This paper (PDF format) by British philosopher Simon Blackburn is getting some attention in the blogosphere. Let’s have a look.
Blackburn addresses the question of what it means to respect religion, from the perspective of an atheist. The essay is perfect, by which I mean that it says exactly what I think needs to be said on this issue.
Particularly important is the distinction between different kinds of respect:
`Respect’ of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum, from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverance and deference. This makes it uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes. People might start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions.
Well said. It is an important point. I am a big fan of the moral principle that says that as long as you are not hurting anyone else you should be free to do pretty much whatever you want to do. If respecting religion means simply allowing religious people to go about their business without interference from me then I am all about respect. I would simply add that you are far more likely to see religious people interfering with atheists, by trying to have the government promote their religion in some way, than you are to see atheists interfering with religious people.
In that way of looking at things it is not really religion per se that is being respected. Rather, it is the value of personal freedom that is being respected. There are many sorts of ideologies and viewpoints I find unappealing; Communism, Libertarianism and Neo-Conservatism come immediately to mind; but I find little difficulty in showing them this minimal level of respect. Heck, you could be a Nazi and I would still show you this sort of respect.
Another sense in which we might respect religion, discussed by Blackburn, is in our willingness to make certain sacrifices in recognition of the importance religion holds for other people. If someone says they will not show up to work tomorrow because they do not feel like doing so, we would not have much respect for that person. But if they say they will not show up because of some religious observance most of us would be inclined to let it slide. That is why I don’t see it as a violation of the separation of church and state when the government makes Christmas a federal holiday. That’s not the government endorsing religion. That’s the government recognizing that Christmas is so important to so many people that it is best on practical grounds to make it a holiday.
In what sense, then, should we disrespect religion? First, most of the great religions make definite fact claims about how the world actually is. They make these claims based on lines of evidence (such as the testimony of holy texts, or direct divine revelation) that ought to be regarded as untrustworthy by sensible people. Furthermore, a great many of the fact claims of religion are plainly false by any reasonable use of that term. If your religion asserts that the Earth is 10,000 years old then your religion is wrong and that is all there is to it.
Worse, religious belief is unique in its ability to drive its adherents to manifestly unreasonable behavior. It is nearly always a bad thing when large numbers of people in the same general geographical area come to an agreement about what, precisely, God wants them to do. There is something about the tribe mentality and the unwavering respect for clerics promoted by so many of the world’s religions that makes it exceedingly difficult for their followers to show even the minimal sort of respect for non-believers. The problem with religion is not merely that it promotes false beliefs, though that is certainly very bad. It is that promotes ways of thinking and behaving that routinely lead to very bad consequences.
In these senses religion and religious believers ought to be disrespected. You have the right to whatever beliefs and rituals make you happy. But the rest of us don’t have to pretend that your beliefs are in any way admirable. Your religion might drive you to extraordinary acts of charity and self-sacrifice, and if it does then I will have nothing but respect for your actions and your behavior. You might be deserving of respect in a hundred other ways. But not for your religious beliefs themselves. Again, Blackburn makes this point well:
We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it–not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.
There is much more to Blackburn’s essay, and I recommend the whole thing. Alas, I teach my evening class on Wednesdays so I will stop here. Several other bloggers have weighed in. Razib over at Gene Expression replies here, as does Chris at Mixing Memory here . I disagree with some of what Razib says and I strongly disagree with almost everything Chris says, but we will save that for a different post. Also check out Harry’s response over at Crooked Timber and Lindsey’s response over at Regardant Les Nuages. Actually, so far I have only skimmed those last two so I don’t have any reaction yet myself. Go read them yourselves and let me know wht you think!