Respect? The defence to an atheist’s offence is defensiveness and offense

In talking with religious people, one thing I hear from many of them (conservative or liberal, devout or not)  is that their beliefs are personal.  These are things they believe truly, inside, and I have to respect that (that last bit is usually implied, rather than stated directly).

Well, OK.  So are my beliefs.  They are personal and I really believe them.  What does that have to do with respect?

Well, says the defender of such a person, it means that these beliefs are important to them and so we need to treat those people with respect.  And then we get into the whole argument about respect, distinguishing between having respect for the person and their beliefs, etc.  It is, says such a defender, not our place to tell them that their beliefs are wrong.

In such conversations there is a fair amount of talking past one-another, as well as a pinch of differing values and goals.  There is also a fair amount of those defenders missing the detrimental affects of such beliefs on people and society subsequently.  (BTW, I love this post about epistemological and moral values of new atheists)

I don’t want to discuss that issue specifically, but I want to raise another question instead.  When a Christian (or Moslem, Pagan, etc) receives questions or challenges about their beliefs, they often become defensive, offended, and become appalled at our lack of respect.  So, why don’t atheists react that way to their views being challenged?  Why do we, for the most part, welcome the discussion? And, perhaps most interestingly, why are we gnu atheists (in my experience) rarely challenged in a way that we have not heard before?  And why, further, do believers react as if they have never heard something like that before?

Could it be that the believers really have not thought those things atheists challenge them with before that moment?  Could it also be that atheists, specifically the gnu variety, have heard all (or at least most) of the challenges that a believer might bring up?  What does this say about the relative awareness and education about the philosophy of religion between atheists and believers? Well, at least one study has given a partial answer to this.

But more importantly, is it the case that the gnu atheists simply care more about challenging their own worldview? (perhaps not exclusively; I am sure there are quite a few non-gnus who share this quality as well).

All these questions paint the issue with a broad brush, certainly.  But I think a few observations are fair to point out:

Gnu atheists are more prone to critical examination of religious belief.  This is because they often started as religious and through education and thought found a way out eventually, a process which provides perspective, depth and breadth of thought on the topic, and a higher level of justified certainty than most believers have.  Others, like myself, never believed but grew up in a such a way as to be sensitive to the emotional, psychological, and intellectual affects of such beliefs.  We see how people are stunted by such a worldview and know humanity is capable of more (although perhaps only some).  Yes, there are some believers who have studied their beliefs, but it is much more rare that they have honestly studied the arguments of atheists or skeptics.  They have not taken the outsider test for faith, looking at their beliefs from the outside.  And even when they do try and see their beliefs from the outside point of view, it is often clear that they are missing the essential point of the criticism.   On the other hand, when you hear theists declare victory over atheists, more often than not they are pulling out the same old canards again and again.  This frustrates us quite often and possibly offends us (but only our hope for human rationality, not our sense of having been respected).

How often do we hear that we can’t disprove god? How often do we hear about Pol Pol, Hitler, and Stalin?  How often do we hear about TAG or Kalam? (let alone the Ontological argument, argument from design, etc?).  And if I hear Pascal’s wager again, I swear I’ll scream!  (“look at the trees!” *headdesk*)

Similarly, how often to believers hear the various replies to these arguments? And if they do hear them, how often are they really interested in hearing?  How many times have I seen eyes glazed over by anything I say in response to some lame attempt at apologetics? Too many!

I have said a number of times that if there is a god I want to know.  I think the question is important, and I want to know the truth about such things.  Despite this desire, I have found no reason to believe in such a proposed being, so I must conclude that one does not exist.  What other intellectually respectable choice do I have? I cannot prove that there is no god (except for very specific and well-defined gods which are logically impossible), but I see no reason to believe in one and so I do not.  This provisional conclusion is open for criticism and challenge, and I am baffled why most believers do not have this attitude towards their beliefs.  This personal thing that I conclude, these potential gods that I lack belief in, is as personal a thing as it gets.  So why am I not offended at being challenged?  And if I were offended, would the accommodationist assist me in defending my rights to believe what I want with the same vigor that they defend the believer now?  Would they demand respect of my beliefs with the same moral outrage? The irony, as I hope they might see, is that I would hope that they would not try to defend my respectability in this sense.  I don’t want the ‘respect’ they are offering.  Because acting as a shield to criticism is not respectful of people, it is only respectful of an opinion that may or may not be worthy of respect; we’ll only know upon analysis.

Analysis that the accommodationist tries to prevent in the name of respect.

The accommodationist’s flavor of respect is not actually respect, nor is it respectable.  From my point of view, it is ultimate disrespect for any pursuit of truth, human progress, or growth.

3 thoughts on “Respect? The defence to an atheist’s offence is defensiveness and offense

  1. Christians do get taught to answer critical questions like “If God is good, why is there evil?” and “How can you be sure the Bible is true?” In a fairly intellectual, educated culture like I grew up in, there were lots of classes, books, and sermons on how to answer tough questions. What there wasn’t was an encouragement to engage with actual atheists, or read nonreligious books. The format was always, “Here’s what they’ll ask you, and here’s how to respond.” There was never any suggestion that they might have answers to my answers, and certainly no encouragement to go talk to them and find out for myself. Nearly every atheist I know has read the Bible. I’m not aware of any of my Christian friends who have read anything by Dawkins or Harris, though I’ve recommended they do.

    The thing is, you and I — like most atheists — allow for the possibility that we could be wrong. Religion cannot do that. To do that would be undermining its foundation. So we don’t get offended in the same way when someone suggests we might be wrong. We’re already considering that possibility, on an ongoing basis. For believers, it’s an unfamiliar and scary idea. You would never hear a sermon or Sunday school lesson on “What would convince you that there isn’t a God?” the way atheists have written on “What would convince you that there is?” They’re sensitive to criticism of their beliefs simply because they’re so rarely exposed to it.

    Now for believers whose religion is a minority in their culture, sensitivity often comes not from too little criticism in their life, but too much, and for the wrong reasons. We’ve talked about this… if someone’s religion is stigmatized, misunderstood, and prejudicially attacked from the majority religion, then they’re likely to hear ANY criticism as coming from the same place. I think it’s good to be sensitive to that, and to be gentler with minority or stigmatized religions. Majority religions need to toughen up and take their medicine, but minorities need the assurance that our challenge comes not because we’re prejudiced against them or trying to take away their right to believe, but because we have honest doubts about their foundational claims.

  2. Pingback: Luigi Wewege

Comments are closed.