Nassau and Suffolk Community Colleges, SUNY
Despite beliefs to the
contrary there is no unrestricted right to believe. There is not now
nor has there ever been such a right. There is
no right to an unalterable belief and no right to blind faith
effectively shielded from all attempts to change those beliefs or
even to relieve the believer of some beliefs altogether.
There are no cloaks of immunity from social criticism,
challenges from others or efforts of society to
remove beliefs through direct or indirect means.
“belief” that people are entitled to believe whatever they wish to
believe no matter what and no matter where (hereinafter referred to
as the “unrestricted right”) is indeed popular and often vigorously
supported and disseminated and promulgated in various guises
including the “ I am entitled to my opinion”. It is also an idea
that as a principle is left not clearly explicated. If there is
such a “right” to believe then exactly what sort of a right is it
that it is regularly denied both by totalitarian societies,
religiously organized theocracies and by nearly every society in
their public school classrooms. Such an unrestricted right is
undermined or denied to some extent by every society on the planet.
Through direct or indirect measures and at times using force or
through their requirements for
and their support for educational institutions societies will deny
such an unrestricted right for humans to hold beliefs that are not
supported by the ruling regimes or in democratic and liberal states
beliefs that are not supported by evidence and for which there is
evidence that falsifies beliefs.
theocracies beliefs not in accord with the religious dogma, ideology
and doctrines will not be tolerated nor will habits of mind that do
not support blind faith and unquestioning acceptance of the dicta of
authorities. Such states will have their inquisitions. In
non-religious but totalitarian societies there are the purges and
there are the Gulags and asylums for minds not holding beliefs in
accord with the party line and official declarations of the
authorities. In pluralistic, democratic or tolerant societies there
are the requirements for formal education including curricula that
promote respect and tolerance of others and the values of pluralism
and democracy. Those “official” values are promoted as well as the
beliefs that they are of highest priority.
societies beliefs that are not supported by evidence and for which
there is evidence that falsifies beliefs about systems of knowledge
Mathematics, Geometry) and the meaning of words
(semantics) and logic are not countenanced and are challenged and
professional edcuators have it as part of their professional duties
to dislodge such beliefs that are not supported by evidence and for
which there is evidence that falsifies beliefs.
what sort of a right would the unrestricted right to believe be
is a right then what sort of right would it be? There are rights
people have as legal entitlements or socially recognized
privileges. They exist in a variety of forms. There are rights to
act in certain ways and rights to possess things and rights to have
or be given certain basic necessities of life. These rights relate
to the duties of others to respect or provide for whatever it is
that people have a right about. For the right to act in some way
say as with voting others must refrain from interfering with anyone
who chooses to vote. For the right to possess such as with a tv or
auto others must not remove that property (theft) from another who
has elected to possess it in a lawful manner through legitimate
acquisition (purchase, trade, barter). For a right to have a
necessity such as food or shelter others provide for it via a number
of social programs and agencies. With the purported unrestricted
right to believe there are no such correlated positions or actions
others must assume or perform. To the contrary there is ample
evidence that it is not the case at all that beliefs are treated as
something which people may enact or hold in an unrestricted manner.
Evidence of no unrestricted right to believe
that are not tolerated and are challenged and attempts made to
believe that Buffalo is the capital of New York State .
believe that 5 plus 7 are 9.
believe that triangles have 4 angles.
believe that the earth is flat.
believe that stars are holes in spheres that surround the earth
I believe that the American Revolutionary war took place 100
believe that “bachelors” are pieces of furniture used for
sitting at when dining.
beliefs are regularly challenged in classrooms and no one appears to
maintain that the people (usually but not always very young people)
who hold these beliefs have no entitlement or privilege to them so
that others must refrain from attempt to remove them from the list
of ideas affirmed by those who hold them. While some may think that
this is so because these beliefs listed immediately above are silly
or ridiculous or extreme the principle that there is no unrestricted
right to belief that is to be acknowledged in a classroom is
apparently not acknowledged or realized.
are beliefs with which people enter classrooms that are equally
false and for much the same reasons that are challenged each day by
educators in an effort to have those they teach alter their
beliefs about matters large and small, quite important and
fundamental as well as incidental.
believe that there are 60 states.
believe that there are 50 members of the US Senate.
believe that there are 20 members of the US Supreme Court.
believe that if a>b and b>c then a is sometimes less than c.
believe that the square root of 16 is 3
there is little controversy over attempts to disabuse people of
these beliefs. Such acts that are designed to assault and dislodge
these beliefs are denials of their purported “right” of people to
believe whatever they wish to believe.
important that this evidence that runs counter to the popular belief
in an unrestricted right to believe be acknowledged for what it is
and that the purported principle of the unrestricted right be
explicitly denied both in principle and in wider practice. As more
and more knowledge is gained by humans that runs counter to some
popular and comforting beliefs. Nevertheless with such knowledge
and the habits of mind that lead to the acquisition of knowledge
society advances in its abilities to resolve conflicts and
strengthen social cohesion and make progress in defeating diseases
and other problems threatening to the social welfare. This society
can do if it makes use of that knowledge and has a populace that
accepts the knowledge available; and the method(s) for creating that
operating with the popular belief in an unrestricted right to
believe will invoke in some manner a “cloak of immunity” for their
beliefs. They most often do so whenever there is a claim that they
find discomforting or challenging to what they already believe or
wish to believe or that serve their interests and purposes. It does
not matter what the evidence may be (empirical, semantic, systemic
(e.g., Mathematics, Geometry) or logical) they will reject or
proceed in avoidance or disregard for what the evidence supports.
This behavior is thought to be acceptable as it results from their
invocation of the unrestricted right. The tolerance of or support
for this behavior undermines the ability of society to maintain and
further social cohesion and material progress.
overwhelming counter evidence indicating that the following beliefs
are not supported by evidence there are those who hold these beliefs
and too often these beliefs are not challenged formally within the
educational process or are thought to be in some manner protected
from the educational process due to the mistaken notion that there
is an unrestricted right to believe.
believe that a mind is separate from and can operate without a
believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
believe that human beings are completely free of the influences
of their prior experiences and their environment in their
believe that science does not provide knowledge of the physical
believe that because science does not answer all questions that
science can answer no questions.
believe that because humans do not know everything that humans
then know nothing.
believe that because humans do not have total truth that humans
then have no truth.
believe that because humans do not have objective knowledge of
everything that humans then have no objective knowledge.
believe that because humans make mistakes then humans never get
believe that I am entitled to believe whatever I want to
believe that whatever I believe to be true is true.
believe that whatever I believe to be true is true, at least for
believe that whatever I believe to be real is real.
believe that whatever I believe to be real is real, at least for
believe that whatever I believe to be true is true and there is
no need for me to consider evidence or the logical relation of
what I believe to other things that I believe.
While educators will too often
accept or tolerate (minimally accept) these claims, when they do
so they as a whole undermine education itself rendering it
unnecessary and even superfluous or harmful to those who would
have society accept their claim of an unrestricted right to
believe and that such a right exists not only for all those who
would live amidst others in some form of social life but also
for students as well. Most students enter classrooms accepting
that educators will attempt to provide them with beliefs and
will attempt to correct or remove beliefs that are not deemed as
“correct” in the curriculum of study. Many students will resist
the efforts of educators to do likewise with beliefs that they
cherish or feel most comfortable with holding or those that they
hold with people with whom they wish to identify or with whom
they have shared much in common. If in defense of their
resistance to changing their beliefs or refusal to alter their
beliefs they offer the claim that they have a “right” to believe
whatever they so desire reason can offer evidence and logic to
counter that claim. Many students in defense of their beliefs
that come under challenge by educators will reject reason and
counter evidence. It is one of the principle tasks of education
to develop such habits of mind in students that they are willing
to examine their beliefs subject to reason and evidence and that
they are willing to settle their beliefs or hold them based on
best available reasons and evidence and continually subject them
to critical review in the light of reason and ever increasing
evidence. There is an ethic to changing habits of mind that
educators need to acknowledge ( see my “Ethics
of Changing Habits of Mind“
but there is nonetheless the duty of educators to so develop
reasoning, critical thinking and a healthy skepticism and doubt
as proper counters to appeals to blind faith and unquestioning
allegiance to holding beliefs that are popular, common or
promoted as being “correct” due to the proclamation of political
authority or due to popularity or any other foundation that is
set against what reason and evidence support. The claim of an
unrestricted right to believe is a claim that is set against
reason and evidence and so too is the habit of mind that holds
such claims to be true or that leads to the establishment and
holding of such beliefs. Neither individuals nor societies are
best served by such habits of mind that are uncritical and in
denial of evidence and reason.