Discussion of a paper titled “Respect and Religion,” by Simon Blackburn, is making its way through the blogosphere, and sparking some interesting discussion (particularly over at Crooked Timber, but this is a good read too). The key quote from Blackburn’s article is this:
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. Or, if it is to our advantage that they have false beliefs, as in a game of poker, and
we am poised to profit from them, we may be wickedly pleased that they are taken in.
But that is not a symptom of special substantial respect, but quite the reverse. It is one up
to us, and one down to them.
This quote seems like a good context within which to revisit some of the discussions we’ve had about religion here, particularly since much of what we’ve discussed in the past hinges on the concept of respect. The “New Atheists,” for example, feel that they have a justified lack of respect for all things religious, at least qua religious, precisely because they see religious belief as false, and not only false, but absurdly so. I suspect that this is the reason some religious people feel a lack of respect for atheists as well — atheists, to them, are denying obvious truths. And those of us labeled “appeasers” by the more zealous “New Atheists” are stuck in the middle, potentially disrespected by the religious for our lack of belief, and disrespected by our positivist brethren for showing the religious too much respect. Given the disdain with which “New Atheists” treat religious topics, even going so far as to claim, in some cases, that studying religion from a psychological perspective is pointless, as (many of them seem to believe) is any scholarly study of religion whatsoever, and given the generally derogatory tone of the discussions between Christians, “New Atheists,” and we Chamberlains, then, respect seems like one of the more important issues we should be discussing. So I thought I’d say a little bit about my own views on the topic.
Let’s start here. Everyone has false beliefs — a bunch of them, in fact. I’d even venture to guess that if we audited any random individual, atheist, theist, or whatever, we’d find that most of their beliefs are false. Most of us, I assume, would change our beliefs if we could figure out which ones were false and which weren’t, but in most cases, it’s just not possible to figure out which of our beliefs are false. Either there’s not enough information available (the history of science is a good analogy here), or we’ll just never come across any good reason to change a false belief, and it simply doesn’t matter one way or the other in our lives whether we change the belief. So the truth or falsity of a person’s beliefs seems, to me, pretty shaky ground on which to rest respect.
Of course, religious beliefs aren’t just any old beliefs, for theists or atheists. Religious beliefs guide lives, cultures, laws, etc., in deeper and broader ways than just about any other set of potentially contested beliefs. But their truth and falsity is, still, hardly certain in any objective sense on either side, no matter how certain particular individuals may feel about their own beliefs. It’s not as though most of us can’t imagine (at least logically) possible situations in which our beliefs change, and those of us who are being honest with ourselves can also admit that there are rational, even potentially convincing lines of argument that lead to beliefs other than our own. So even with beliefs as important as religious beliefs, perceived truth or falsity seems like a poor basis for assigning or denying respect.
It seems to me, then, that Lindsey of Regardant les Nuages is on the right track when she writes:
That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.
Of course, there’s a lot that needs to be explained in that quote. What I appreciate about “how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs,” and what others appreciate about those things, can differ pretty widely. For example, it’s trivially true that most people arrive at their religious belief — as most people arrive at most beliefs — without a great deal of reflection. This may be one place where at least first-generation atheists have a leg up on most theists. We’ve arrived at our religious beliefs, or our beliefs about religion, through shedding previous beliefs, and that offers at least an easy opportunity for thinking beliefs out a bit. And I have to admit that the religious people I respect the most are people who’ve spent much of their lives studying their religion. Still, arriving at one’s beliefs through careful thought doesn’t quite do it for me as a criterion for respect. I can still respect people’s religious beliefs even if they haven’t attended Bible study once or twice a week for years, for example.
It’s important, then, to add some other factor related to the reasons for believing what one believes. The people I respect the most, theists and atheists, are those who promote their beliefs, and criticize the beliefs of others, only to the extent that they’ve actually thought things through. One of the reasons I have so little respect for most “New Atheists” is because it’s quite clear that they haven’t thought a whole hell of a lot about religion, but they still spend much of their time attacking it. When they justify their lack of intellectual attention to religion by saying that it’s absurd on its face and doesn’t warrant careful thought, my respect for them drops even further. And I feel the same way about the “New Atheist’s” Christian equivalent, the rabid evangelical who has never considered alternatives. So I suppose my formulation for respect begins, I suppose, with the consistency between how far one takes one’s beliefs and how deeply one’s reflected on them.
The second part of Lindsey’s formula is “how she lives out those beliefs,” and I suppose what I’ve just said touches on that. But there’s another part of it. Most people have beliefs that guide their behavior and determine their values. And to be honest, I couldn’t care less whether people’s behavior and values, at least as they practice them, are consistent with their religious beliefs. Because when I am deciding whether I respect a person, I default to my own values. Do they behave in a way that’s consistent with my own core values, things like tolerance, empathy, and equality? Again, this is one of the reasons I have so little respect for “New Atheists” in general — they tend not to exhibit any of those three things, and their anti-intellectualism, at least with respect to religion, is inconsistent with another of my core values. And it’s also why I have so little respect for many religious people — their intolerance and lack of empathy for women, gays and lesbians, people of other cultures, etc. makes it damn near impossible for me to respect them or their beliefs. In the end, I guess, it’s the products of people’s beliefs, and not their truth and falsity, that determines whether I respect them. If the products of your belief are fundamentally inconsistent with my values, then I can’t and won’t respect you, and I won’t apologize for that. It seems to me a much better reason to respect someone or not than tentative and elusive things like perceived truth and falsity.