So there are three factors at work with how we believe: the clarity and comprehensiveness of the belief; the conviction we currently have of its truth, and our willingness to contemplate its potential falsity. And it’s the third factor that is most important when it comes to identifying what constitutes militant or aggressive belief. People are often accused of being aggressive if they criticise opponents directly and strongly. But it seems to me there is no virtue in itself in being either intellectually pugnacious or accommodating. What matters is not how strong and clear own our views are, nor how vigorously we defend them, but how much we really engage with our critics. It’s about taking seriously the best case for the opponent being right and the strongest case that you might be wrong. What is really objectionable is not conviction and clarity, but the abuse, mockery and refusal to acknowledge any weakness that signals a lack of openness to the possibility of being wrong, and sadly, this is all too common.That’s why the fluffy brigade can be as guilty as engaging in pointless argument as their supposedly more aggressive peers. It may appear respectful and polite not to challenge your opponent at all, but in reality, all that means is a refusal to engage with the deep differences between you. As Frank Furedi puts it in his latest book, “instead of serving as a way of responding to differences in views, tolerance has become a way of not taking them seriously.”
I readily admit that I can be irritable, impatient and generally prickly in close quarters. That can carry over into my attitude toward metaphysical beliefs. It’s not that I’m unwilling to contemplate the possibility of something like the traditional concepts of God and the soul being true, it’s just that I have been around the block a few times, I have spent a lot of time following painstakingly pedantic debates and arguments about those topics, and I feel it’s a safe bet that you’re not going to be the one to finally advance the same old “proofs” that have been around since the Scholastics. I did my homework, and I don’t feel like starting from square one each new day. I apologize for any bruising to your self-esteem, but your feelings, whether agreeable toward the possibility of a happy afterlife or disagreeable toward me for being crotchety, do not constitute an argument.