoning the deferral and likely denial of justice. We should all – secular and religious alike – be encouraging the treatment of these as regular criminal cases, where suspects are arrested, questioned and sentenced if found guilty.

It’s what we would do in every other case. But don’t do here because religion is involved.

The fact that religious authorities are involved would not matter were it the case that our beliefs made no difference to the ways in which we interact with the world. But history offers us countless examples of ways in which beliefs – particularly about things with little or no evidence – can have serious and sometimes catastrophic effects on the world.

Consider the belief, held by many even today, that one particular race or gender is superior to another. Or consider the belief that there is an afterlife where you can get rewarded or punished for your actions in this life – a belief which surely had something to do with the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.

While we normally try to insist on beliefs being true, some beliefs are offered an exemption from that standard on the grounds that they deal with things beyond physical reality. Apologists for this sort of faith-based epistemology may argue that we can believe whatever we like, so long as we don’t perform actions that harm other people on the basis of those beliefs.

That may be fine for the individual believer, who is most often harmless, but it provides no comfort to those who are abused via beliefs that play the role of sheltering those who abuse them. Tolerance of behaviours and systems premised in the unknowable has to end when the unknowable makes itself known in the rape of children and the systematic covering-up of such offences.

What we think – the contents of our heads – is the primary factor that causes us to do what we do. In other words, our beliefs determine our actions. Our beliefs with regard to political or religious questions can have serious, and sometimes catastrophic, implications in terms of what we physically do. We certainly care about how people act, which means that we first need to be concerned about how they think. This requires not only watching our own thinking for the intrusion of errors, but also demands less tolerance of the unjustified beliefs expressed by those we meet, especially in cases where those beliefs allow for criminals to go unpunished.

  • http://ionian-enchantment.blogspot.com Michael Meadon

    This isn’t directly relevant, but there is a mountain of evidence from cognitive science that what people believe (explicitly) far from determine how they behave. There has even been a suggestion that conscious thought consists mainly of confabulation of unconscious decision making.

    (The central thrust of your piece stands, of course).

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques

      If you’re talking about Haidt, then I don’t think the evidence suggests what you’re saying – I’m happy to believe that we construct explanations post-hoc (lawyers, not judges, etc.), but that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the the extent to which beliefs might influence behaviour, whether or not we’re aware of those effects. But you may not be talking about Haidt at all – if you’ve got any particular article in mind, please let me know?

  • Jan

    A couple of comments, all within the general ambit of your posting, some more directly relevant than others:

    Christianity is not something you can put in a box, outside politics, economics, one’s career and so forth. It is a worldview, finding its ‘application’ within every aspect of a christian’s life. It informs the way we form opinions, make decisions, act, think, say, feel and even how we interpret what we hear. I am sure Christianity is not unique in this and that other mainstream faiths such as Islam and Zionism will have a similar viewpoint.

    This means that sometimes our country’s laws, even our constitution, is in conflict with our christian worldview. Similarly many post-modernist views in this day and age also clash with our christian worldview. When these conflicts occur it can bring a lot of anguish to a christian. Some christians (not all) cannot ignore these conflicts and will speak out or chose to act/not act.

    Christianity (accordingly also our churches) does not have the sole ‘right’ to morality. Good moral values can be exhibited by all people (good or evil), non-believers and atheists.

    Christian churces (protestant and catholic) are institutions, important for christians in many aspects of our lifes (such as community, teaching, etc.), however these institutions are still man-made, constructed and managed by fallible human beings.

    Being christian, believing in a Greater Good, means that we also believe in the existence of its antithesis: evil. Therefore we believe that not only will what we think causes us to do what we do, but evil is in all of us and evil will exert its power over us and because we were created with a free will we will often bend to this power – against God’s will for us.

    Finally, most christians also believe that no amount of ‘good action’ in this life will lead to being rewarded with eternal life in heaven. Heaven is a free gift from God, already paid for by Christ’s death on the cross. By God’s grace and by accepting Christ as your Saviour you will go to heaven.

    Our hearts and thoughts go out to all victims of crime, we pray they find peace and healing. We also pray for the perpetrators of crime, that they see the error of their ways, stop doing crime and truly find God.

  • The Doctor

    ‘This means that sometimes our country’s laws, even our constitution, is in conflict with our christian worldview. Similarly many post-modernist views in this day and age also clash with our christian worldview. When these conflicts occur it can bring a lot of anguish to a christian.’

    So if I live down Alice’s hole in Wonderland and find it in conflict with the laws of the land that I *actually* live in, I should expect anyone to care?

    • Jan

      I cannot say whether you should or shouldn’t expect anyone to care. Maybe you would care: a) you might be a christian (then you should care), or b) by virtue of going through the effort of replying to my post you feel that what I say ring with some truth.

      Caring about the feelings of our brothers and sisters in this country is not only a sign of our basic humanity, but is sorely needed in this day and age where mainstream politicians can spew forth hate without many blinking.

      One example of conflict between law and the christian worldview: we believe all human life (prior and post birth) is sacred, but christian doctors in state hospitals are expected to perform abortions on demand.

      • The Doctor

        Firstly, as you yourself point out, Christianity is not necessary to morality (and as Jacques’ original post stresses, there are too many cases where basic morality – what you call “caring about the feelings of our brothers and sisters” – is seriously undermined by believers and religious leaders).

        As for the Christian doctor who is forced by law to go against his/her religious beliefs, well that is a matter of priority. If he/she considers Christianity to be more important than the law (or worse, “above” the law), then their choice would have to be to not be a public servant. If they make the choice to be a scientist working as a public servant, then their private beliefs should have no bearing on their professional lives.

        • Jan

          I do not refute that you would find morally corrupt or evil individuals within churches and under religious leaders and believers. So without attacking the relevence and necessity of posts such as Jacques’, the point I want to make is that basic morality within this country is being undermined by christians, non-christians and non-believers alike.

          Churches and church leaders are on perilous ground if they believe for one moment that they are infallible.

          Back to your statement: ‘So if I live down Alice’s hole in Wonderland and find it in conflict with the laws of the land that I *actually* live in, I should expect anyone to care?’

          Why should we care? Christians believe God made the land (and everything around us), and then He made us and He appointed us as custodians over the land and all His other creations (animals, plants, natural resources, etc.) Because christians believe humans are the appointed custodians of the land we care. Maybe atheists or non-christians have a differenet reason for caring. I would like to understand these reasons?

          Same can be said of why we should expect other to care. If the ‘others’ are christians they should care about all peoples of the land. If they are non-christian or atheist, again I would like to hear the argument why they would care or not care about all peoples of the land?

          • The Doctor

            Are you serious? You can’t imagine why non-Christians should care about others, or about the world they live in?

            How about: because we all have to live here. Which means it is in my interests – and everyone else’s – that people obey laws on the road, don’t kill others randomly, don’t litter or allow their dogs to shit right outside my front door, think before they speak, and so on.

            The question is: why should we care about a set of values that exists outside of the common good – and by common I mean the good that is the right of EVERYONE. To doomsdayers who claim that only the saved will survive the “apocalypse” scheduled for 21/5/2011 and that everyone else be damned, I say: what kind of misogynistic, arrogant, selfish universe do you live in? If the irony of supposedly “love thy brethren” wasn’t so f**king tragic and rancid, I might even be tempted to laugh.

            Then again, it’s all nonsense anyway, so I think I’ll have another drink and a good laugh anyway.