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A contribution to The Place of the US in the World Community: A Discussion

"I Believe ..."
Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics

Paul Grobstein
Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology
Director, Center for Science in Society
Bryn Mawr College
1 August 2003

"I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." ... George Bush, press conference, Wednesday, 30 July, 2003

"And in order to placate the critics and cynics about intentions of the United States, we need to produce evidence ... And I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe ... that Saddam had a weapons program." ... George Bush, press conference, Wednesday, 30 July, 2003

"Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law ... To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral" ... Vatican document titled "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons", 31 July 2003

There will be, as there should be, continuing public discussion, in the United States and world-wide, about both the legitimacy of US actions in Iraq and the appropriateness of homosexual marriage. But Bush's press conference comments, particulary juxtaposed to the related Vatican statement, sound a deeper note about the relation between individual belief and public discussion which is not at all as it should be, and merits far greater attention than it has so far been given. "I believe" needs to be better understood - by Bush and others, and ourselves - as the start of a conversation rather than the end of one.

Bush "believes" in the sanctity of marriage. And that's fine. We all have beliefs, and we all find them useful in making choices in our individual lives. But there is an important reason for the separation of church and state which we (and many others in the world) regard as so essential to a civil society. The reason is that "beliefs" are the property of individual lives, and differ among individuals. And when people don't acknowledge, value, and respect such differences meaningful discussion is blocked and civil society is, in consequence, threatened.

Bush, like any other individual, has every right to his personal beliefs. But for Bush to assert that his beliefs are sufficient grounds to "codify that" is to suggest a society in which what is important are the fixed (and conflicting) beliefs of individuals rather than the discussion to which differences in belief give rise. It is to neglect the esential social conversation which valuably tests and modifies individual beliefs and, in so doing, creates a shared belief with which everyone can live.

The important notion in the separation of church and state (still a sticking point for the Vatican, which contines to assert the fixity of "natural law" and insists it requires political actions) is not only the right to individual differences in belief. It is equally the opportunity for individual beliefs to contribute to social conversation and decision-making, and to be modified themselves in the process. If we are to return to regarding individual belief as adequate grounds for public action, we're in big trouble. Down that path, of course, are the beliefs of, among others, Saddam Hussein, and no way to adjudicate among individual beliefs except by power and force.

One might be inclined to entertain the possibility that Bush, in his remarks on homosexual marriage, was just being less than careful in conveying his argument, and doesn't really misunderstand the relation between individual belief and public policy. But the "I believe" turns up again as an argument in Bush's Iraq comments. And in this case there is no question that what is important to Bush IS what HE believes, rather than any participation in the kind of public discussion that is central to civil society.

The issue here is not only the tarring of people with other beliefs as "critics and cynics". Perhaps one has to be a scientist to notice it, but the most revealing aspect of Bush's remarks is the assertion that "we need to produce evidence" and that "our search will yield that which I strongly believe". Within the scientific community, seeking evidence to support what one "strongly believes" is widely recognized as the antithesis of good science, and the surest route to fraud and embarrassment. It is precisely when one "strongly believes" in something that one needs to be most skeptical of it, lest one find oneself seeing "evidence" where it doesn't exist or, worse yet, creating it.

"Believing" is important in science, just as it is in individual lives. It provides a starting point for deciding how to behave. But it should never, in science, individual lives, or social decision-making be misunderstood as a final justification for behaving in particular ways. The beliefs of individuals are important but to misunderstand them as what one will hold onto until evidence turns up, or what must be codified, is not only foolish but dangerous.

Whatever one may think of Bush's positions on Iraq and homosexual marriage, his manner of talking about them is a significant threat to the civil community for which he is responsible as President of the United States and to the world community that he seeks in that capacity to lead. Its time for others to reassert the importance of a kind of humility that is notably lacking in Bush, the Vatican, and Saddam Hussein. That essential humility is the ability to recognize that "I believe" is the starting point, not the ending point of social decision-making, to acknowledge the limitations of individual understandings, and to trust the wisdom that emerges from allowing different beliefs to be adequately tested by playing against one another in terms of their consequences for a world in which we all need to learn to live together.

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