Have you ever been in a conversation about a controversial subject and run up against that flabbergasted response, or something like it? This can happen in just about any conversation, but it’s most common in the area of religion, either between believers/non-believers, or believers of different theological persuasions.
For some, the question means something along the lines of, “Wait, how can you be so sure that you’re right given the sheer tonage of people who believe differently?” That’s a question of justification–a challenge to give reasons for why you disagree with so many. That’s a legitimate challenge in my book. Others, though, are dealing with a different issue. The assumption for many, either unstated, or stated shortly thereafter, is that the simple act of believing something to be true, yourself correct, and others wrong is inherently arrogant, immoral, and astoundingly intolerant.
But the plain fact of the matter is that it’s not. It’s just how believing works.
There’s a basic feature of belief such that, when you believe something to be true, you necessarily think you are right in holding said belief. If you didn’t think you were right on that point, you wouldn’t hold that point. You’d believe something else. The corollary is that if you think something is true, and someone believes otherwise, you think they are wrong with respect to that particular piece of reality.
Take something trivial–if I look outside at the world and come to the belief that it is currently raining, and then someone asks me, “Do you think your judgment that it is currently raining is correct?”, it’s quite sensible for me to answer: “Yes.” They then ask me, “So you think you’re right in believing that it’s raining?” The obvious answer to that question is “Yes.” It is rather impossible for me to coherently hold the belief ‘It is now raining’, and ‘I am wrong about my belief that it is raining’ at the same time. Now, the obvious corollary is that should someone ask me after that, “So you believe that all the people who don’t think it’s raining right now are just wrong?”, I’ll respond, “Yes, I do happen to think they’re wrong on that point.”
Note, my belief that other people are wrong and I’m right in this situation isn’t really a moral issue. I’m not particularly arrogant for believing myself to be correct, nor am I implying that they’re particularly stupid for disagreeing with me. Nor does this imply that I am not open to correction on this belief. It just naturally follows from the fact that I hold something to be true. Actually, all it means in this case is that I happen to be closer to the window and have been able to see that the world really is a certain way that they don’t see yet. In fact, when I state the belief, ‘It is raining right now’, my focus is not on my correctness, but simply on the fact that it’s raining.
Now take this out of the trivial. Say I go ahead and say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord, resurrected from the dead, and vindicated of all of his claims to be Messiah, Son of God, and so forth.” I actually hold that these things are true descriptions of the way things are. Just by the nature of what a belief is–holding of something to be true–it naturally follows that I think I’m right in holding this belief, and that those who believe contrary are wrong on this point.
Again, this doesn’t preclude me from holding my beliefs humbly, admitting the possibility of error, or being open to correction. Nor does this mean I believe myself to be particularly smart, good, or reasonable for believing this over those with whom I disagree. It simply means I currently believe the world to be this way–it is the case that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and so forth. Also, of necessity, the person who doesn’t believe Jesus is Lord of all, and so forth, similarly holds her own views to be correct, and mine to be incorrect. And that’s perfectly fine.
Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t challenge the arrogance and presumption with which some people hold their beliefs. The diversity of views held by other intelligent, morally-sensitive individuals ought to give us pause to slow down, and consider our own beliefs, or the reasons that lead others to believe as they do. And yet, once we’ve established our beliefs–that we believe reality is a certain way, even religious reality–it’s okay to admit we think we’re right and that others are wrong.
Now, at this point, some might be unconvinced. You disagree. “Believing something does not require you to think you’re correct and other people are wrong. It’s possible to hold your own beliefs on a subject without holding that opposing views on the same subject are confused or wrong. Derek, you’re mistaken and wrong on this point…oh, wait.”
Soli Deo Gloria