Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 7 April 2010

The dangers of tolerance

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 its 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.

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