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“Sincere beliefs”

January 18, 2011

There’s a story of the BBC website that pays reading and thinking about. A gay couple from Bristol have won a case against some B&B owners for discrimination after they were refused a room. The B&B owners claimed that it wasn’t discrimination against homosexual couples but against all unmarried couples, but as is pointed out in the interview, marriage and civil partnership are legally equal.

There are some wonderful quotes from the video statement in the article:

Because we wanted to bring our new dog we checked he would be welcome. It didn’t even cross our minds that in 2008 in Britain we needed to ask if we would be.

and

Just because someone’s beliefs are religious beliefs, that does not grant them an opt-out from the law.

This is a wonderful story from a human rights perspective. But something in the story made me sit back and think. Hazelmary Bull, one of the owners of the B&B, is quoted as saying

Our double-bed policy was based on our sincere beliefs about marriage, not hostility to anybody.

Think about what exactly is being claimed here. “Sincere beliefs”. This isn’t a truth claim. There is no attempt to hold the moral high-ground based on the content of the belief. I think there is an emphasis here on the sincerity of the belief. I am open, honest, earnest. I really think and act as if my belief is true. Therefore I should be allowed to act on it without restraint, even if it may appear I am “hostile” to others. That’s what I think is actually being said here.

That’s really dangerous. There’s no epistemic justification for the sincerity on display here. There are no good reasons to not allow gay people to share a bed in your B&B. If it was a sincere belief with justification we wouldn’t be having this blog post. But it’s based on faith. How comfortable are you in a society where people can voice an opinion, hoping for sympathy, that involves justification for discrimination grounded in faith?

I’m two weeks into a theology course. I spent last night getting rather irate at the faith card. It was played over and over again, interspersed with reinterpretations of wonderful thinkers turning their words to religious uses they were never intended for.

For some reason I’d assumed it was a tactic used by, well, people like the Bulls in the story above. But it’s really not. It’s used by intelligent people, by caring people, by people who are reasonable until they talk about religion. It’s not a rare card to be played. It’s not an unpopular card. And it’s accepted by other people that use it. There is an acceptance that argument doesn’t matter if I have faith in my position.

That is dangerous. That is why we have to be rational and face up to any argument from faith to the best of our abilities.

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