The Course of Reason

Belief is Not a Dirty Word

August 8, 2011

Whenever we consider the question of school officials addressing matters of belief, we run into problems with where the lines are going to be drawn and whether or not it is okay for a professor or teacher to challenge the spiritual beliefs of a student. Just the thought of beliefs usually conjures up pictures of spirituality and other ways of thinking that many skeptics and freethinkers would call non-scientific or irrational. But is that the only way that we can interepret the idea of beliefs?

Of course we, as freethinkers, atheists, and skeptics, want students to be taught how to think critically and evaluate their own ideas about how the world works, but if we say that it is okay for professors to challenge “beliefs,” then are we saying that it is okay for religious professors or new age professors to challenge the students whose “beliefs” (though we don’t like to think of them that way because our truths are thought to be connected to legitimate science and not “beliefs” at all) are grounded in a physical reality of scientific theories and accepted academic principles? I found an interesting piece recently that brought up great points on this matter and how we connect our knowledge of facts and science to our beliefs as well as how we have faith in the knowledge that we learn, trusting that these ideas will remain truths in real life. 

“Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?” asks Peter Boghossian, who is a philosophy instructor at Portland State University. His piece “Should We Challenge Student Beliefs?” was published at Inside Higher Ed and examines the way that academic teachers approach “chang[ing] students’ beliefs when they were based on inaccurate information.”

Boghossian says this about his class Science and Pseudoscience:

As expected, we discuss a wide array of both scientific and pseudoscientific topics, including astrology, homeopathy, chelation therapy, and vaccinations. It is not enough for my students to know that vaccinations do not cause autism; they must also believe this and then eventually act accordingly. (In this case, action consists of not being afraid of vaccinating their children out of fear that they could cause their children to become autistic). …The primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.

I wants to beliefs

Here, Boghossian isn’t talking strictly about spiritual beliefs; he is using belief to mean the way that someone thinks the world is going to work. We skeptics and science-enthusiasts and freethinkers don’t like to think of how we behave as doing so in a way that is adhering to beliefs because we think that we are super-smart rationalists whose actions are based purely on objective knowledge and fact.

Realistically, we cannot do all of the science and testing to have the pure knowledge, understanding of science, and mathematical ability to do many of the things that we do. Hell, I don’t even balance my checkbook, but I believe that my bank statement shows all of my withdrawals and credits, and calculates all of the math correctly, and that the interest is for my accounts is accurate, so I believe that I have the money they say I do. That might not be a great example because I am just too lazy to subtract every penny in the hope that, like my mom, I might find four cents worth of error one time in the span of ten years, but I am not going to sit down and figure out interest rates to check against the actual balance and to add everything up manually. I believe that the math works, so I don’t worry about it. I don’t know the physics behind how a softball falls, but I believe in what I have learned and observed through practice and in relation to gravity and trajectory, so if I (do as Ed Beck says and keep my eye on the ball and) put my glove out there, I am acting on the belief that I can catch the ball and that it won’t hit me in the face or break my arm or be suspended in space.

Boghossian is arguing that the job of academics is to teach facts that are “true independent of subjective considerations,” but these truths are the foundation upon which superior ways of thinking and reasoning can be built, so that knowledge of facts and science can be turned into realistic beliefs that will change and inform our actions to align with reality.

…there are certain ways of making decisions that are superior to other ways of making decisions. …if I want to figure out how far to dig into the earth when laying a foundation for a bridge, a bad way to do this would be to flip a coin: heads it’s 50 meters and tails it’s 200. Rather, one should act upon the best available evidence and make a rational, informed decision that should then guide one’s actions. It is not enough to merely present students with better ways of making educated, rational decisions. It is an indispensable part of the educational process that students then leave the learning environment and actually build reliable, practical bridges in which travelers can literally trust their lives.

I definitely appreciated the perspective of Boghossian in this article. I have frequently heard “belief” used as a dirty word. It is something that we skeptics, atheists, and freethinkers don’t like to talk about in personal terms because we have this idea that there is truthful, factual, realistic knowledge in one sphere, and in this other (small, or maybe non-existent) area are our “beliefs” (shh!—don’t say it too loud!), but really, are our actions not based on our beliefs which are informed by our knowledge? Isn’t belief a very realistic part of how we go from perception to action? Aren’t beliefs the reason that people can look at the same facts and have different conclusions or actions? I think so, and I think that we are not going to get very far with people if we refuse to accept that we do things based on our own beliefs, as everyone does. If we are truly great thinkers, we will come up with a rational argument for why the facts upon which we base our beliefs are actual facts and why the “facts” of religion are not reliable and not worthy of our belief.

For the full article, visit Inside Higher Ed.



About the Author: Dren Asselmeier

Dren Asselmeier's photo

Dren Asselmeier does student outreach as a campus organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She got her start as an organizer while interning at Center for Inquiry–Michigan in 2008. She stayed until 2010 as a volunteer campus coordinator, and was CFI–Michigan Freethinker of the Year in 2009, as well as president of Center for Inquiry–Grand Valley State University. Dren has a B.A. in English from Grand Valley State University. She is the president of Buffalo Area Non-Profit Professionals, an event volunteer at Buffalo Subversive Theatre, and a contributor to the Buffalo Storyteller Hour. 




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