March 7, 2012

On Respect

When religious believers talk about nonbelievers, and vice versa, often a word that gets thrown around a lot is “respect.” I think we all agree on what respect sounds and looks like. Where we disagree is on what is deserving of respect. The question was thrown into sharp relief recently in, of all places, a discussion of progressive rocker Steven Wilson.

In a recent discussion at Innerviews* Wilson (of Porcupine Tree, No-Man, and now a solo career fame) was discussing motivations, which lead into this exchange (paragraph breaks added):
Are you an atheist?

Yes. I guess I am in some ways your archetypal atheist. I think the whole myth of religion is absolutely absurd. I say this with the caveat that I understand it brings happiness to people who would otherwise be unhappy. There is comfort in it for people who would otherwise be tortured by their own existence and all that stuff. I appreciate those reasons and arguments, but at the end of the day, I’m afraid it’s just a silly fairy tale that mankind has dreamed up because of our fear of death. It’s as simple as that. It seems so obvious to me that’s why we created this myth.

Religion, lest we forget, is a relatively new thing. You can go back as far as the Stone Age to see that man has always worshiped something, such as the sun. But the contemporary idea of religion has been around for less than 2,000 years. I’m speaking as someone that grew up with the idea that if you’re going to be religious, you’re going to be Christian. Well, the Bible was written 200-300 years after the events it supposedly depicts. That’s certainly true for the New Testament and The Gospels. People were employed by politicians and leaders of the church to write it and that says it all to me.

I’ve done a lot of reading and research about religion, because it’s something that fascinates me. What fascinates me is the compulsion or need for many to believe in this nonsense. A great deal of us seem to have this need to fall back on this crutch of faith and belief. People say to me ‘Well, it’s all a matter of faith. You don’t need proof.’ Well, faith for me in that sense becomes a synonym for believing a lie and that’s no explanation at all.
The interview, which touched on lots of interesting musical things, naturally prompted a thread over at Progressive Ears, naturally enough. In the course of that discussion, someone said (bad spelling in original):
I thought the interview was well done with the line of questioning, but once again I am dissapointed with the answers. Steve shares that he is an athiest, and being a Christian, I find that a little dissapointing. But what really dissapoints me is his condescending view of religion. Everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe. I do think you should show a certain amount of respect to others belief system. Ian Anderson is an athiest but is respectful to those who have chosen to believe. Steve gives his pseudo intelectual nonsense as his explanation of why religion is silly. I'm not as dissapointed in his religious beliefs as I am his lack of respect to others.
I’m not sure why “belief systems” themselves are deserving of respect. I’m not sure the author of that post really does, either, hence the reference to Wilson’s “pseudo intelectual [sic] nonsense.” Seems more of a emotional reaction to somebody calling his particular belief system “absurd” and “silly.” I doubt most religious believers respect the belief that the Holocaust never happened or that the moon landing was a hoax (Buzz Aldrin certainly doesn’t!). Or that Xenu brought people here in spaceships that looked just like DC-8s before killing them with nuclear weapons. Or how about this one:
‘God has always been discriminatory’ when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says [religion professor Randy] Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people ‘all that he seeth fit.’ Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

‘What is discrimination?’ Bott asks. ‘I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?’ Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. ‘You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.’
And that’s fine – I don’t respect any of those beliefs, either. Why should any other set of beliefs be off limits?

I suppose there is an argument that religious beliefs are so integral to someone’s identity – people often identify themselves first as Catholic or Baptist or Hindu – that is should be off limits to criticism. That would put religious belief on the same level as race and gender, immutable characteristics that aren’t chosen by the individual. But religion doesn’t work that way. People change their religious beliefs all the time. If you look at the “Why I Am An Atheist” series at Pharyngula, you’ll see that many, if not most, atheists come from religious backgrounds.

Or take my own family. My parents were both raised as church goers. Baptists, even. My mother’s told tales of being scared to death by the hellfire and brimstone to which she was subjected on Sundays. But in spite of that, neither of my parents now are religious. They didn’t take me or my two older brothers to church when we were young. Yet, in spite of that, my brothers have both become regular church goers in their adulthood. Who knows where their children will end up? That doesn’t sound like an immutable characteristic to me.

So if religious beliefs (or lack thereof) aren’t immutable, then what other basis is there for giving them special treatment, shielded from the rough and tumble marketplace of ideas? It is important to people, sure, but that doesn’t make it special. Animal welfare is important to a lot of people. Celebration of good music is important to others. That something is important to one person doesn’t mean anyone else has to respect it.

Since there’s no reason to treat beliefs themselves with respect, then what exactly is deserving respect? On a meta level, there’s respect that’s due the right of others to believe whatever the hell they want. Not only is it OK for people to disagree with you, it’s OK for other people to be wrong about all kinds of stuff. They think you’re wrong about all kinds of stuff, too. As long as we’re not trying to force any particular belief down each other’s throats, it’s all good.

There’s also no reason why a lack of respect for a person’s beliefs on the big issues – religion, politics, music – requires a lack of respect for that person as a whole. I respect a whole lot of people who I think are wrong about that kind of stuff. That’s because I know them as people, not walking ciphers for an idea. We are more than the sum of our philosophical beliefs, after all.

In the end, when people complain that others don’t “respect” their beliefs, I think what they mean is that they’re hurt that someone else could be so dismissive of something so important to them. After all, why is it worse for someone to call your belief “silly” rather than “wrong” or simply “I don’t believe that?” It’s an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one. It’s an understandable one, too, and you’ve got a right to it. What you don’t have a right to is a life free from offense or hurt because of what others think of your beliefs.

UPDATE: John Scalzi addresses a similar point with regards to Kirk Cameron, who has a sad because people tend to tell him what they think of his ideas. As John points out:
To put it another way: The First Amendment guarantees a right to speech. It does not guarantee a right to respect. As I am fond of saying, if you want people to respect your ideas, get better ideas. Likewise, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence. If you’re going to parade around on television engaging in hateful bastardry, then, strangely enough, people will often call you out on it.
* If you’ve never been to Innerviews and you’re interesting in off the radar kind of music, by all means get yourself over there now. Anil has a great track record of getting interesting musicians to say interesting things.


  1. HI!

    Your other points being perfectly valid, the following:

    "Well, the Bible was written 200-300 years after the events it supposedly depicts. That’s certainly true for the New Testament and The Gospels. People were employed by politicians and leaders of the church to write it and that says it all to me."

    is incorrect on so many levels that I had to dismiss it. The earliest texts date to the mid-first century (Paul's letters.) The gospels were in oral tradition and compiled before the end of the first century. The "reception" of Scripture into the canon was indeed the work of Ecumenical post-Constantian councils, but the process of that reception began much earlier under Roman persecution and involved the martyrdom of many early Bishops and theologians.

    -Randall Stewart (graduated HS with the writer!)

  2. Yes, you're correct. Wilson's a man of many talents, but Biblical history probably isn't one of them. :)

    Thanks for reading!