Cross-posted from my blog.

As far as I'm concerned, ideas are infinitely preferable to beliefs. People get hung up on beliefs. They take them personally. For example, I don't believe that God doesn't exist; the evidence suggests that God doesn't exist. If the evidence changes, I'll have to get a new idea. Obviously, not everyone uses this approach. That's fine, people should think and believe however and whatever they want.

That principle, that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, is very important to me. Unfortunately though, like many principles, it doesn't always work so well in practice. Because sometimes, people are just wrong. Evolution happens. It is measurable and observable and can be used to make reliable predictions about the world. The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, give or take a few millennium. We have radiometric dating techniques that say so. Just because you don't understand the math doesn't mean it's not true. Dinosaurs were real. We have the fossils, and they weren't planted by Satan to test your faith.

'Calm down, BW!' you may say. 'Sure, some people believe silly things that aren't true, but that's ok! The Universe doesn't care what people believe!' And you'd be absolutely right. But where do we draw the line? Where does being tolerant of others' beliefs cross over into allowing harm to occur unchallenged? How do you deal with people who genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing, and just happen to be completely wrong?

Abortion clinic protesters believe that what they are doing is right. They believe that babies are being murdered, and they are doing their best to put a stop to it. But they don't distinguish between patients seeking therapeutic or elective abortions, and they don't distinguish between an actual person and a cluster of tissue that might be a person. The decision to get an abortion is never easy to make, but it is a decision that has to be made by each woman individually. Some pregnancies are the product of rape or abuse. Many abortions are medically necessary. By harassing patients and employees, all that these protesters accomplish is to make it harder for these women to receive the care they need. I found this letter, written by a former protester to be especially poignant. This girl was just doing what her grandmother said and trying to help save babies. How do you get through to people that are so convinced they are in the right?

Cultural beliefs can be just as problematic as religious beliefs. Slavery was once a way of life in America. People fought to defend that way of life, even though it involved subjugating others. In retrospect it is obvious that owning another person is wrong, but the people living that life believed they were entitled to it. Now we have culturally sanctioned segregation and abuse of women. Honor killings are on the rise, especially in immigrant communities exposed to western values. This editorial discusses how the ideology of multiculturalism is problematic for advocates dealing with abused women in these communities. The cultural values and traditions that lead to violence are not discussed or questioned, because the culture must be respected. But when those beliefs lead to tragedies like the death of Aqsa Parvez, it may be time for some cultural insensitivity. Where do you draw the line? How do you get through to those people who feel like Aqsa'a parents were in the right and she brought it upon herself?

I could go on forever here. Believers in faith healing let their children and loved ones die of preventable diseases rather than take them to a doctor. Some people can argue quite reasonably and eloquently that gay people don't deserve the same rights as other human beings and it has nothing to do with bigotry and homophobia. Really. That's just the way things are to them. It's completely and utterly wrong, but that is what they believe and how they see the world.

Ok, I've asked where the line is and what do we do about it, time to man up and actually try to answer the question. I draw the line between accepting other beliefs and speaking out against them where those beliefs start to negatively affect others. If you, as an informed adult, choose to rely on prayer for healing and celebrate the Earth's 6001st birthday then go for it. You're not hurting anyone but yourself. If you deny your children access to medical care because you think God will cure them or try to deny anyone else their rights because your beliefs say they shouldn't have them, you can go fuck yourself. I will oppose you in every way I know how. It's not enough just to extend tolerance to everyone, because some beliefs should not be tolerated.

Obviously there's a lot of gray area here. There is no one universally applicable right answer. Each unique situation must be approached with empathy and critical thought. The only thing shown to reliably decrease abortion rates is to increase education about family planning and contraceptive use. The best way to increase understanding and acceptance of different cultures is to increase exposure and education between groups. Cultural or ideological sensitivity is no reason to allow ignorance to take root and spread. When individual belief comes into conflict with the safety, happiness and education of others it has to take a back seat.

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