In a recent Atheist Revolution post, Jack Vance had this to say about respecting the religious beliefs of others:
The demand from religious believers to “respect my religious beliefs” is one with which most atheists will be familiar. We have encountered it more times than we can count.
Still, I cannot help wondering if some of us might have misunderstood what a believer who makes this demand is actually requesting of us. Moreover, I am convinced that many of my fellow liberals misunderstand what is being requested so much so that they run the risk of creating a host of other problems by attempting to comply with the demand.
When a religious believer demands that you respect his or her religious beliefs, what is he or she really asking of you? Is there something in particular that the believer wants you to do differently? Imagine yourself responding to the demand with something like the following:
I hear you asking me to respect your religious beliefs, and it is clear that this is very important to you. I’d like to comply, but I’m honestly not sure what it is that you are asking me to do differently. Please help me understand what you’d like to see me do more of or less of. That is, if I could manage to increase the degree to which I respect your religious beliefs tenfold, how would my behavior change? What would I do differently?
What I am getting at here is that I do not think the religious believer actually cares that I change my thoughts or my feelings; I don’t think respect is what the believer is after. I think what he or she is really after is a change in my behavior. So what does this change look like? What does the believer want to see me do differently to provide evidence of an increase in my respect for his or her beliefs?
It seems to me that there is really only one thing the religious believer wants to see change in my behavior: a cessation in criticism of his or her religious beliefs. “Respect my religious beliefs” is little more than a demand for silence. It is about silencing dissent and criticism. It is a request that I no longer exercise my right to free expression when it comes to the religious beliefs in question. The believer who demands respect for his or her religious beliefs is demanding that the rest of us grant him or her the privilege not to have these beliefs critically examined…
…I strive to respect people, their rights, and their freedom.What I will not respect are the beliefs themselves. Some beliefs do not deserve respect and cannot reasonable command it. We respect religious beliefs at our peril…
The other day, Polly alerted me to a Facebook discussion between a person who was once a member of a church I pastored and her liberal brother. This church member, while quite polite and kind, is a homophobic, bigoted, racist. This species of Christian is quite common here in white, Republican, Evangelical rural NW Ohio. Political and religious liberals are quite rare around here and atheists/agnostics/humanists/secularists are even rarer still.
The Facebook “discussion” was about homosexuality and the church member was defending her homophobic bigotry by appealing to her Christian faith and the Bible. Her brother, who is also a Christian, albeit a l-i-b-e-r-a-l one, challenged his sister’s beliefs saying that the real issue was justice and civil rights. It wasn’t long before the sister’s fundamentalist Christian family and friends entered the fray to put in a good word for Jesus, the Bible, and homophobic bigotry.
The brother stood his ground and I admire his resolve. This tit for tat went on for a while until several Christians, including the sister, thought the brother was disrespecting their beliefs. They demanded that their beliefs be respected. In other words, they wanted the brother to shut the hell up.
Were these Christians demanding that their peculiar beliefs be respected? I don’t think so. As Jack makes quite clear in his post, this is a tactic used by some Christians to cut off any further discussion of their beliefs. Underneath their demand is the belief that their version of the Christian God is the one true God and the Bible is an inerrant, inspired text that is meant to be read literally. They are not interested in open, honest discussion. They are certain they already know the truth and what they really want is for you to admit this.
There are a number of Christians who comment on this blog that I admire and respect. Over the years, we have become friends. Some of them put up with my atheism because they like my liberal politics. Others are quite tolerant, willing to recognize we live in diverse world where people believe all kinds of things. While they appreciate and agree with my critique of Evangelicalism and fundamentalism, they still believe in God. Many of them are liberal Christians or universalists. None of them, as far as I know, are card-carrying Evangelicals. (they may say they are Evangelical, but they reject the theological and social fundamentalism of Evangelicalism so I suspect they are really liberal Christians)
I have no problem with these kind of Christians. They don’t try to convert me, they accept me for who and what I am, and they respect me as a person. I have had many a delightful discussion with these folks and I have no doubt we would get along well if we lived next door to each other.
But, there is the OTHER kind of Christian…the Evangelical, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, the fundamentalist Catholic…those who have made it their life mission to convert others and to fill up the comment section of this blog with irrational dogma and Bible quotations. Not only do I NOT respect the beliefs of people like this, I also do not respect them as a person. (and I would say the same of anyone who behaves like a troll and displays arrogant, in your face ignorance)
So, if you want me to respect YOU then I expect you to respect me. However, when it comes to your personal religious beliefs, I can not respect them. (and I wouldn’t expect a Christian to respect my atheist/humanist beliefs) Christians believe things that I think are irrational and lack proof. Things like:
- The Christian God exists
- Jesus was born of a virgin
- Jesus walked on water, turned water into wine, and walked through solid walls
- Jesus resurrected from the dead
- Heaven and hell
These Christian beliefs and many others insult my intelligence. As a critical thinker, I can not believe what I don’t think is true. This does not mean I don’t respect a person who believes these things, it just means I don’t respect their beliefs.
Many people have a false understanding of tolerance. They think that we should tolerate whatever bullshit comes out of a person’s mouth, regardless of how insane it is. But Bruce, Christian beliefs are different. Not in my eyes. I view Christianity no differently than I do people who think the moon landing was a hoax or think they were abducted by aliens. I am not making this comparison to be offensive, but it is how I view things. When I person says, I think, I believe, the first thing I am looking for is the proof for their claim. If there is not sufficient proof for their claim then I am not going to accept it. (and we all differ on what we consider “sufficient” proof)
But Bruce, Christian belief requires faith! And that is the crux of the problem. I don’t have the necessary requisite faith to set aside what I know to be true. I know that virgins don’t have babies and I am unwilling to suspend my critical thinking skills and faith it. I know that dead people don’t get out the grave and come back to life again, so I can not believe what I know to be not true. I know that a human can’t magically walk through a solid wall. I actually tested this by repeatedly trying to walk through the living room wall. In every instance I smacked into the wall and could go no farther. Should I suspend belief in what I know and by faith believe that a human, at least one, could magically walk through a solid wall? I can’t do this.
But Bruce, with God all things are possible. He is omni ___________. Again, this is a faith claim, a faith that I do not have. As I have stated many times before, I can look at the natural world and easily understand how a person might believe in a deistic God of some sort. The universe is a wonderful, awesome place. But, when someone says, as most Christians do, that the Christian God created everything and he is personally involved in the affairs of his creation, I am going to want to see the proof for this claim. So far, what I can see and know is that the God that Christians say loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life is nowhere to be found.
So, my dear Christian friend, I love and respect you as a fellow human being. As long as you extend to me the same respect, I will do the same. But, when you demand that I accept your beliefs or demand that your beliefs be given preferential treatment, then I am going to critically examine the claims you make. When you drag your beliefs into the public square and demand that everyone accept their truthfulness, then I am going to study, examine, and test your truth claims. Those beliefs that I conclude are intellectually lacking, socially harmful, or personally degrading, will be met with disrespect, and, if need be, mockery, from me. While I rarely mock a person’s beliefs, when someone tries to pass off creationism as science or the Bible as God’s divine moral standard and God’s road map for life, they can expect mockery in return.
Thanks for reading this post. Please share your thoughts about respecting others and their beliefs in the comment section.