Imposing, forcing, and pushing beliefs

Discussions with proponents of theistic religions, from my experience, can often be difficult to ‘get off the ground’ because of various ‘conversation stoppers.’ Rather than addressing objections and questions being voiced concerning specific claims, variations of ‘I have a right to my own opinion’ and ‘respect my beliefs’ (which I discussed in an episode of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast) may be voiced in addition to other phrases such as ‘imposing beliefs,’ ‘forcing beliefs,’ and ‘pushing beliefs’ …which seem quite slippery. What do these terms mean? Are they properly used? Is it possible to ‘force a belief’ on others?

Imagine a liberal religionist — one not content with vocal proponents of a theistic religion who may also dislike fundamentalist stances on ‘social issues’ such as opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and contraceptive use — who identifies with a religion but does not consider their religious identity to be of great concern. This person, if her beliefs are challenged, may quickly and glibly say “I don’t like when people force their beliefs on others. I just don’t like talking about my beliefs because I don’t want to force my beliefs on others.”

In the first case, the reference to ‘forcing beliefs’ seems to indicate both a dislike of people vocalizing their religious beliefs, in whatever manner, and some sort of moral judgment – it is immoral to talk about religious beliefs because this, in some way, seems to interfere with one’s ‘choice’ and perhaps even may be ‘intolerant.’

There may be moral objections to vocalizing religious beliefs. Perhaps indoctrinating children is unethical. Certain instances of invoking religious beliefs in a therapeutic setting would be unethical – such as a counselor telling a client that she needs to repent of her sins and give herself to God before continuing therapy sessions. Disclosing too much information about religious beliefs, or evangelizing, would be unethical in some or most work settings. Placing conditions on persons’ employment such as ‘attend my church or you are fired’ would be unethical. Various ‘everyday conversations,’ though, containing religious beliefs, seem not to be unethical.

There may just be a ‘place and time for everything,’ but should it be the case that merely talking about beliefs, in all or most instances, is an immoral act by which one is ‘forcing’ or ‘pushing’ a religious belief?

Questions of ‘free will’ aside, it seems to be the case that people just don’t reconsider beliefs they hold following an encounter with someone voicing a particular belief or engagement with particular ideas. As skeptics should know, most people — including skeptics — can be quite stubborn and prone to believing that their beliefs are justified and true. Considering this, it seems to be the case that one cannot force someone to believe something following a simple exchange or brief encounter with an opposing view. If this is the case, the phrase ‘forcing beliefs,’ when used to describe a simple exchange of ideas, appears to be vacuous.

All of this aside, I am extremely skeptical of those who consider all or most cases of critical discussion concerning religious beliefs to be ‘forcing beliefs’ – and it is especially bad if coupled with an objection to a discussion taking place.

As an atheist who is no stranger to confronting religious believers when appropriate, I have been accused of ‘pushing beliefs’ or ‘forcing beliefs’ in some situations – many of which were quite innocuous such as mere questions concerning others’ beliefs when they happened to initiate a discussion about the beliefs.

I have even heard some atheists saying that they aren’t open about their atheism because they don’t want to ‘push beliefs.’

Is vocal doubting really a ‘pushing of beliefs?’ Should skeptics or atheists refrain from vocal doubting? I think not.

Are the people who hear my objections and questions so intellectually flaccid that their own ideas, presumably cherished and held for some time, are somehow being ‘violated’ or ‘imposed open’ to the effect of being unable to disagree with me and compelled to believe whatever I happen to believe about a particular topic? I think not. I hope not (although it would be nice to see less credulity abound…).  [If this is the case, college professors and people who share controversial opinions must be moral monsters!]

Question those who inject the phrase ‘forcing beliefs’ into a discussion. Ask for some clarification. Insist that there this is not a sufficient ‘reason’ for stopping a conversation or otherwise not engaging in discussions to begin with.

Have you experienced situations in which people used the phrases ‘pushing beliefs’ or ‘forcing beliefs?’ What do you think the phrases mean? Are there applicable uses of the phrases? Sound off below.