It would seem that the idea that a person should freely be able to change one’s mind is, well, a no-brainer. And yet in two books I am reading at present, a change of mind was occasion for controversy, and in one case, at least the possibility of danger. In Did the Resurrection Happen, David Baggett includes an interview with Antony Flew after he announced that he had shifted from a lifelong atheist stance to one of belief in God, albeit an Aristotelian, deistic God. This set off a firestorm of controversy and criticism in the atheist community against its one-time arch apologist.
The other change of mind concerned the freedom of a teenager living at the time in my home metro area, to turn from Islam to Christianity, necessitating, in her account, flight from her family, long court battles over custody until she came of age and continued estrangement from her family. The young woman is Rifqa Bary and her book is Hiding in the Light.
The difficulty with a change of mind, particularly, concerning religious questions, is that we are often part of families or communities that share these deeply held beliefs. Conscientious parents often believe it their responsibility to impart their beliefs to their children. And because these beliefs concern matters of ultimate, and perhaps eternal importance, for a child, or even spouse to turn from these is a grave concern. It can also be a matter of shame with one’s community. When you have been a key advocate, or long time co-belligerent, a change of mind might seem a betrayal, or at least a craven flip-flop.
Yet this begs the question of what is to be done when one can no longer in clear conscience hold one set of beliefs, and as often follows, another sense of beliefs is more persuasive. Is there something sacred about the conscience that dictates that belief must not be imposed upon it? Are their loyalties higher than to family or a community of belief?
To the family or community of belief, I can understand how it would be hard not to say “no.” And yet, to assume this stance is to elevate the family, or community of belief, or in some cases, the state, to a kind of godhood, requiring one’s ultimate allegiance. As troubling is the violation of conscience involved in enforcing belief against the will of another that can only result in either the destruction of personhood, or the alienation of relationship.
A change of mind is unsettling. It may raise the fear of what will happen to the person who has changed. Perhaps it raises the question of whether we have been wrong. It reminds us that belief for all of us is living in this place between reason and the unknowns of our lives. Yet the fact that we care so much speaks to our shared belief of both the importance of matters of ultimate concern, and the intrinsic value of the person changing her mind.
Might it be that the pursuit of truth is more important than preserving boundaries of families, communities of belief, or states? Might agreeing to this principle actually serve to forge bonds across our differences? Might agreeing to this save families, not from difference, but heartache?
It is for reasons like these that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following statement in Article 18:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Likewise, the flip side of this idea is that no change of belief should be forced. Actually it seems to me a measure of the integrity of any system of belief that it both renounces any effort to compel belief, or to constrain those who would change their beliefs.
Perhaps on this we could agree. Perhaps.