By Justin Vacula
A common phrase that people frequently insert into discussions is “I have the right to my own opinion.” Any atheist who has engaged in discussion with a substantial amount of religious persons – or perhaps even a small amount of religious persons – have probably heard this phrase that is quite the non-starter. What does the phrase “I have a right to my own opinion” really mean, anyway? How should atheists respond to this claim and can ‘right to opinion’ establish knowledge?
A fundamental idea in philosophy is that a statement about something with truth value is either true or not true (this is called the law of the excluded middle). Joe may believe proposition x (the Christian god exists), for instance, and it is either the case that proposition x is true or not true. If Jane believes proposition y (all that exists is the natural world), we can see that both proposition x and proposition y can not both be true because we would arrive at a contradiction. If ‘right to opinion‘ can work for Joe, why can’t it work for Jane? If Joe believes it can work for anyone, we have a very problematic situation. A ‘right to opinion,’ then, can’t justify beliefs because contradictions would follow.
When philosophers (and non-philosophers) talk about what is true, the topic at hand is typically “justified true belief” – what can be ascertained by an appraisal of reason, argument, and evidence that coheres with reality. If a proposition associated with truth value (“symphonic metal is the best music,” for example, is merely an opinion and doesn’t fall into this category) is not backed by reason, argument, and evidence, stating “I have the right to my opinion” does not contribute to any progress in a discussion, lead persons to the truth, or really say anything other than “this is what I believe” and perhaps, curiously more…
When people tell me that they have a right to their own opinions, I ask them if they are concerned with the truth and/or holding justified true beliefs. The typical responses are usually “You can’t know for sure that there is no God or if there is a god, so I just believe.” A popular, yet effective and humorous idea some entertain is called Last Thursdayism – the belief that we were created last Thursday with pre-programmed memories and holes in our socks among other things. We can’t “know for sure” that Last Thursdayism is false, but we still go about our lives not believing Last Thursdayism for good reason. Regardless of whether we can “know for sure” about anything, we can look at the current evidence, argument, and reason that supports a position [or doesn't] and come to rational conclusions. The idea that “we can’t know for sure” does not give us a reason to claim ‘right to opinion’ [or justify belief that a claim is true].
Not all ‘opinions‘ are created equal. If you hold a belief, for instance, that evolution is false, you’ll be met by tremendous amounts of evidence showing that your belief is unfounded if an evolutionary biologist (or another educated individual who is willing to discuss) happens to be sitting at your dinner table when you profess a belief in creationism. If, after some debate and tackling the fundamental falsehoods of creationism, a creationist happens to say “I have a right to my own opinion,” this says nothing about the truth-value of creationism and perhaps admits that the creationist is not concerned with truth. A proposition about reality is either backed by evidence, reason, and argument and it should be believed…or it is not.
Perhaps those who claim a ‘right to opinion’ just want to be left alone by atheists and believe that atheists shouldn’t challenge religious ideas. The idea of ‘live and let live,’ though, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that beliefs inform actions, actions have the ability to help and harm others, and several dangerous and false beliefs are currently, for example, giving undue privileges to some religious sects that are not given to the secular in addition to dangerous and false beliefs resulting in discrimination, marginalization, stigmatization, and invisibility of many atheists…and that’s just the ‘tip of the iceberg.‘ Why ought respectful discussion be construed as a bad thing? I may be happy to ‘live and let live‘ if various religious sects were happy to ‘live and let live,’ but this just isn’t the case.
If a religious person were to get offended simply because of a respectful conversation and, after some discussion, claims ‘right to opinion,’ one wonders why this person would enter into a conversation in the first place or even hold the belief to begin with [I, at least, am not offended when people disagree with me]. Perhaps it is the case that people are genuinely offended by the mere presence of an atheist, but should this be the fault of the atheist or the other person? I wager that you know the answer and may suggest that a person like this may have personal issues, be immature, or is far too sensitive.
When faced with contradictory evidence for one’s belief, the belief should be relinquished instead of claiming that one has “the right to an opinion.” We should care about holding justified true beliefs and take wondrous delight in challenging falsehoods when the situation calls for it. Respectful disagreement should not be considered as disrespect and discussion of ideas should be viewed as a chance to grow, understand, test one’s own convictions, and much more – not character attacks on persons. Those who believe that their beliefs are coherent with reality should have nothing to fear from honest discussion (see my previous post titled “Equality for atheists in the marketplace of ideas) and actually should welcome discussion instead of hiding behind the ‘right to opinion.’