Friday, December 23, 2011

Should non-believers respect belief?

Because theists have made their religious beliefs so integral to all their considerations and opinions they often mistakenly interpret disrespect shown to their beliefs as disrespect for them personally. 

While it's true that there are non-theists who hold a grudge against theists personally for psychological and physical harm they received from believers in the past, the majority of non-believers I know, have heard or have read, reserve their criticism for the beliefs and dogma of theists and hold no particular objection to theists as individuals. We don't find it necessary to kill the messenger for the message they deliver. 

This differs from the practice of theists in condemning atheists, heretics and non-believers to eternal suffering, hell or death for their opinions. Since theists cannot appreciate the difference between themselves and their opinions they cannot appreciate that difference in others. They consider the atheist inseparable from their lack of belief and condemn them both as one. 
Religious beliefs are granted respect and exempted from criticism in our culture for no good reason. The stories found in religious tomes are juvenile and ridiculous, worthy of disrespect by any thinking human. Passively allowing religious beliefs to be disseminated without objection is to grant them a validity they haven't earned. 

Allow me to quote two writers on this topic:

Cover of "H.L. Mencken on Religion"
Cover of H.L. Mencken on Religion
 

"The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive.

But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed. 

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly.  The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism." H.L. Mencken on Religion
English: AC Grayling at the Edinburgh Book Fes...
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It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason - to believe something by faith - is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so.

It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world's many religions.

We might enhance the respect others accord us if we are kind, considerate, peace-loving, courageous, truthful, loyal to friends, affectionate to our families, aspirants to knowledge, lovers of art and nature, seekers after the good of humankind, and the like; or we might forfeit that respect by being unkind, ungenerous, greedy, selfish, wilfully stupid or ignorant, small-minded, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, violent, and the like. Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists.

That is why the respect one should have for one's fellow humans has to be founded on their humanity, irrespective of the things they have no choice over - ethnicity, age, sexuality, natural gifts, presence or absence of disability - and conditionally (ie. not for intrinsic reasons) upon the things they choose - political affiliation, belief system, lifestyle - according to the case that can be made for the choice and the defence that can be offered of the actions that follow from it.
It is because age, ethnicity and disability are not matters of choice that people should be protected from discrimination premised upon them. By contrast, nothing that people choose in the way of politics, lifestyle or religion should be immune from criticism and (when, as so often it does, it merits it) ridicule.

Those who claim to be "hurt" or "offended" by the criticisms or ridicule of people who do not share their views, yet who seek to silence others by law or by threats of violence, are trebly in the wrong: they undermine the central and fundamental value of free speech, without which no other civil liberties are possible; they claim, on no justifiable ground, a right to special status and special treatment on the sole ground that they have chosen to believe a set of propositions; and they demand that people who do not accept their beliefs and practices should treat these latter in ways that implicitly accept their holder's evaluation of them.
AC Grayling

When it comes to individual theists the ones we atheists do disrespect personally and for good cause are the profiteers of religion, the priests and ministers who's primary use of belief is to empower and enrich themselves. The Vatican and Crystal Cathedral stand as testimony to some leader's shameless and inexcusable bastardization of a message of peace and love toward the unfortunate and poor into an excuse to collect money from these same people and use it to pay for their expensive cars and lavish homes and churches. They are intellectual pirates living off the proceeds of theft.

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