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The Limit of Our Beliefs

How can we know when our thoughts cross the border?

On January 20 of 2009 Spaniards were awakened with a new kind of
publicity posted on the buses of the public transportation. The ads,
circulating on the main buses of the capital city, said: “There´s probably not
God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The anti-God bus ad campaign
spread out quickly beyond Spain to UK at the beginning of March. Meanwhile
in Italy, home of the Roman Catholic headquarters, buses with the slogan,
“The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not
need him,” began to appear in the northern city of Genoa on February 4.
(Christian Today News, Jan 2009). On May 2008 Members of one of the world’s last
un-contacted tribes were spotted and photographed from the air near the
Brazil-Peru border. The photos were taken during several flights over one of
the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s Acre state. When the
Indians saw the plane flying above of their huts, they began to shoot their
arrows at the plane. Stephen Corry, director of the expedition said: “These
pictures are further evidence that un-contacted tribes really do exist. The
world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in
accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made
extinct” (Reuters May 2008).

We have seen in these two news articles a sociologic problem which
mainly bothers anthropologists and scientists inside the social and cultural
field. In the first example we saw a group of fanatic atheist wanting to
convince everybody about their beliefs. With the premise and the mandatory
message “now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Do the persons who
organized and paid for that publicity have the rights or the moral mission to
say to others what they have to do or in what they have to believe?
Moreover, in the second example we have seen the discovery of an
uncivilized tribe that never has had contact with science and the modern
word. We can ask, should we share with them the good news about science
and medicine instead of thinking that they must stay isolated because they
are endangered species? What should we do or think in both cases?

After a brief view of these stories some questions arise in our essay on
the direction of how and when we should respect or at least say something
or not about beliefs different to our own. What does it mean to be respectful
or disrespectful of a belief? What kind of beliefs, if any, are deserving of
respect? What is the line which separates cultural customs from bizarre
behavior? When should we speak and when should we be silent to manners
or beliefs that are transgressing our being, our society or our culture? When
should we tolerate extremist behavior against freedom of speech? Let´s take
another example to illustrate better the meaning of the theme. Do you
remember the controversial cartoons of Muhammad, as they were first
published in Jyllands-Posten in September of 2005? These cartoons
generated hundreds of protests in the Muslim word. A consumer boycott was
organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Middle East countries. For
weeks numerous demonstrations and other protests against the cartoons
took place worldwide. (Reuters Sept 2005). Western Civilization looked shocked
and horrified what Muslims can do if we touch, say or make a small joke
about their beliefs.

After the Mohamed’s news example, which I think is the best to
illustrate our theme in question, I ask: should we re-examine or re-define our
beliefs to accept or to not offend other cultures? Could you imagine a
reaction like that in Western culture after one of the hundreds of jokes that
weekly TV shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons, South Park and others TV
shows make about Christian, political or cultural beliefs? What is the limit
between respects for another culture and alienation toward that culture?
What can the philosophy of science or anthropologies tell us about this
issue? Is there a possible answer?
Which further repercussion would have an answer about the limits of
ours beliefs? Well, maybe you will say, “no way, that´s not a big deal, that´s
not an important issue to discuss.” Or maybe you will say: “Our constitution
guarantees freedom of speech! The first amendment guarantees that
Congress can pass no law restricting freedom of speech. We can say
whatever we want!” That is true, but not completely. For instance, on 2008,
eight states have adopted statewide laws or science standards that (1)
encourage or require critical analysis of evolution or (2) protect the freedom
of teachers to present scientific criticisms of evolution. In addition, in at least
three states, local school districts have adopted such policies. Why does the
law have to protect and give power to the teachers and professors to teach
freely about evolution? This is because many groups in the last 30 years
across all of the USA have risen in protest against teaching of evolutionism
instead of creationism in schools.

As another example about further and actual resonance of this issue
let’s take to another political case because some people can be thinking that
I’m taking this too far. Consider though that the California state university
system already refuses to give credit for high school science courses that
include anything beyond naturalistic evolution. Many Christian private school
graduates in California are finding that their science courses are not
accepted at state universities. Essentially that means you don’t get in unless
you can make those credits up by taking junior college science courses that
meet the evolution-only standard. Bohlin (2008). As we can see our theme in
discussion has more consequences than we can think.

Before addressing the issue we should first recognize that the problem
is complex and that try to give an answer about it could be oversimplifying a
controversial topic like this. Maybe that is because respect others beliefs is a
complex concept that involves a spectrum of possible attitude rather than a
simple yes or not. Moreover, maybe is because respect another sort of
beliefs such as religion, philosophy or political ideas is a fair request. The
problem here is that most of the time such a minimal respect isn´t what
fanatic believers usually want. As we saw in the example of the bus the ads
don’t want to just say that ‘God doesn’t exist’, that’s not good enough for
them. They want to convince others that God doesn’t exist.

To my understanding, and that is the idea that I will develop in this
essay, the line which separates the expression or not of our beliefs will
depend, in most of the cases, in how far we violate the rights of others trying
to express our thoughts. However I think the issue raised in the prompt by
Professor Powell is too broad. So, I´m going to discuss only one of the faces
of the discussion. What role does science play in this issue? Should we
defend our truth from any kind of metaphysic, mythological or bizarre
affirmation? If yes, under which circumstances is this ethically allowed?
Under which conditions should we stay quiet and don’t say anything about
the beliefs of others or ours beliefs?

Let´s analyze this issue first from the most common point of view. I
have called this “the fanatic perspective,” as the example of the ads in the
buses of Spain, Italy and UK. Before continue let me explain something.
When I talk about the intolerance that we have inherited from science, I will
only refer to Western culture. Because the extremism view of Eastern culture,
in some cases, arrives from other ideologies that I won´t develop in this
essay. So, after that parenthesis let me explain the term that I have called
“the fanatic perspective.” That is the state in which our standpoints are so
strong that we refuse consciously or unconsciously to leave it behind. To
believe in something is not the issue here, but instead, to convince others
and to distinguish when we should convince other or not, is. For me, at least
in Western culture, this “fanatic perspective” arrives because we have
inherited it from a tradition of more than three centuries. I´m referring here
to science. We have inherited from the tradition of science a particular way
to understand “the differences”; the myths, the religions and so on. (When I
refer to ‘differences’ in this essay I’m talking about all kinds of beliefs that
are not justified and understood under the methods of science). This
particular vision of “the differences” usually doesn’t let us understand,
tolerate and accept other beliefs. Nevertheless I will develop my ideas on the
proposal that science, as we know it today, has contributed in our intolerant
way of understanding others beliefs and that we have to learn how to know
when we have crossed the line between intolerance and the expression of
our thoughts.

As Feyerabend says in his article How to defend Society against
Science, it is to science that we owe the liberation of mankind from ancient
and rigid forms of thought. Nowadays, the enemies of sciences in past
centuries, religions, myths, authoritarianism and superstition, are nothing
but bad dreams. From that affirmation we can understand easily that in
Spain, Italy and the UK, for instance, there are some buses driving across the
streets saying to everybody “God doesn´t exist.” That is because for a group
of the population the existence of other ideologies, different to their
ideologies, is like a threat or a nightmare. For those people science,
consciously or unconsciously, is a new religion, a new way to understand
reality. Paradoxically that new religion, science, has taken in approximately
four centuries of existence the place that myths, religions and philosophy,
occupied for more than 25 centuries. Nowadays it looks like they – the
differences – will live under the shadow of science for so long. Why is this?
Why for some groups is it so important to convince others about the
certainty and accuracy of their thoughts? There are too many reasons;
historical, psychological, educational and political reasons. For instance, as
an historical reason, in Spain, the influence of the Catholic Church in that
country is related as a keystone of General Franco's 1939-1975 dictatorship.
In Spain this feeling has waned in the last 20 years. In fact, in Spain, where
80% of the citizens consider themselves Catholic, only 14 per cent of young
people describe themselves as religious, surveys have shown (2005). In the
last 10 years the intolerance of atheists and agnostics to those who confess
to belonging to a religion has increased.
How the fanatics of science can be so sure, when they criticize others
groups, that their ideology is totally right? This new vision of the truth, this
new ideology, science, according to Feyerabend, has been successful and
has increased its fanatics because it has produced results. Therefore, this
new vision of reality, as a dogma, has won supremacy in perjury of the
metaphysics beliefs. But science is, according to Feyerabend, just one of the
many ideologies that propel society and it should be treated as such.
Scientist may be consulted on important projects, but it should not be
expected that they have the last word, but rather “that the final judgment
must be left to the democratically elected consulting bodies.” From
Feyerabend point of view science is ideology as religion, myths and
philosophy are.

What is a possible alternative to the standoff between science and the
different beliefs of society? Different ideologies should be showed to our kids
because each ideology, when looked at carefully, has something to offer. The
religions and their holy books, the myths and their stories, the philosophy
and the different understanding of reality, all of them have something to
teach. It will be the option of our kids and the people to choose whatever
they want. The system of education will play an important role here because
the students also have to learn how to live without attacking others beliefs.
We should recognize that ideologies are marvelous when used in the
company of other ideologies. I consider that this is really important because
the understanding of the world and different cultures become easier when
we can talk with other beliefs, not only trying to convince them, but listening
too. When we refuse to act like that, respectfully, it doesn’t matter how noble
and pure are our beliefs. In fact religion, science, myths and philosophy
become intolerant and doctrinaire when they try to remove their opponents.
We become intolerant and dogmatic because we begin to persuade other
using weapons, attacking, hurting or killing. Please, let’s remember that the
political discourse, the word, the pen and the reason are weapons more
powerful than any physical threat. To me this is the main point of the
discussion: the violation of others’ rights is the line which lets know when we
have crossed the border. Violating the rights of others by expressing our
beliefs intolerantly is nothing more than to annihilate the other persons.
Whether we think we would hurt – and I mean really heart, don’t be naïve -
someone trying to convince him of our beliefs, that is a signal that we have
crossed the border. That is the limit. When we feel that we have to convince
others of our beliefs just because our fanatics convictions dictate us that,
then we should shut up.

Science, as other idols of our time, quoting Levinas, should recognize
the conditioning of their proposals, because we also know that the theory
does not put us away from the hoax. Summarizing, we have the last decision
about what to do with our beliefs and thoughts but certainly that decision
shouldn’t violate the rights of others.

After these ideas, surely, a defender of science will argue that it is
illogic, naïve and pretentious to associate science with the category of “the
differences.” According to Wittgenstein, for instance, someone could say that
science provides causal explanations of empirical phenomenon,
contrastingly, philosophical and metaphysical problems cannot be solved by
experience or causal explanation, since they are conceptual, not factual. So,
we can argue for sure that; "What we cannot speak about we must pass over
in silence" (Wittgenstein 1921). We can also say that knowledge is about
evidence; if there are some ideas, let´s call them prepositions, whichare not
capable of tests, we cannot call those ideas true or false or even more, we
can´t establish their truth or falsity. Those ideas, therefore, are just
literature, poems, baseless and vague dreams but never knowledge.
Philosophy, religions, myths and baseless ideas should never be compared
with the real knowledge, the real access to reality -- science.

Well, after all those thoughts comparing science and metaphysical
ideas, I would say that science is the only access to reality. I will also
recognize that the fundamental conflicts between science and religion, for
example, will never be “reconciled until all religions cease making claims
about the nature of reality” Coyne and Cobb (2008). I will also recognize,
given the reason to the critics of different beliefs to science, that science is
the only access to that which scientists call reality. However, most of the
time, those critics of “the differences” misunderstand one point; the
discussion here is not about the authenticity or credibility of the knowledge
or how we can be sure about reality and knowledge. The discussion for us is
not whether “the differences” have the same category in comparison to
science. The main discussion for us is whether, because science has another
way to understand reality that has been successful; is that enough or not to
be respectful from the perspective of science to others’ beliefs. As we have
seen in this essay, the answer is not enough. Science is an ideology as
other’s beliefs are. The big difference that we can´t deny is that science has
been tremendously successful, but that doesn’t give to it all kind of authority
against other beliefs. The basic idea is that we are not talking about
respecting beliefs or different understandings of the world at all; we have
been talking about respecting people and that is the basis of the discussion.
We should respect beliefs no because they are truth enough or not, but
because we respect people and that should be the big deal for us.