One of the most frequent problems that I find in discussions on evidence for various claims is that people will often make arguments that they would never accept from others. Allow me to give a few examples:
The atheist who says, “I understand religious beliefs, so I can explain those beliefs to my children perfectly well, there’s no need to let others explain them.”
The Christian who argues, “Homeschooling my kids is not brainwashing, it is the best way to ensure that my children are educated in the right way, and protected from harmful or incorrect ideas.”
The Muslim who argues, “I’ve had personal experiences that confirm the truth of my beliefs.”
The conspiracy theorist who says, “You can’t answer this question, therefore your explanation isn’t valid.”
The first thing I should point out is that each of these arguments can (and often are) made by multiple groups. Religious people who will, like the atheist, say that they can explain what others believe, and therefore don’t need to let their kids have other people explain them. Non-religious people who will argue just like the religious that it’s important to protect their children from what they see as wrong/harmful ideas. Christians who will argue, just like the Muslim, that their personal experiences confirm the truth of their beliefs. Or a great many people who are arguing for a position that they feel passionately about, who will point out the flaws in the arguments of those who disagree with them.
And it is specifically in that regard that the problem I seek to illustrate arises. Let’s take the first case of the atheist. Let’s assume that they are fairly knowledgeable about religion. Are they justified, therefore, in arguing that they should be able to teach their own kids about what different religions believe, but keep their children isolated from religious people who’d seek to teach those beliefs directly?
I’ll answer that question by asking another — would that atheist also agree that religious people who feel that they understand atheism, or scientific theories like evolution, should be allowed to teach their children about those things, but keep them isolated from atheists/scientists who’d teach those ideas directly? I suspect that the vast majority of atheists would quite adamantly disagree with this. “If they don’t believe in evolution, how can they present it accurately?” “If they think atheism is wrong, any information they present about it is going to be biased and incomplete!”
Now, let’s look at the question of the Christian homeschool. If they were to look at a Muslim family that insisted on homeschooling their children, teaching only those things that they considered true, and ‘protecting’ them from any information they considered wrong or harmful…would they defend it? Odds are, they wouldn’t. In fact, odds are they would call it brainwashing.
How about the Muslim who’s personal experiences confirm the truth of his beliefs? If a Christian, or a Wiccan, or a member of any other religion claimed personal experiences as evidence or proof of their beliefs…would the Muslim accept that argument? Very likely not.
And anyone who’s ever gotten into a debate with a conspiracy theorist will recognize the problem with their arguments…they’ll fixate on one particular item that they claim cannot be explained, or has insufficient proof, and hold that up as ‘proof’ that the idea is wrong. Yet when others point out that their own theories have even greater inconsistencies and holes, they’ll ignore it. Nor is this a trait just of conspiracy theorists (although it is one of the places where it’s most obvious); the vast majority of us, when arguing for something that we are ‘sure’ is true, will tend to fixate on even the most minor holes and inconsistencies in the arguments of those who disagree with us…but disregard, dismiss, or ignore problems with our own arguments.
If you are seeking to make an argument for a particular position, it should be an argument that you can apply equally to all groups. If you find yourself in a position where you are essentially saying, “It’s okay if I do it, but wrong if others do it”, or “This serves as evidence/proof for my position, but I will reject the same evidence/proof if presented by those of an opposing position”…then you really do need to re-examine the foundation of your own argument.
And for those who might argue, “But it’s different, because I know that I’m right, and they are wrong!” Nope, sorry…you’ve just made exactly the same mistake, because the other groups will, again, say exactly the same thing! It’s an endless, self-reinforcing cycle.
What, then, is the alternative?
For case number one, I’d argue that parents should let their children learn about different ideas from the people who believe those things; but that the parents should be active in examining and questioning that information with their children, serving more as guides, rather than dictating what their children believe by restricting their education only to the parents’ perspectives.
For case number two, I’d argue that either you support homeschooling for everyone, or for no one. But claiming that it’s acceptable for you, and unacceptable for others, is a fundamentally hypocritical position, and unsustainable in any society based on freedom of belief.
For case number three, I’d argue that personal experience should never be used as ‘proof’ of anything…and should be considered very skeptically even as evidence. There are a wealth of psychological studies that have more than adequately demonstrated how our brains can fool us, and how ‘personal experience’ is, in fact, an extremely unreliable indicator of reality or ‘truth’. But if you are going to argue that personal experience is evidence or proof of something, then you must accept that it can be evidence/proof of beliefs that contradict your own, also…in which case, that evidence/proof rapidly becomes completely meaningless, as various personal experiences will ‘prove’ almost every possible claim.
And for case number four, it’s really quite simple. Whatever position you are arguing for, no matter how passionate you are about it, no matter how right you think you are…you should always seek to ensure that the standard of proof you hold yourself to is equal to or higher than the standard of proof that you demand of those who disagree with you. If you cannot do that, then at best it means you need to study your own claims more closely; at worst, it could indicate that your ideas are completely wrong.
The best way to avoid this mistake is, instead of focusing first on what you think is “okay for me”, look instead at what standards you would hold for others. For example, as an atheist, I would argue that religious people should allow their children to learn ideas that may contradict their own beliefs; therefore, I should likewise allow my children to learn ideas that my contradict my beliefs.
So…what do you think? Should we strive for this kind of balance? Or are (some) people justified in having different standards for themselves than they do for others?
I am the founder of Wrest In Peace, arising from my passion to create a greater opportunity for people of different beliefs and backgrounds to better understand and communicate with each other.
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