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Americans are skeptical of religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination rules. According to a recent Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans suspect that those who claim a religious exemption are “just using religion as an excuse to avoid the vaccine.” But let’s be cautious in judging other people.  It is difficult to judge the sincerity of our own beliefs. It is even harder to evaluate the sincerity of another person’s beliefs. That’s why we need toleration. There is wisdom in leaving other people alone, even when they are hypocritical and confused.

Atheists in foxholes?

Human beings are shape-shifters and opportunists. We adapt to environments. We respond to changing circumstances.  Sometimes, we make mistakes. Hopefully, we learn from them.  Stoic firmness is a rare achievement. 

Some philosophers go so far as to claim that character and integrity are mythological.  Situationism is the idea that character depends upon circumstances.  Education and culture shape our beliefs and our behaviors.  When in Rome, we tend to behave as the Romans do.

A related idea says that there are no atheists in foxholes. Phil Zuckerman has shown that this old adage is false. Some soldiers become atheists precisely because of the stupidity and cruelty of war. Situationism teaches that we can’t predict what we will believe until we are actually thrown into a foxhole. Some will turn to God. Some will turn away. And some will remain confused.

Our beliefs evolve in response to new knowledge and changing circumstances.  But mostly we fumble about.  And sometimes we change our minds.

The strangeness of belief

Beliefs are strange things.  They exist somewhere in the subconscious mind.  They don’t become manifest until they are put to the test or somehow called forth.  Until we are in a foxhole—or asked to wear a mask or get a vaccine—we don’t know what we might believe. 

If it is difficult to understand and predict our own beliefs, it is even more difficult to judge the beliefs of others.  It is not impossible to figure out when people are lying or deceiving themselves.  But it is more difficult than we might think. 

One difficulty is that declarations of belief are self-reinforcing.  When you declare you believe something, you tend to double down on that belief.  That’s one of the reasons that clubs, churches, and courtrooms ask people to publicly swear oaths and affirm creeds.  Once you state something publicly, you are more likely to believe it. 

There are liars and hypocrites.  But most people say what they believe and believe what they say.  And social systems reinforce creeds, oaths, and beliefs.  Our beliefs do not exist in isolation within our heads.  Rather, they are supported and encouraged by social institutions.

Some critics of secularism appeal to this idea.  They worry, for example, that when prayer and the Bible are taken out public life, people will abandon religion.  This worry is, in fact, a kind of situationism.  It suggests that religious belief is the result of social pressure and supporting institutions.  The religious critic might be right that when religion is removed from the public sphere, religious belief will fade.  The growth of non-religion in recent decades could be used as evidence to support a situationist theory of belief.

Toleration and inward sincerity

Of course, the Founding Fathers did not intend to undermine religion when they drafted the First Amendment.  They wanted to allow diverse Christian people to peacefully co-exist.  The Founders also tended to follow John Locke in thinking that religious belief required “inward sincerity” that was not susceptible to institutional pressure.  As Locke put it, “men cannot be forced to be saved,” rather, “they must be left to their own consciences.”

But freedom of conscience makes faith more difficult. Belief is easier when social institutions reinforce orthodoxy. In a secular system, it is up to us to figure out what we believe. This is challenging but worth the effort. Freely chosen beliefs tend to be stronger than beliefs that result from conformity and peer pressure. 

Tolerating the hypocrites

And now, let’s return to religious vaccine exemptions.  Some people may be lying when asking for a religious exemption.  But secular toleration encourages us to give people substantial lee-way when it comes to expressions of faith. 

Religious liberty allows us to figure out what we believe and why.  It also allows us to make mistakes and change our minds.  So long as the harm of an exemption is not too large, we should tolerate nonconformity.  We might even tolerate a few liars and cheats.  In the end, we all benefit from a secular system that allows us the freedom to figure out what we actually believe. We benefit from strong protections of religious liberty, even though some hypocrites may abuse their freedom and lie about the sincerity of their faith.

Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...