Ideas and beliefs do not deserve respect

There is a discussion going on all over the internet about civility and belief.  There is a demand that people’s beliefs, ideas, and opinions be respected.  That idea is fundamentally wrong, and we need to get over it.

Ideas stand or fall on their own merits.  If they are respectable ideas, they will withstand any mockery, criticism, or down-right disrespect we can throw at them.  If they are not respectable, then we, as mature adults, need to be able to handle that.

Our ideas are not held for purely rational reasons.  I don’t care how intelligent you are, how well you have thought out your ideas, or even if you are Vulcan.  Our ideas are based upon emotional values that we have, which are beyond our control, and then we rationalize those opinions after the fact.  In many cases, those opinions can be rationally and skeptically justified, but it is not how we originally form most ideas.

If you care about the truth, then you should be able to mock your own ideas and hear mockery with the ability to remain rational. This is not to say that people will not be emotional in such cases, but that we all need to practice hearing mockery by challenging our own ideas so it does not make rationality impossible in the face of such criticism. The truth will attend to itself, whether we respect it or not.

If you don’t care about the truth, then why do you care if others respect your beliefs? If you don’t care about the truth, then you don’t respect your beliefs.  So why should anyone else?

We all, as adults, need to maintain a safe distance from our beliefs.  We should not make them sacred, protect them from criticism, or demand that people respect them.  To demand that ideas remain protected in such ways, we are telling people that we are less concerned with truth than with our comfort.  We are declaring that we don’t care if our ideas are true.  And, again, if truth doesn’t matter than other people’s respect is irrelevant.

This, above, is the essence of new atheism.  This is the essence to the new movement lead by people such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and others who have been called “strident,” disrespectful, or unsophisticated.  Rather than defend them, I think we need to recognize that the charge is loaded with assumptions which need to be smashed open, criticized, and mocked.  The truth is that our various bad ideas, whether religious, political, or spiritual in nature, have survived because of the unwarranted demand for respect.

This bubble we create around our personal beliefs has become sacrosanct in the postmodern west.  It is certainly tied to modern liberalism, and certainly it is the weakest part of liberalism from where I stand (and I identify as a liberal).  We need to stop demanding respect for ideas until those ideas have survived skeptical analysis.

We need to distinguish between respect for ideas, legal protection of maintaining ideas, and people.  The first, that of ideas themselves, never deserves automatic respect; that respect must be earned by surviving criticisms both harsh and gentle.  Legal protection of ideas and of people do deserve respect, as we all have the right to our ideas and our ability to articulate them.

We just don’t deserve respect for those ideas automatically.  And by demanding it, we betray that we know that the idea might not survive criticism.

Criticism is not uncivil.



8 thoughts on “Ideas and beliefs do not deserve respect

  1. I agree with pretty much all of this, but it begs the question – what happens when someone you respect holds an idea that you don’t? Is there any level of deference or humility owed to people who have proven themselves to be intelligent, rational thinkers? When does mocking an idea cross the line into mocking a person? Are the two even separable? Does a person with 99 good ideas, and one bad idea, deserve mockery? How certain do we need to be that someone’s position is wrong before proceeding to mockery?

    It’s easy to say that bad ideas deserved to be mocked. That’s a pretty uncontroversial thing to say in skeptical circles. The dilemma, it seems to me, is how to identify bad ideas with sufficient certainty to warrant mockery, and how to separate the idea from the person holding the idea.

    My take is that you can’t really separate the person from the idea, and that we should all develop a little thicker skin about being made fun of.

    However, the reason mockery ought to be used sparingly is that it’s a form of non-engagement with the speaker. Mocking a belief is a form of grandstanding, done for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of the person being mocked. If you’re trying to actually be convincing to the speaker, mockery is one of the worst things that you can do. For that reason, mocking the beliefs of a person you respect as a rational, intelligent person ought to be done only after all attempts at engagement have failed. If a person displays no interest in rational examining his/her beliefs, mock away! But if you think there’s a chance of actually engaging in a reasonable dialogue, I think going for mockery is a bad idea.

  2. Yes, mostly agreed.

    I would only say that I think it might be worth having some level of distinction between beliefs and people. You are right that the distinction is hard to define in some cases (whether most of few I am not sure), but I more closely identify with my attributes and capabilities than my conclusions. My values, on the other hand, are pretty close to my attributes and capabilities, and those values lead to ideas. It’s a mess that I might want to parse at some point.

    When I think about mockery, I think my first idea is to think of it as making fun of ideas. If a funny observation can be gleaned from an idea, it might pry apart tangential issues and assumptions that pure rational discourse might miss. I don’t use mockery first, and in some cases I won’t use it at all (because I can’t think of anything to say in that tone), but I think humor and teasing exposes truths in a way that pure rationality often cannot, because it pries under our emotional barriers, forcing us to face our emotional attachments head on, which for many is very uncomfortable.

    I think it’s worth-while to not separate our intellect from our emotional attachments, because that separation is illusory in many cases.

  3. In a recent email exchange I had with a friend about this kind of thing, and in it I was saying that friends should feel free to mock each other and be sarcastic (in general and in heated discussions about ideas and beliefs). But after reading Wes’ comment I realize that I was using the words wrong. In no conversation I have had with friends about ideas have I mocked that person. It may have been that I mocked the idea, but I don’t know if mocked is really the right word. In most conversations that I have, I like to insert humor. When in a heavy debate about religion or something, I will perhaps make a joke about, but this generally serves to not only lighten the mood and perhaps explain my point in a better/more accessible way. I think that Wes is right in that if the goal of a conversation is to come to some sort of rational, meaningful understanding, mockery will only lead to alienation of the person being mocked, and alienation leads to an ending to the conversation.

    However, passionately disagreeing with a person’s belief and engaging them in a challenging discussion about that belief is something that I think is necessary for everyone to do. Having a belief is not sacred and untouchable. Having a belief does not make you immune to challenge and having one of your ideas challenged and disrespected does not mean that your entire person is being disrespected.

  4. Well, they say the best comedy is true. South Park, in particular, I love because it masters the artform of mockery to make deadly serious arguments. Again, though, it’s mostly for the benefit of those of us watching who don’t hold the strong belief being mocked. Mocking someone’s sincerely-held belief usually leads that person to entrench further, and it’s not really a genuine attempt at a dialogue.

    I really don’t think it’s possible to separate the belief from the person holding it. Our beliefs are part of who we are. How important a part is up to each individual. But it’s clear that by disrespecting my beliefs, you disrespect a part of me.

    My reaction to this is not anything new. I’ve long felt that, while everyone is due a minimum amount of respect, all people are due different amounts, and I have no problem with the concept that, all other things being equal, people with reasonable beliefs are worthy of more respect than people with unreasonable beliefs. Having reasonable beliefs is part of what makes someone worth knowing, by my preference.

    I also don’t expect my friends & loved ones to completely respect everything about me. I anticipate that people will disagree with me about what is worthy of respect and what isn’t. I strive to be the person for whom *I* would have the maximal amount of respect, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the people I know feel exactly the same. I’m happy with a high level of respect from the people closest to me. It doesn’t have to be 100%.

  5. What I’m saying is that, instead of arguing that you can disrespect my beliefs without disrespecting me, I think the better argument is that you can disrespect a part of me without suggesting that my entire self is unworthy of respect.

  6. that’s just semantics!


    In other words, I think we are saying essentially the same thing, but defining the self slightly differently. I have no strong attachment to my definition of self, so I am not concerned with quibbling over that. Opinions just feel separate from the process which I think of as me, since those opinions are subject to change more easily than the processes themselves. But i recognize that those ideas become embedded and integral to the process the longer we hold them.

  7. Well, I think it’s less about the length of time they’ve been held and more about how important they are to the holder, but yes, it seems we’re mostly in agreement.

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