Sunday, February 24, 2008

Religion and Respect

I've just read this article by Simon Blackburn, about respect and religion. Blackburn address the question: “Why should I respect belief systems that I do not share?” He concludes that, in fact, he does not have to respect belief systems that he disagrees with. Not too long ago, I think I would have agreed with Blackburn on this. Now, though, I think I was, and he is, wrong about this. This is a question that I grappled with earlier this year (in the context of religion in schools). I wondered whether it was even possible to respect other people's beliefs. My initial response was no, I can't really respect other beliefs (if they are too far from my own), and this was mainly due to the fact that I wouldn't be able to fully understand a belief system that was too foreign to me. I thought respect , in the important sense (beyond toleration), required a level of understanding that could only be reached by actually agreeing with that person. Blackburn's article has changed my mind, surprisingly enough.

Blackburn recognizes a spectrum of respect that can range from mere toleration (live and let live), to admiration or esteem, to reverence. Basic respect, or toleration, is easy enough. But can you really respect someone's belief system in a thicker sense if you don't yourself agree with that belief system? Blackburn says no, because he can't bring himself to respect (in a deeper sense, though not the deepest sense) a person who holds a false belief. Blackburn says,

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.” (emphasis mine)

I want to draw your attention to the text in bold. This is where I take issue with Blackburn's stance. Blackburn cannot respect a person who holds a false belief, because he operates under the assumption that if someone believes something different than he does, then she must be wrong. Blackburn targets this criticism mainly towards religious people, because he, obviously, is an atheist. He believes that his atheism is correct, and he has every right to believe that. However, he misses the point of respect here. Respect does not equal “agreeing with” someone. Of course your atheism leads you to believe that my belief in God is false, but it does not follow that my belief actually is false. And this is the crucial part. It is because of our fallibility that we should respect opposing beliefs held by others. Blackburn could be right, God might not exist. But he could be wrong. He believes he's right, and I believe he's wrong. It is a belief, and none of us is infallible. Because we cannot know, we have a compelling reason to give some credence to other belief systems. This is where respect comes in. Part of respecting someone with opposing beliefs is recognizing that you might be wrong and she may very well be right. It's about having some humility in the way you treat another person, because you can't assume that you are infallible. That's not to say that you don't strongly believe that you are right, it just means you accept the humbling fact that you can't really be sure.

Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It's the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don't agree with them, but I don't have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons doesn't sway my own beliefs). That's the type of respect that is important to have. It's about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

Granted this leaves open the possibility that I won't respect the belief systems of some people. Whether I agree with their beliefs or not, if I don't think they hold those beliefs for legitimate reasons or with intellectual honesty, then I can't (and shouldn't have to) respect them. It's also why I have a hard time respecting some militant atheists and extreme Christian fundamentalists. There's a lack of humility in the way some of them hold their beliefs that makes me uneasy, regardless of whether I agree with said beliefs. This lack of humility will undoubtedly affect their willingness to engage in reasonable and open discussions with persons holding opposing beliefs, a willingness that is at the foundation of the sort of respect I'm getting at here.

So I guess what this amounts to is that I used to think I couldn't fully respect (in the esteem sense) someone I disagreed with. I now think that I can, and for many people, I think I should.

update: This post is really just a rough outline of my intuitions, so I encourage you to check out Harry's post here for more thoughts on this topic.

and yet another update: In light of comments appearing at CT, I thought I'd add some more thoughts (that also appear in the comment thread, but I'll put here anyways).

John M writes at comment #13 that you can't truly respect a person and allow them to continue to hold what you think are false beliefs. I think he has a point, but only to a certain degree. I think you have a good reason to engage with the person about her beliefs, show her where you think she is false, discuss where she thinks you are false, and overall try to learn something from each other. I don't think you have to be on a mission to make them change their beliefs. Admittedly, I, and many Christians, do try to persuade others to believe in God (because we believe that we hold a true belief, laugh all you want). In the same way, Harry also engages with Christians (or at least me) about my beliefs, making it clear why he doesn’t believe and that he's genuinely interested in why I do. He’s not bothered if I don’t change my mind (in the end), but he does engage my beliefs nevertheless. So in that sense, reasonably discussing our different opinions is our way of both understanding and respecting each others beliefs, and I suppose in our way we are each trying to show each other why we believe the other holds a false belief. But that doesn’t amount to an outright campaign to change each other’s minds.

I don’t think that you can both respect someone’s belief and ignore it (or merely tolerate it). Real respect, in my opinion, requires you to treat that belief as one that is worthy of both consideration and critique. If you didn’t respect it, you wouldn’t bother to critique it. Whether you care if the person actually changes her mind is not the same as treating her belief as something that is worthy to be evaluated (for both its merits and shortcomings).

Brian W writes at comment #15 that I'm misreading Blackburn's stance. He doesn't think Blackburn is being too harsh in affirming the falsehood of religious beliefs. He says this, I think (though I'm not quite sure), because that assertion isn't necessarily an admission of infallibility. I suppose that's true. I often claim X, when I'm not completely certain of X. But if I only claim X when I am completely certain about X, then I doubt I'll ever be able to claim much at all. Point taken (I think?). But I do think there's more of a disagreement there than my uncharitable reading of Blackburn's position.

Blackburn's article came off to me (and I think, to Harry, though he can comment on that himself), as though he was not only claiming his inability to respect religious beliefs, but also that he was basing that lack of respect on the falsehood of those beliefs. He just said they were false, plain and simple. There was no "I believe (strongly) that such beliefs are false." This attitude was pervasive throughout the article, and it was easily recognizable in the sense that I’ve come across it all too often (not least among Christians, and yes, even at Crooked Timber --think the comment section). It’s the idea that I can’t respect you because you just are wrong, when in reality you don’t respect them because you think they are wrong. You may, as Harry said, be “very-close-to-certain” that you are right, but that’s quite different from being completely certain. Perhaps this has no effect on how we should evaluate each other’s beliefs per se, but having this sort of humility does enable the process of respect formation. Because I am aware that I could be wrong, I find it easier to engage with and appreciate your (opposing) beliefs. I think that a lack of this sort of humility is a block to respecting others. That doesn’t mean you and I can’t draw conclusions, even fairly close to certain conclusions (as we all do), but it does mean we have to at least approach opposing view points with a different sort of attitude. Maybe you don’t think that’s important, but I think it is precisely because I see humility as a key to respect. If I was completely convinced in my own infallibility, then I would not bother to even consider opposing beliefs, because it would be a non-question. And perhaps Blackburn doesn’t have this attitude, but after reading the article, he could’ve fooled me.

Further down someone remarked that I give atheists automatic respect, and that clearly misses the mark. I will respect your atheism when you show me why you hold it and how you live by it. Many (militant) atheists forfeit their respect because they can’t be bothered to do just that (and the same goes for the more militant brands of fundamentalism). Respect is not the default. It is earned. I'm still not clear on how, though I think Harry did a fine job of outlining what might be going on there.

Someone else asked why we should bother with respect at all. Well, we do live in a pluralistic society. If you and I want to coexist, we have to figure out just how that’s going to work. We may, upon thoughtful collaboration, discover some surprising similarities and agree on some policies, etc. But this stage is hard to reach without the type of respect I’m getting at. Also, fwiw, the type of respect that Harry and I have for each other’s beliefs has, surprisingly, helped me navigate my own beliefs. Because I respect what (and how) he believes what he does, and because he respectfully engages my beliefs (not without pointing me to where he thinks I’ve got it wrong, mind you), I have a better sense of what I believe and why. My beliefs have a more solid foundation than before because his respect led me to further examine and reexamine what I believed. This could have resulted in me giving up my beliefs, and for those who care, it did result in my giving up my strange sort of political conservatism to embrace a more socialist-oriented outlook.

However, in the case of God our discussions have served to strengthen my beliefs. I'm certain this was not Harry's purpose, at least I don't think, and perhaps you’d see that as a disadvantage to respect. Of course the outcome would be different for each person depending on just why they believe what they do and whether those reasons hold up to further scrutiny. Again, my respect for Harry (and for his disbelief) has made me more responsible with my own beliefs, and that, I think, is an advantage of this type of respect.

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