Sam Holstein

Your Beliefs Are Not Inherently Valid

We tend to treat beliefs as something unique to who you are, like eye color and disposition. We consider it taboo to talk about politics or religion. We treat all beliefs as equally valid. That is a mistake. I know this runs counter to the postmodern narrative, but your beliefs are not inherently valid. Your opinions are inherently valid — no one can say you are wrong for preferring Rocky Road ice cream — but your beliefs are not.

Beliefs are a truth claim about the world, and truth claims can be wrong. When you say you believe in God, you are making the statement “I think it is true that God exists”, a claim about which you may be wrong. If God does exist, you are right. If God doesn’t exist, you are not. Period.

Objectively speaking, there is a truth to the way things are. Either the Universe is infinite or finite. Either prayer does or does not work. Either God either does or does not exist. One or the other. We may not know these answers, but they exist. We certainly won’t ever know these answers if we give up on trying to find them in the first place.

We may not like to talk about it, but even in America we don’t think all beliefs are valid. We instinctively acknowledge that some are not. We don’t consider believing the earth is flat to be legitimate, for instance. Nor white supremacy. These are beliefs we consider so clearly, outlandishly wrong that it’s acceptable to debate about (or just plain silence) them. Otherwise, though, we consider debate off-limits.

Keeping debate off-limits in this way isn’t good for us, as individuals or as a society. As individuals, we are losing out on opportunities to sharpen our critical thinking skills and bond with others over important topics. As a society, if we lose the opportunity to have these kinds of conversations (as we are in the West), we will become a people of fractured beliefs, believing a million things to be true. Which means we, as a people, won’t believe in anything particular at all.

Nations need value systems to thrive. Nations without value systems crumble. Look at our own nation. We are at each other’s throats on a daily basis, one party threatening to impeach the other’s president every quarter for the last twelve years. Vast swaths of the population can’t agree on even the most basic facts: Is the President a fascist? Are immigrants bad for our nation? Should abortion be illegal? These questions draw on basic philosophical assumptions about what it means to be in a political party, what ‘a nation’ really is, and what it means to have rights, basic philosophical questions we are wholly unequipped to deal with. If we hope to find solutions to the most important problems, we must be able to understand the problem in the first place.

If we want to avoid this, we need to start talking about the things that matter. You know, things like:

How you answer the questions “should abortion be illegal” and “what does it mean to live a good life” both depend on your answer to the more basic question “what does it mean to be a person?”

It makes sense that America can’t come to a consensus about abortion when you consider that we cannot come to a consensus about the fundamentals.

If we want to be aligned, at the federal level and at the personal, we need to start asking these questions.


Debating important beliefs with others doesn’t always feel good, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you. Sharpening your skills always hurts in one way or another, and debate sharpens important skills like your ability to think critically and make decisions about complex topics. Philosophers themselves acknowledge this.

We acknowledge that philosophical arguments can lead to pain, anxiety and frustration when they challenge deeply held commitments.

Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender, In Higher Ed

Obviously, debate done wrong isn’t worth the time. Anything that’s devolved into one or both parties hurling insults is no longer debate. So how can we have debates which are debates, not just pointless arguments?

First, keep the following things in mind:

Enter any conversation about beliefs with these things in mind:

  1. You may be wrong. In fact, you probably are wrong. Given the kaleidoscope of different beliefs in the world, the likelihood that you’ve landed on the right ones — without decades of study, no less — is exceedingly low. Come to every conversation about beliefs prepared to say “You’re right, I didn’t think of that.” You can’t learn how to be right if you aren’t willing to be wrong.
  2. The person you’re talking to knows things you don’t know. People experience all kinds of different things in their lifetime, and they think in all sorts of unexpected ways. Chances are very high the person you’re talking to will say things that surprise you and make points which have never occurred to you. Because of this, you must listen to who you’re speaking to as if every time they open their mouths, they are about to tell you something you don’t know.
  3. You must treat the person you’re speaking to with respect. You are debating about a person’s belief, not about the person themselves. It’s one thing to say “You are wrong in your belief” and quite another to say “You are stupid.” Anyone who is willing to subject their beliefs to scrutiny by debating with you deserves respect.

Lastly, remember this:

A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

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When you are having a friendly debate, the goal is not to “win” as it is in televised debates. The goal is to expose yourself to arguments against your own beliefs and sharpen your own thinking. If you walk away from a debate feeling calm and understanding more about what it is you believe, you’ve done your job well. The other person, and what they believe, is their own responsibility.