I am learning that there are a lot of people out there who are surprisingly willful in believing whatever they want and who actively resist information or ideas that they highly suspect (or outright know) would have the power to disabuse them of their errors. We all probably do this to one extent or another with beliefs which play important roles in our lives and which we fear it would be disturbing or inconvenient to have to change. Nobody is perfect in this regard.
But obviously it is believers in the supernatural who are the most blatant about not only having normal human tendencies towards habitually protecting their prejudices but also outright embracing their prejudices on purpose. And they are the ones who most often go so far further as to shamelessly consider this tendency to be some sort of virtue of theirs—whether the alleged virtue of faith or some alleged intellectual virtue of spiritual openness and/or spiritual perception, etc.
Regardless of the whitewashing job apologists want to put on faith–whereby they falsely equivocate it with various forms of rationally defensible ways of believing–the kind of faith which is characteristic of religiosity and vital to its survival in the modern world is, at its core, the self-conscious decision to deliberately believe beyond (or against) what evidence warrants, out of willful allegiance to one’s religious community and the worldview one receives from it. And quite usually this believing is done with explicit goals of creating hope or solace within oneself and of maintaining loyalty to one’s imagined deities and fellow believers.
When the religious pray fervently for faith they actively crave the ability to make doubts go away however possible. They do not necessarily yearn for conclusive proof. Some ask for evidence, but many others outright spurn the desire for evidence as the opposite of desire for faith. They just crave a kind of belief and a kind of will to believe that are each unshakeable regardless of whether there is proof or not and regardless of whether they encounter rationally insurmountable counter-evidence for their beliefs. While some seek for evidence to make doubts go away, most would rather pray for faith that is strong enough to do the trick. They are effectively praying that God will make them more impenetrably prejudiced people. No amount of disingenuous semantics of apologists or willfully blind eyes to the actual practices, preachings, and psychologies of believers will make religious faith any less properly definable primarily in terms of this kind of willful, irresponsible anti-rationalism.
I consider beliefs in general to be to a certain extent morally assessable because of the various ways that we have choices about what sorts of information we will seek out (or endure exposure to from others) and because of the ways we can choose what sorts of ideas we will spend our time ruminating upon. In other words, at least some people, to at least some extent, are morally culpable for their erroneous beliefs.
Beliefs are morally culpable to the degree to which maintaining them means (a) actively evading certain duties to educate oneself before affirming propositions, (b) explicitly training oneself to reinforce the prejudices of one’s community and/or personal inclinations rather than training oneself to scrupulously scrutinize them, (c) self-consciously believing disproportionate to evidence, and especially when this means believing against evidence and not just beyond its warrant, and, finally, (d) deliberately avoiding uncomfortable lines of research or the implications of compelling ideas which arise either from within oneself or from the provocations of opponents.
Being properly critical or avoiding doing so is a choice. It’s not a matter that is wholly out of our control. To the extent that false beliefs stem from traceable choices to be uncritical, they are morally blameworthy as they represent some degree or another of willingness (or even outright desire) to be deceived. Self-deception is a moral failure, insofar as it is both socially irresponsible and an intrinsic failure to flourish in one’s own rational capacities for grasping and coping with truth most powerfully.
And it is a moral failure which I want to argue either stems from or leads to other related character flaws as well.
Frequently believers and non-believers alike will defend people’s supposed moral rights to believe whatever deluded things they desire by treating them as permissible “as long as they don’t hurt anyone” or “as long as they keep those beliefs out of legislation” or “as long as those beliefs don’t disrupt their overall life functioning”, etc. Depressingly few seem to recognize truth as an intrinsic good at all or to calculate all the ways in which it should trump other intrinsic goods in most circumstances. Few recognize that truthfulness about reality and values, while not absolutely valuable and not always deserving to override competing goods, should nonetheless be subordinated to other goods only rarely and conscientiously–in those cases when truly urgent and indispensable competing goods are unavoidably incompatible with it. Truth and falsity seem to so many to be merely morally equivalent potential expedients to living a pleasant life. The implicit prevailing view can be summed up as, “Wherever truth is what it takes to serve your goals, be truthful with yourself. Wherever falsehood is what it takes, lie to yourself. And don’t complain about your neighbor’s falsehoods unless they cause you tangible harm.”
More simply put, all the “lying for Jesus” and all manner of political lying from even the most sincerely pious of politicians, which continually outrages people as hypocrisy, is actually the natural and inevitable logical outgrowth of religious believers’ decisions in the first place to base their lives and beliefs on demonstrably disprovable accounts of reality and values. No one who recognizes the transparent falseness and self-deception in religious believing should be so surprised by religious people’s capacities to lie and be hypocritical and self-serving. It is naive to trust that they will have an unusually conscientious allegiance to principles of honesty and selflessness owed to their putatively strict religious moral principles when one can plainly see that within their psychology their most basic commitments are emphatically contrary to disinterested virtue or reason and instead are, above all, oriented towards their own communal loyalties, their imagined deity (or deities), and their own self-interests as served by their religion and even at the considerable moral cost of enormous self-deception. Why would anyone expect such people to be especially morally trustworthy when they put their personal happiness and their group loyalty above self-criticism and the criticism of their received traditions? Of course some will wind up committing to their religions’ putative moral principles enough that they will become genuinely self-sacrificing or truth seeking. But why expect it to be the norm, given faith’s psychological and epistemological structure, which orients beliefs around selfishness, in-group loyalty, and systematically defensive dishonesty?
Some unbelievers approve of all this faith-based self-deception because they contemptuously and cynically assume that religious people are either uneducable or would become even worse than merely self-deceivers were they ever to be disabused of their errors. So even when they do recognize that people who deceive themselves will go on to deceive others as well, and eventually thereby harm them too, they are nonetheless unmoved, due to their apparently low estimation of their fellow human beings’ potential to do any better by each other with the truth.
In addition, or in some cases instead, such unbelievers have a lazy desire for personal truces with the particular people in their lives who they don’t want to be divided from over matters of truth. I guess they judge that it is better to placate the ones they love than to sincerely debate them and take an interest in their personal growth or knowledge. I honestly question their judgment but I empathize with the emotions it comes from.
Another reason they placate others’ self-deception is out of an overextension and misapplication of the vitally necessary legal attitude of tolerance towards others’ legal rights to believe as they wish into the realms of ethics and epistemology where it does not belong. Legally we need to be tolerant. And, of course, socially we are quite often just not in appropriate positions to properly, knowledgably, or humanely interrogate each other’s value decisions. But ethically and epistemologically—at least in the abstract, and certainly in those times where our views are asked of us or others say transparently false things that we are in a position to correct—we should feel compelled to take a stand that believing falsehoods is in most cases bad, and doing so through self-deception (however happy) is in most cases morally wrong for being irresponsible and lazy.
And we should stop falsely calling it a matter of indifference simply because we ourselves are too lazy to stand for anything inconvenient or because we perversely define being close to people as a matter of not discussing anything of actual importance about the nature of reality or values too honestly with them.