Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians)

Edit: Me, being a horrible boyfriend, did not notice that my lovely lady-friend posted about respect yesterday.  She makes some good points as well.


One complaint from the religious and accommodationist alike is that we gnu atheists do not demonstrate respect for religion.  We say critical things about the doctrines of various beliefs, we are strident, and we are arrogant.  There are a number of points to be made in favor of a direct and critical approach (and many have made them in addition to my own comments), and one of them is to make a distinction between respect for an idea and respect for a person.  I want to take this idea and expand it a little; I would like to explore the distinction of respect for ideas, people, and rights.

Respect for Ideas
One issue I have with a number of people who are not comfortable with criticism of people’s beliefs is the issue of whether they actually respect another person’s beliefs.  Very often I will hear a person who does not share a religious belief with someone else say that they still respect their belief.   I am not sure this is true, at least in the sense I am using the word ‘respect’ here; I think what is being confused here is a respect for their right to believe what they want, not for the belief itself.  The issue for me, here, is whether it is possible, or even conceivable, to respect an idea that you don’t accept as true.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after having been tortured, crucified, and placed in a tomb.  I find this claim to be unbelievable.  The evidence that would be required to accept such an extraordinary claim are not present, the circular logic of the Bible being a trustworthy source is insufficient, and all I know about nature does not make such an event probable.  As a person who does not accept this belief as a possibility, is it meaningful to say that I can respect it?  Now, I must clarify; I am not saying that the belief should be mocked (necessarily), that a believer of such an idea should be disrespected, or anything like that.  I’m asking if the idea is itself respectable.   To put it more clearly, if the idea were encountered on its own, say if it were read on a piece of paper outside of the context of someone who may or may not believe in it, then could one think it respectable?

With this particular belief about Jesus, I would say that it is not respectable because it does not pass a rational test for probable occurrence.  But it is conceivable to have ideas that I don’t accept as true to be respectable in themselves.  Someone may have an idea that mint/chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, and I don’t agree (I hate the combination of mint and chocolate).  But this opinion is respectable because it is consistent with probable facts (it is conceivable and probable that people like this combination of flavors) and it is an opinion based upon a distinct set of physiological states of body that differ from mine; some people just prefer other flavors of ice cream.

More to the point it is respectable for someone to believe that Jesus was a real historical person.  I also happen to not be convinced of this proposed fact, but it is not an extraordinary claim; even if the New Testament is fiction almost completely, it is possible that the mythological literature that resulted was based on a real person who may or may not have been named Jesus (or Yeshua) but whose last name was certainly not ‘Christ’ (as this is the Greek word for the Hebrew word which we use today as Messiah, or ‘annointed one’).  A person who inspired the letters of Paul, the gospels, etc could have really existed; I think this is a respectable position to hold, even if I disagree with it.

But religious ideas are not like opinions of taste, nor are they only about opinions about the existence of historical persons.  Even if Jesus (or Yeshua) existed, the stories of miracles, divinity, etc are still up for grabs and in need of evidence and argumentation to be respectable.  We have different emotional needs, desires, etc about how we live our lives, but religious claims are not just about our emotional needs and desires for fulfillment; they are claims about reality, indeed often about the nature of that reality, and not just historical facts about it.  While for many people the different religious perspectives are akin to the various needs and desires that human beings have, and talking about those differences is like exploring the varieties of human experience with their ‘spiritual’ side or whatever, they are more than that.  Religious beliefs are more than mere metaphors for many people, and even when they are metaphors they are often still contradictory and not respectable.  That is one of the differences between the gnu atheists and most other people; we care about what is true, not what feels good or fulfills some need.  So when we say that we don’t respect an idea, we are saying that we don’t accept the idea as probable or even believable.  We are not commenting (at least not necessarily) on whether the idea should not be meaningful to you or give you some access to poetic beauty, we are saying that the idea does not seem possible to be true and in coherence with reality.

Respect for people

Whether or not we respect the ideas that people have, it is also possible to respect the actual person.  I may disagree with you, agree with you, or perhaps be unsure whether we agree due to some uncertainty of your or my belief, but that little to do with what I think about you.  Now, I have criteria for what I think makes a good person.  For me, it is a desire to be self-challenging, honest, and so forth.  These qualities are things I respect in a person.  I prefer a Christian who is willing to have a frank and open discussion about religion to an atheist who thinks the issue should not be discussed ever.  I prefer a staunch conservative who will listen and respond to issues politic than a liberal who toes the party line and refuses to listen to another opinion.  I prefer people who are wiling to go beyond themselves than to surround myself with an echo-chamber of agreement and demonization of the other.  I want not only to challenge, but to be challenged.  And I want to be around similar people.

A respect for another person, from another person’s point of view, will probably differ depending on what values that person has.  Another person may judge someone else based upon the empathy, kindness, and selflessness.  But what is important to recognize here is that this judgment occurs.  All to often I hear that we should not judge other people (having grown up in a very liberal Quaker environment, I heard this nearly every day).  But this is simply not possible.  Even a Christian who believes that judgment is for their god to make and not them, they are making a judgment.  No, it’s not a final or meaningful judgment in a cosmic sense, but all people evaluate the behavior, opinions, and accomplishments of other people and make judgments about them.  To say otherwise is a form of delusion and is not being honest with themselves; so obviously someone who values honesty will not respect that.

We all judge one-another and we all have varying criteria for making such judgments.  Whether we have respect for other people will depend on these values and will have little to do with the ideas those people have, although their is a relationship between a person’s behaviors, temperament and their opinions to some degree.  The bottom line is that a person’s opinion about religious or political matters will not necessarily tell you if you will respect them.

Respect for people’s rights

I may not agree with you or even like you, but I would be willing to fight for your right to say what you believe openly.  I think that freedom of expression is just about the most important right we as people can defend.

I have respect for people’s rights to belief what they want.  Well, belief is not really subject to the will, so I have respect for what people do believe and to speak openly about those beliefs.  But this respect has to be 2-way; Religious believers of all kinds have the right to their beliefs and to express them.  At the same time, those of us who disagree, think those ideas harmful, etc have the right to have our criticism heard on equal terms.  That is, no governmental power need help disseminate either view, support either view, or even address either view.  Religion should not get any support from the state, nor should the criticism of it receive any support or be silenced by any state.  The state should be simply neutral on such questions, and either support all or neither (the latter being the simplest and probably most wise choice).

You have a right to believe in Jesus, Harvey the 8-foot invisible bunny, or Xenu the galactic emperor.  You have every right to hold whatever ritual you want to (so long as it is not breaking secular law, infringing the rights of non-believers, etc), believe whatever doctrines you want, and to talk about, publish books and other literature about, and even produce audio and video media about your beliefs.  We don’t have to listen, of course, but you can do those things.  And we also have the right to respond to those ideas with ideas of our own (And no, nobody has to listen to us either).  I’m simply not sure how much religious believers would be willing to fight for my right, as an atheist (especially of the gnu variety) to speak my opinions.  I know there are some out there who would, and I respect them (as people) for that, but I also know many would not be willing to do so, and they have some help from the accommodationists.

The respect for the rights of believers is a road of many ways.  You have the right to your beliefs, and I have mine; even if my belief is that you should not have yours or that yours is stupid.  Nobody has to implement my opinion or agree with it, but I have a right to it.  My beliefs are that religion is here to stay for a long time, but I should be able to say what I want about religion.  You don’t like that? I don’t really care.

The Combination of respects

All three of these types of respect differ in ways that will be expressed differently in response to different people and their ideas.

I don’t respect Fred Phelps’ ideas, him as a person, but I do respect his right to hold them and promulgate them.  I am severely annoyed by his tactics, but he and his family/church have a right to them and to say them.  Perhaps we should just ignore them, but we don’t and they keep at it.  Fuck Fred Phelps, but he has the right to be a fucktard and I have the right to ignore him or call him a fucktard.

I respect some of the ideas (especially about the truth of religion, which they rarely address) of many accommodationists.  I tend not to respect them as people, although there will be exceptions, because their temperament is one of dishonesty, faux respect, and politics-playing.  I respect their right to their beliefs.

I respect many of the ideas of the gnu atheists out there, but certainly not all.  what I appreciate is that this disagreement is welcome among the gnus (I hope in all cases).  Thus, I tend to respect them as people as well, but there will be exceptions to this of course.  I respect their right to their beliefs and will continue to fight for the right to say those ideas.

I don’t respect blasphemy laws.  There is no right not to be offended, and to try and make it illegal to say certain things about religious beliefs is short-sighted and harmful to free expression.

I don’t respect liberal theological attempts at universal ecumenicalist worldviews; I find them absurd and short-sighted as well.  Religious traditions have real differences and contradicting goals, interpretations, and values.  To try and ignore these and find what is in common is good for sharing of ideas towards understanding, but ultimately the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of beliefs becomes absurd because it diminishes the importance of the scriptural and traditional sources and makes them mere human ideas (which they are) which undercuts the very tradition they are trying to respect.  The progressive idea that religion is merely a means of self-expression and window into our own spiritual journeys is a relatively new idea, and it cannot be reconciled with all religious views, thus the enterprise is self-defeating.  By trying to respect religion, they are actually disrespecting what the majority of religious believers actually believe.

This is an irony that seems to be missed by intellectual and academic theologians who want the various institutions of religion to be the beautiful thing which they themselves have created out of the various corpses of the religious traditions they had to kill to attain such a perspective.  This type of humanism would be better as a secular activity, which is part of what accommodationists are trying to do.  But in both cases they are ignoring the truth that the religious traditions they have slain to get their worldview still exists around them and is being dragged through history by legions of literalists, moderates, and others who still really believe, not merely as a metaphor, that their god(s) are true and that their will(s) are absolute.  Dangerous ideas!

There are a plethora of ideas about religion out there, and such ideas are part of the larger conversation about religion.  But they need to be directly addressed, and not merely thrown aside or minimized in an attempt to create some ecumenical pulp that is but a shade of the source from which they were extracted.  This only seeks to kill the religion and the truth at the same time.  Good luck with that, accommodationists and ecumenical theologians.

I’ll finish with a short story about an event that I witnessed recently among some friends and acquaintances.  Some liberal Christian people I know held a book-burning recently.  They took some conservative books from their conservative parents and burned them in disgust for the ideas contained within.  This, in my opinion, is the exact opposite way to deal with ideas.  Do not destroy them, hide them, or simply ignore them; face them, challenge them, and demonstrate the absurdity of them.  If you can’t do that, perhaps that says something interesting in-itself.  Perhaps one of the reasons many liberal Christians simply toss aside or physically destroy the carriers of ideas held by conservative Christians is that in some way they cannot directly confront them; they are too much like their own.  And the conservative/literalists will tend to have a significant percentage of scripture to back up their discrimination of the queer community, even if they can’t back up their conservative politics.  Their is a real battle between what a lot of scripture says about things and what a lot of liberal religious people value, and so it is difficult for liberals to directly confront their conservative parents, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The only real way to do this is to simply leave religion behind and not use any authoritative source for truth.  Freethought is still the best option for either liberal or conservative values, as it does not tie you to any doctrines or truths.  You only need to follow the evidence, not any book.

I think that one of the reasons that liberal theologically-minded people, accommodationist atheists, and other mainstream people are so annoyed by both gnu atheists and many literalistic religious people is that we are actually concerned with what is actually true.  Many other people are concerned with what their emotional needs and desires are; what makes them comfortable.  I think this is part of the reason that the issue of respect gets so thorny.  People’s ideas are so-often a reflection of their values, and we are not supposed to disrespect people’s values.  But the truth is that I don’t respect many people’s values, and neither do they respect mine.  As liberal and progressive people, many literally do not respect each-others values, even when one of their values is to respect other people’s values.  This fact goes a long way for me, and perhaps is a bane for many others.

So, let’s stop the pretenses of respect and start really talking about our beliefs.  Respect, for me, starts with honesty, not treating other adults with different ideas like emotionally insecure children.  My disagreeing with your belief is not disrespect, but people trying to shut critics up is disrespect because they are not allowing us the right to our beliefs.  Respect is really only relevant when it infringes on the ability to practice what we believe, and ironically it is the accommodationist and the ecumenical types that do this while pointing the finger of blame at their target.

Oh, the irony!


4 thoughts on “Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians)

  1. This was the most i’ve enjoyed reading a post about atheism (away from Greta Christina’s blog, i should admit) in a year or so. I’m glad to have found your nook! I think that the trichotomy you introduce serves to frame the discussion more clearly than the dichotomy you replace, and these is the first model i’ll resort to when the conversation finds me in the future. Thanks!

    Similarly to the reader’s request from one of your tabs, i’m interested in hearing any exposition you might share on your growth from Quakerdom (which i understand negligibly) to irreligion. This may just be because i have no experience with Quakers, whereas i’ve heard enough Baptist and Protestant leaving-religion and coming-out-atheist stores to be familiar with the most common basic threads.

  2. I thank you so much. I read Greta Christina often and take that as a very high compliment.

    As for Quakerism, I’ll say this. In my experience it is just about the most liberal of people you will be around. Most of my teachers were hippies or hippy-friendly, many were gay, and the theology of Quakerism is very liberal. Having been derived from the larger Western European tradition, it is not unrelated from the Amish, but their view is much less conservative, ascetic, not are they backward about technology. Much of the theology seems to have been influenced by the Romantic movement, in my opinion.

    Basically, it is an idea that all people have a spark or light of God (some say the holy spirit) in them and that this god is a peaceful, loving, and quiet presence. On occasion, it will compel you to act through you. The services I got used to as a kid were people sitting in a silent room with no clear leader, no liturgy, and no ritual. When people were moved to speak, they did and tehn sat back down in silence. This was usually followed by general announcements and comments from teachers (Quaker school)

    Now, in some Quaker congregations (especially on the West coast, fromwhat I have been told) this is different, and in some cases their is a hierarchy, rituals, etc. But they are pretty lax and usually is a liberal community with communal and left wing politics being common among members.

    I never believed in any god myself, although I might have thought of some Spinoza-esque concept from time to time (*pantheism, at most), but benefitted from the quiet reflection of the meeting house services which I still enjoy today. Later, I discovered atheism. More precisely I found that I had always been one, upon learning about what it was. My actrivity in the community didn’t arise until later because I had little to no exposure to conservative religious ideas until I was in college, and found it disturbing and dangerous. I have subsequently found that the very concept of faith to be dangerous and argue against both liberal and conservative (and moderate!) theologies equally, although I am more immediately concerned with conservative policy informed by literalism.

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