Why I Probably Don’t Respect Your Religious Beliefs
There is a good chance that any reader, irrespective of their religion, will find the alternate title for this essay somewhat blunt and offensive. They might feel that it lacks context, and that is true to a point, but let me be clear: I do not respect, not for one second, any beliefs or viewpoints which are at odds with reason, logic and fairness, nor do I respect any viewpoint which is inherently divisive, masochistic, misogynistic, racist or otherwise ignorant. Indeed, I would go so far as to discourage the use of patently inane phrases such as ‘I respect your beliefs, but’…
To avoid any possibility of appearing hypocritical, it must be said that I myself am guilty of using such a phrase. Yes, I have used the word ‘respect’ when partaking in the religion argument, and it was not just out of reluctance to offend. It is perhaps an automatic response, much like swearing to God or touching wood, but this is not always the case. It is quite often used with varying levels of sincerity, from people on both sides of the debate. I am not entirely convinced that this is simply good etiquette, but even if this is the case I hope to demonstrate how inappropriate this supposed mutual respect really is.
A truly marvellous thing about our species is the way in which we leap so vociferously from one great debate to the next. Such affection for controversy is undoubtedly a product of reason. In any case, we are predisposed towards arguing over absolutely anything: politics, literary taste, and all such personal artefacts. That observation noted, I strongly suspect that, for many people, the phrase I respect your beliefs is synonymous with I respect your opinion. While these may seem identical, if used in the religion debate these are not interchangeable! We may have different tastes in literature, music, art, and all such media, and a basic level of respect for this difference is good and proper. But there is nothing inherently destructive about preferring Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We over Orwell’s 1984 (though some would disagree!) Religious views are not opinions; they are precepts. The blasphemy law, as well as the U.N. resolution on religious defamation, serves only as a reminder (since both are unenforceable in practice) of how religion seeks to place itself above scrutiny and above this human practice of reasoning and debating.
This leads to two other phrases which most certainly are not one and the same: ‘I respect your beliefs,’ and ‘I respect your right to believe.’ Again, this may seem obvious, but let us think about it for a moment. Nobody really respects something they find utterly ‘incompatible with civilisation,’ as Christopher Hitchens frequently puts it. Any viewpoint or belief that merits respect must earn it. It is not ‘standard’, like the base level of respect that we should all strive to show. When a good relationship of mine was destroyed by religious fundamentalism, despite my best efforts, I was quite incapable of doing anything about it. I had set aside my own unbelief, but no such efforts were made for my benefit. When everything fell apart, I was expected to respect the viewpoint of someone who decided to put God’s impending wrath (for associating with an atheist, or more specifically, a person outside this specific congregation) ahead of a healthy friendship. Such a decision is not to be accepted as an artefact of faith. It is a conscious decision to do something incredibly hurtful, and such behaviour is never above criticism.
I would sooner abandon the secularist cause than proclaim disrespect for another’s right to believe, irrespective of what they chose to do with that right. But I will never respect this wrathful God, or his arbitrary laws, in and of themselves. This is not simply down to the failure of these beliefs to justify themselves, that is, to show why they are deserving of respect. One might be able to have respect for an obviously fraudulent belief system, if said belief system could reciprocate. By definition, however, most of them cannot. Pope Benedict does not begin the Angelus by saying ‘Muslims, I respect your beliefs, but Jesus Christ is the Lord and saviour of humanity’… This is only one example, but it illustrates that religion is not in the business of respecting alternative viewpoints. How can it, when such viewpoints are all wrong and will inevitably lead to damnation? (Incidentally, if politics make for strange bedfellows, I would sincerely love to see the situation in Hell, where all the ‘untrue’ paths inevitably must converge).
So we have seen that theistic beliefs cannot hope to justify the respect they demand. Indeed, by their very nature they are divisive and incompatible with the kind of reverence expected from those opposed to them. It would be contradictory to state that such respect could be afforded, if it were only mutual. After all, the average theist may genuinely have respect for the atheist’s viewpoint, despite what his chosen deity has to say for it. Even in this case, it is still improper to claim any sort of respect for their views, unless the views truly have some merit. I was faced with a test of sorts, in dealing with the aforementioned collapsed relationship. I came out of the debacle with dignity intact, having expressed my sincere respect for my ex-partner’s religious freedom, but extreme distaste for how she chose to use it. I won’t go into details, but words used were ‘arrogant’, ‘barbaric’, ‘audacious’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘nonsense’.
Blasphemy of the highest order, given that those words were chosen specifically to be as unapologetic as possible. The reader might consider this immature, or contrary to the idea of ‘base respect’ outlined above. This may well be the case, and yet, given the opportunity, I would handle the encounter in precisely the same fashion. I did not look for an argument; I merely looked to expose her fundamentalism for what it was. And I didn’t even get the go-ahead from my co-religionists (or from God) to behave as such.
A brief summary is in order, then. Religious views, irrespective of what they are, are not above scrutiny. If ever there is a viewpoint that does not stand up to the assault of reason, and which is by its very nature incapable of earning the respect it will invariably demand for itself, I will not respect it. Moreover, I will treat it with the same distaste as that which is reserved for the neo-Nazi or the racist. Religion, as a general entity, is little more than an arrangement of anachronisms, double standards and excuses for our inability to explain the cosmos in comforting, human terms. Despite this fact, I will always defend its right to exist within the minds of its proponents. Just please do not expect me to respect it, for that, at this stage, is far too much to ask.