Blackburn on Religion and Respect

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!

Comments

  1. #1 Reginald Selkirk
    March 12, 2008

    `Respect’ of course is a tricky term.

    That’s why the English language has more than one word. In this case, I think abide would be a better term, and less prone to drift. The dude abides.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    March 12, 2008

    Equivocation on the meaning of respect is not a new thing. Margaret Somerville pulled a similar ploy, for example.

  3. #3 Mark M
    March 12, 2008

    We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart. — H L Mencken

  4. #4 bob koepp
    March 12, 2008

    Ah, yes, respect. For me, the main divide is respect for persons vs. respect for anything some person might think valuable. The notion of respect for persons is at the core of modern bioethics, and it derives from Kant’s idea that persons have an inherent dignity in virtue of their capacity for autonomous choice. It’s that last bit does the heavy lifting.

    So, I can demonstrate my respect for Smith by not interfering with the choices she makes, so long, of course, as those choices don’t interfere with the choices of other persons. But, to go just one short step further, I see no reason to respect the ideas and rationales on which she bases those choices. There’s no need to be snarky about it, but ideas and rationales are fair game. If they can’t stand on their own in the face of severe criticism, they make no claims on me.

  5. #5 royniles
    March 13, 2008

    Respect can also mean taking into account the long history of the particular religion and how it may in the long run have contributed to a more civilized society, or to a more literate and even scientific one – in short, its contribution to our enlightenment. We can have respect for the art, the architecture, the laws, the music, that we have all benefitted from, one way or the other. We can have respect for the power of a particular mythology in the enrichment of its part of the world, and even for the survival of some of the best products of a particular era and place. We can respect that religions built the paths through which we arrived at where we are today. We can respect them as part of our ancestry, even as we put them carefully to rest. We can honor their memory, and build our own secular systems accordingly. Respect means giving credit where credit is due, and some credit is certainly due. But fealty is what the present adherents seem to demand, and that is in no way due. We owe any such duty to the future rather than to the past.

  6. #6 toby
    March 13, 2008

    Isaiah Berlin used to mention the difference between “respect” and “toleration”.

    I could say that I respect religion, which means that in different circumstances maybe I too would be a religious person (which I am not). In this case, I am prepared to allow religion have a large influence on my personal life, even if I am not a believer.

    “Toleration” is a lesser degree of repsect … if I tolerate religion it can mean that I think religion (or a particular faith) is a load of c**p, but I am not particularly moved to limit it in any way, as long as it does not interfere with my own personal freedoms.

  7. #7 J. J. Ramsey
    March 13, 2008

    “Worse, religious belief is unique in its ability to drive its adherents to manifestly unreasonable behavior.”

    Unique? Ahem, but this is the sort of statement to which the counterexamples of Stalin and Mao Zedong are actually applicable. Religion is one way to channel the tribe mentality to destructive ends, but ideological movements without the supernatural trappings have done likewise as well. Come on, you know better than that.

  8. #8 Jim
    March 13, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,
    I think that one could argue that Stalinism & Maoism were if fact religions. Namely, the belief by Stalin & Mao that they were God (for all practical purposes).

  9. #9 Reginald Selkirk
    March 13, 2008


    I think that one could argue that Stalinism & Maoism were if fact religions.

    That argument has in fact been made, by Bertrand Russell and others.

  10. #10 ctw
    March 13, 2008

    Being old fashioned, for the definition of a word I go to the dictionary (.com), which reveals the problem with “religion”. One of it’s multiple definitions fits just about any human activity. Eg, American Heritage def. 4 is:

    A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

    Tennis, anyone?

    So, an “X is a religion” statement may be arguably true but is effectively meaningless in the absence of agreement on which definition is being assumed.

    OTOH, in both entries the first definition includes “superhuman” or “supernatural”, which I would guess most people (at least westerners) have in mind when they use the word in the context relevant to this post. In which case, the uses common in this type of discussion – eg, “atheism is a religion”, “Stalinism is a religion” – would be just what they typically appear to be: just rhetorical ploys.

    FWIW, I second Mr. Ramsey’s laying the blame for much group violence on atavistic tribalism rather than religion (ala one of it’s definitions requiring supernatural aspects).

    - Charles

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    March 13, 2008

    Jim: “I think that one could argue that Stalinism & Maoism were if fact religions. Namely, the belief by Stalin & Mao that they were God (for all practical purposes).”

    If you stretch the meaning of “religion” beyond its normal usage, and especially if you stretch the meaning of “god” beyond its normal usage, you can argue that. However, that makes for confusing discussion. Also, it tends to reduce religions to mere ideologies, while in much of religious practice, ideology tends to take a back seat, and even that presumes that the religious beliefs in question are even organized enough to call them an ideology, rather than being a hodgepodge of myths. For example, it would be stretching it to call ideologies such things as Greco-Roman paganism, or tribal religions, or New Age beliefs.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey-

    I wrote:

    Worse, religious belief is unique in its ability to drive its adherents to manifestly unreasonable behavior.

    That does not mean that religious belief is the only reason anyone ever behaves unreasonably. It means simply that religious belief is an especially effective, I would argue the most effective, way of making large groups of people behave in unreasonable ways.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    March 13, 2008

    “That does not mean that religious belief is the only reason anyone ever behaves unreasonably. It means simply that religious belief is an especially effective, I would argue the most effective, way of making large groups of people behave in unreasonable ways.”

    Then why not say, “Worse, religious belief is especially effective in its ability to drive its adherents to manifestly unreasonable behavior”? What you wrote is as misleading as saying that theology “has not moved on in eighteen centuries.”

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey -

    It’s fairly common to use the phrase “unique in its ability” to mean “has this ability in far greater quantity than anything else” as opposed to “is the only thing that has this ability.”

    But since it causes me great psychic pain to think that I have irked you in some way, I promise to choose my words more carefully in the future. Happy? :)

  15. #15 royniles
    March 13, 2008

    Religion doesn’t “make” people act unreasonably any more than unreasonable people “make” the religion that’s appropriate to their state of relative ignorance.

  16. #16 bob koepp
    March 13, 2008

    Jason -
    I don’t want to defend religion, but…
    Granted the fairly common reading you recommend for ‘unique in its ability,’ this is still an empirical claim. And, since it involves the notion of ‘uniqueness,’ it’s a very strong empirical claim. I doubt that you have any evidence that would support the claim about uniqueness, so it would probably be better not to make it in the first place.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2008

    royniles-

    I didn’t say religion makes people act unreasonably. I said religious belief does that.

    bob koepp-

    Do you have a candidate for a social force that has been more successful than religion at making large numbers of people behave in an unreasonable ways?

  18. #18 royniles
    March 13, 2008

    I stand corrected. Nevertheless such beliefs seem to be the way we need to structure information in an understandable way, and the structures suffer as much from ignorance as anything else – and that would be our ignorance of any other way to structure our knowledge except as an add-on to previous structures. Something such as science – also a way some have learned to structure knowledge – can serve to replace the gaps in our knowledge that some of us then judge in retrospect to have been “filled” with ignorance.

    I just have a knee jerk reaction to anything that sounds like there are still forces at work “making” us do something that are outside ourselves in ways reminiscent of the supernatural forces we almost instinctively continue to believe in.

  19. #19 J. J. Ramsey
    March 13, 2008

    “It’s fairly common to use the phrase ‘unique in its ability’ to mean ‘has this ability in far greater quantity than anything else’”

    The claim, though, that religion has the ability to drive its adherents to manifestly unreasonable behavior in far greater quantity than anything else, is still dicey, and again, this is where Stalin, etc. are counterexamples.

  20. #20 bob koepp
    March 13, 2008

    Jason – what J.J. Ramsey said. Political ideologies have a pretty dismal record.

  21. #21 royniles
    March 13, 2008

    Actually it’s sort of a circular tautology that religious belief causes us to be unreasonable, as it was and is our lack of reasonableness that has caused us to have those beliefs. And it then seems as if we’re blaming the ‘god’ aspect of whichever religion for this state of unreasonableness while at the same time denying that any god could have had anything to do with it.

  22. #22 Tyler DiPietro
    March 13, 2008

    As far as political ideologies go, I’d agree that they have just as poor if not worse of a record in causing large-scale societal damage as religion. But that being said, let us look at the commonalities between the two types of belief-system: emphasis on doctrinal fidelity, disregarding contrary evidence, strength in belief that is not neccessarily correleated with the strength of evidence behind that belief, segregation of themselves and outsiders (Christians versus false religions, Communists versus the burgeoise, libertarians versus “statists”, etc.), and many others. There is a reason Marxism is often referred to as a seclar substitute for religion.

  23. #23 Caledonian
    March 13, 2008

    Science isn’t just hostile to religions. It’s hostile to all belief systems – because it explicitly rejects faith as a means for justifying conclusions, and ultimately any predictive system must either be founded upon empirical observation (and thus reduces to science) or be founded upon faith.

    Secular, non-secular, political, economic, social, physical, chemical, supernatural, natural – it doesn’t matter. If it’s a belief system, science is hostile to it.

  24. #24 J. J. Ramsey
    March 13, 2008

    Tyler DiPietro: “But that being said, let us look at the commonalities between the two types of belief-system: emphasis on doctrinal fidelity”

    Careful here. Emphasis on doctrinal fidelity is pretty common in the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, but it doesn’t seem to be a religious universal. Of course, all religions involve beliefs, but it doesn’t follow that the believers even think that much about enforcing the correctness of their beliefs.

    “disregarding contrary evidence”

    This is more of a human tendency than something that is necessarily a property of religion, though religion can fan this tendency.

    “strength in belief that is not neccessarily correleated with the strength of evidence behind that belief,”

    Fair enough.

    “segregation of themselves and outsiders (Christians versus false religions, Communists versus the burgeoise, libertarians versus “statists”, etc.), and many others.”

    This is where it gets tricky and it ties back to the whole emphasis on doctrine. For religions like Christianity or Islam, where the line between “us” and “them” is defined by who believes what, there is a pretty strong us-versus-them dynamic built into the religion. For something like Hinduism, which is less a tight doctrinal system than the collection of myths that have been and are believed by ethnic Hindus, the line between “us” and “them” seems not cleanly defined by the religion itself, but more by tribalism or nationalism.

    That said, where you do see an emphasis on doctrinal fidelity, an encouragement to disregard evidence, etc., come together, whether in a religion or otherwise, you should hear alarm bells ring in your head, regardless of the supernatural trappings.

  25. #25 Tyler DiPietro
    March 13, 2008

    “Careful here. Emphasis on doctrinal fidelity is pretty common in the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, but it doesn’t seem to be a religious universal.”

    Conceded. But conversely, it’s not universal to political ideology either. Everyone has political beliefs, and these beliefs can usually be roughly categorized in their native political context. My point is only that the trait itself is endemic to both religion and political ideology and it is one of the things that makes both often very dangerous.

    “This is more of a human tendency than something that is necessarily a property of religion, though religion can fan this tendency.”

    I agree, though I’d prefer to say that religion and political ideology tend to codify and legitimize such a tenedency. Analogously, it’s a human tendency to be selfish, but certain political ideologies legitimize or even lionize it (e.g., Objectivism), often to dangerous consequences.

    “For something like Hinduism, which is less a tight doctrinal system than the collection of myths that have been and are believed by ethnic Hindus, the line between “us” and “them” seems not cleanly defined by the religion itself, but more by tribalism or nationalism.”

    I’m not all that familiar with Hinduism, but it’s not surprising that certain aspects of it are entangled with ethnic identity. The same is true of some schools of Islam. But I have a hard time believing that only ethno-cultural divisors exist within it. A good example is India/Pakistan, where the segregation exists among a relatively homogenous ethnic group.

    That said, there being more influences on such segregation doesn’t exculpate religion, but merely points out that the influences have more than one dimension. I’m certainly not one to question that such is true.

  26. #26 friar timothy
    March 14, 2008

    A bit digressive, but…

    I have always regarded Marxism (Communism, to all intents and purposes) as essentially religious at its core, albeit minus the usual bells and whistles. To a Marxist, history (or History) is not merely a record of things past, it is a force. And this force has a direction and an end, if not actually a goal. It is a metaphysical and teleological force and is something that a true Marxist believes in. The mission of Communism is to hurry history along its predetermined path to its inevitable end (the Worker’s Paradise.) This is not dissimilar to the mission of the Christian End-Timers who seek to hurry the world along to the Apocalypse, which will hasten the arrival of that other Paradise you hear so much about (and Eternal Damnation, can’t forget that little detail.)

    Communism is godless (like Buddhism) and even a-spiritual (not like Buddhism) but sees humankind as in the grip of an intangible and irresistible force and being propelled to an ultimate, and triumphant, end. Where I come from that’s either religion or hack science fiction.

  27. #27 Christophe Thill
    March 14, 2008

    1. I think this vision of “respect” is incomplete. It posits a single axis that goes from pure neutrality to active endorsing. Actually, it should also go towards the negative. And there’s a second axis, that is orthogonal to the first, and it goes from pure inaction to active defense of a right to exist.

    For instance, my neighbour can grow the ugliest flowers and the foulest tasting vegetables in the whole world, or so they appear to me. But I’d be ready to fight with him in defence of his right to grow them. Isn’t this a higher form of respect ?

    2. “To a Marxist, history (or History) is not merely a record of things past, it is a force. And this force has a direction and an end, if not actually a goal.”

    I totally disagree, but it may be because Marxism is like evolution, in a way: it is interpreted differently by different people, according to their worldview. There are the equivalent of theistic evolutionists, and they would approve of this view. But actually it contradicts an important principle of Marxism : materialism. History is not a god, it has no mind, no purpose, no higher plan. It’s just the narrative of what happens, of the causes and effects of events. Social sciences tell us that there are general regularities that introduce some predictability in human affairs. For instance, when a society discovers the way to double its production of food, we know it will have consequences for its demography, its spatial development, etc, all the way up to the structure of political power. Of course it’s a matter of more or less likely paths in the future evolution of a society, not of certain predictions.

  28. #28 J. J. Ramsey
    March 14, 2008

    Tyler DiPietro:

    “I’m not all that familiar with Hinduism”

    Neither am I, but from what I’ve gleaned here and there, it seems to have been like Greco-Roman paganism in the sense that it hasn’t really been an “ism” so much as whatever the typical beliefs of a certain ethnic group (Greeks & Romans/Hindus, a.k.a. Indians) happened to be. Not sure to what extent that still holds true, though.

    “But I have a hard time believing that only ethno-cultural divisors exist within it.”

    I’d have a hard time believing that too, but with Hinduism, ethnic and religious differences seem to blur.

  29. #29 J. J. Ramsey
    March 14, 2008

    Christophe Thill: “I think this vision of ‘respect’ is incomplete…. For instance, my neighbour can grow the ugliest flowers and the foulest tasting vegetables in the whole world, or so they appear to me. But I’d be ready to fight with him in defence of his right to grow them. Isn’t this a higher form of respect?”

    But that is more a matter of “De gustibus non disputandum,” a matter of personal taste rather than beliefs about how the world is, and Blackburn was careful about distinguishing the two.

  30. #30 Christophe Thill
    March 14, 2008

    You can feel free to insert “the most outlandish religion” in place of flowers and vegetables, of course.

  31. #31 Chris Schoen
    March 14, 2008

    J.J. and Tyler,

    It’s not really contextually correct to talk about “doctrinal fidelity” in reference to Hinduism (or for that matter, Buddhism), both of which maintain that the universe is something more akin to a drama, dream, or illusion, than to our conception of an aggregate of “real” stuff, interacting according to natural laws. Like all religions in this day and age, Buddhism and Hinduism have their fundamentalist strains, with all the doctrinal rigidity that implies, but Indian myths such as the blind men and the elephant have a way of putting the whole notion of “doctrine” in perspective, which is not something we can say for most contemporary science.

  32. #32 ctw
    March 14, 2008

    Perhaps the final word on the sources of inter-group conflict comes from Tom Lehrer:

    - Charles

  33. #33 J. J. Ramsey
    March 14, 2008

    Chris Schoen: “but Indian myths such as the blind men and the elephant have a way of putting the whole notion of ‘doctrine’ in perspective, which is not something we can say for most contemporary science.”

    I’m an engineering major rather than a physics or chemistry major, but in both science and engineering, I’ve noticed a distinct awareness that models of reality are only approximations, partly out of practicality and partly because our knowledge is incomplete. I think you are (1) misusing the word “doctrine,” which is about a concept that doesn’t really fit well with science, and (2) overestimating the level of certainty that scientists have.

  34. #34 Chris Schoen
    March 14, 2008

    J.J.,

    Obviously there’s no single answer about how much certainty “scientists have.” It’s going to vary, depending on the scientist. And it should be mentioned that there are many working scientists who don’t follow a correspondence model of reality.

    But there are many that do. Perhaps they are over-represented among the scientists who write popular books and articles, but this in itself is a large part of how public science gets transmitted to the so-called lay community.

    It also varies among disciplines. Biology has not yet caught up with the sophistication of physics, for example. That’s an insanely general statement, but it’s accurate enough to make the point. And then there will be other fault lines, like applied versus theoretical science.

    But your warning that I was overgeneralizing about doctrine in science is well taken.

  35. #35 Tyler DiPietro
    March 14, 2008

    “And it should be mentioned that there are many working scientists who don’t follow a correspondence model of reality.”

    You’ll be hard pressed to find a scientific publication that talks extensively about what “model of reality” they’re using, at least outside of that which is necessary to exposit empirical results. I’m afraid I really just don’t see what your point is. Are you trying to argue that Hindus have more justification for certainty in their “beliefs” than practicing scientists?

  36. #36 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    Tyler,

    That’s just what I’m saying. Metaphysics are rarely explicit; in fact they’re not generally conscious, though they are accessible to anyone who will explore them through an examination of language and intellectual history.

    The point about Hinduism is not that it provides a greater justification than any other belief system. What I meant to convey was that Hinduism doesn’t take the notion of “reality” as seriously as other belief systems, because in the Hindu world-picture, reality is just an act. Part of this involves an emphasis on perspective, or subjectivity, which is something that science, for all it’s many strengths, sometimes loses sight of.

  37. #37 Tyler DiPietro
    March 15, 2008

    “What I meant to convey was that Hinduism doesn’t take the notion of “reality” as seriously as other belief systems, because in the Hindu world-picture, reality is just an act.”

    Man, I’m not even going there.

  38. #38 The Faith Voice...
    April 18, 2008

    Go to http://www.thefaithdebate.com to discuss this issue.