Believe What You Want, Just Don’t Force it On Others

It’s Nonsense! Here’s Why…

Dan Foster
Feb 13 · 7 min read
Image by BrianAJackson in Envato Elements

According to the Los Angeles Times, of the 178 runners who participated in the 1993 NCAA Track and Field Championships 10,000 meter race, only 5 ran the correct course— And they finished in the bottom five places.

The runners were following a course that had been marked for them by the race officials, but near the end of the race the lead pack missed a turn and headed off in the wrong direction. Everyone else followed. The race favorite — a guy named Mike Delcavo — realized the error and started waving and yelling for the pack to follow him down the right course. “You’re going the wrong way!”

And he was right — but only four other runners followed him. The rest continued on the shortcut, which allowed them to run a shorter distance and finish the race sooner. In a widely-criticized decision, race officials allowed the abbreviated route to stand as the “official course” and the race favorite, Delcavo officially finished 123rd. Doesn’t seem fair or right, does it? But, that’s what happened.

Image by blas in Envato Elements

Have you ever thought about how people determine the right path from the wrong path? Often, it’s whatever is chosen by the majority. Don’t you think? And what was considered the wrong path yesterday can become — rightly or wrongly — the official course today, should enough people decide to take it.

In the same way, in life, we all must answer the question, “Do we follow along with the majority, or stay true to the course that we believe is right?” And, if we are following a course that we believe is right, should we try to get others to follow us, or allow people to chose their own way — even if we believe that their way is the wrong way?

It is a conundrum that David Kinnaman identified in a recent survey of American Millenials. Kinnaman —a leading researcher in matters of faith and culture — surveyed over 1,000 young adults in the USA to find out what they believe about life and the nature of the world — their guiding principles. From this survey he came up with a list of six statements which he believes reflects the new moral code of the West — at least among Millennials.


One of the most significant findings from this study was that 79% of American Millennials believe people should be allowed to believe whatever they want in life as long as those beliefs don’t affect society. Or, in other words, all matters of belief — religious, spiritual, philosophical — should be kept private. If you think people are going the wrong way, just keep it to yourself.

The mantra, “You can believe whatever you like, but don’t force it on others,” is a familiar one to people of post-modern sensibility. But, as an early Millennial myself, I resolved to critique this idea and, having wrestled with it for some time, I have decided that this belief is illogical, hypocritical and, in some cases, impossible.

Here’s Why.

The Illogicality

There is something inherently self-defeating in the statement, “People can believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs don’t affect society.” Here it is: This worldview is based on the idea that private beliefs and actions don’t affect society, and I’m not convinced this is true.

Author, Larry Johnson — who specializes in the discord between Religion and Humanism — explains why he believes this assumption is self-defeating. Private beliefs and actions will always affect society.

He gives this example: The recreational use of drugs (though often a private action) has generally been viewed by society as bad, and society has enacted laws to prohibit such use. The truth is that drug use disrupts the harmony of a society even though it is considered a private act. If a number of people held the private belief that drug use was fine and acted on this belief, would that not affect society as a whole even though it’s done in private? Of course it would.

Taking this a step further, let’s say the whole of society, not just a few people, decided that drug use was acceptable, would that mean that drug use is no longer harmful to society because everyone believes it’s not? No, the truth will not be changed, and society would suffer the consequences of such usage because the society’s worldview is in conflict with the truth. Therefore, private beliefs always affect society even if those private beliefs are not true.

If this is the case, it should cause us to ask some key questions. Namely:

I have this nagging feeling we live in a time when social media keyboard warriors and the media in general — who are quite happy to express their beliefs — suddenly have a more pronounced effect on how society functions and what people believe. Like it or not, those who ‘believe’ the loudest are influencing us all.

Let’s at least be honest about it. We are only trying to silence some voices. Others are free to espouse their beliefs with reckless abandon.

Image by seventyfourimages on Envato Elements

The Hypocrisy

Secondly, there is a great hypocrisy in the idea that “People should be allowed to believe whatever they want in life as long as those beliefs don’t affect society.

Let me explain.

If you say, “People should keep their beliefs to themselves”, aren’t you actually expressing a belief of your own? Therefore, by imposing that idea on someone else, aren’t you inadvertently undermining yourself? Can’t you see that to force the view on others that others shouldn’t force their view on you is both ironic and hypocritical?

The Impossibility

There is also an inherent impossibility in the statement, “People should be allowed to believe whatever they want in life as long as those beliefs don’t affect society.” This impossibility specifically applies to people of faith.

Step back and think about what this world view looks like if we follow it through to its logical end. There is really only one way that you can actually live out this imperative. And that is to keep your beliefs — especially your religious convictions — as private as possible.

Separate church and state. Keep religion out of politics. Keep religion out of schools. Just keep your religion to yourself. I found an interesting quote on a website called the atheist revolution. It said,

“Religion is like a penis. It’s okay to have one, but don’t bring it out in public.”

This is increasingly the prevailing world view of our day. But, this is a huge problem for many people who have deeply held religious convictions that compel them to share those beliefs.

For example, if you said to a Christian, “I respect your right to believe what you want but just keep you beliefs to yourself,” that Christian could more than reasonably respond with, “How can you say you respect my right to believe whatever I want when my belief system commands that I don’t keep my beliefs to myself?”

Fair point right?

You want the Christian to compromise their belief to accommodate your belief but you’re not willing to extend the same courtesy to them. People of many faiths — not just Christianity — feel compelled, called, duty-bound to share their beliefs. But let’s stick with Christianity for just a moment longer. Indulge me.

Consider this scripture from the Christian Bible:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illuminate creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it.

(Matthew 5:14–16)

In view of this instruction, which Christians take as Gospel, to say to a Christian, “Keep your beliefs to yourself,” is akin to saying to the sun, “Please, keep your light to yourself.” Impossible!

Again, let’s be honest. Sometimes when some people say, “You can believe what you want, just don’t force your beliefs on others,” it is actually a form of benign hostility towards people of faith, wrapped up in a thin veneer of political correctness.

Image by Rawpixel on Envato Elements

A Better Way

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t think that we should force our beliefs on others and I’m not advocating for it. But let’s not confuse “forcing beliefs on others” with “sharing beliefs with others.”

Why shouldn’t open, honest, free and respectful dialogue and engagement on matters of belief be encouraged? Even if I don’t agree with someone’s deeply held convictions, I believe that it’s possible to engage in considerate and respectful conversation. If we do, we might even learn from each other.

That’s my belief, and it’s a belief I want to share.

Backyard Theology

Thoughts on applying a 2000 year old religion to 21st Century life

Dan Foster

Written by

Writer & Poet: Learning life’s lessons in the classroom of pain; Writing them down so others can gain.

Backyard Theology

Thoughts on applying a 2000 year old religion to 21st Century life

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