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.