"Respecting" Religious Beliefs?

Lots of bloggers have been commenting on this paper by Simon Blackburn, called “Religion and Respect”. Everyone seems to be commenting on one paragraph in particular:

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.

Most bloggers that I have seen commenting on the Blackburn paper seem to disagree with him on this particular point, and I thought I would share my opinion. To start off, one blogger said:

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.

I think Lindsey completely misses Blackburn’s point in the quoted paragraph above. He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t respect religious people, but rather he can’t respect someone in a “thicker sense”. I take this thicker sense to mean that he can’t respect someone for holding an irrational belief, not that he can’t respect them at all. After all, he says: “We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.” On this point I agree with Blackburn and I can’t understand the antagonism towards this paragraph. If someone told you that they believed a celestial teapot was orbiting Jupiter and it was impossible to verify that it existed, would you respect that person for holding that belief? No, you would think it was irrational to hold such a belief and for precisely that reason, you could not respect them for holding the belief. This doesn’t mean that you don’t respect them for other reasons, such as being moral or intelligent in other areas of inquiry. It is just that on that particular matter, you wouldn’t respect their specific philosophical beliefs and I think the analogy holds for the belief in God.

Let me come right out and say it, as an atheist, I think that it is irrational to hold a belief in any sort of deity. I think that atheism is the default position on whether or not there are any Gods and therefor it requires some intellectual leap, whether provided through indoctrination or some more subjective thought process, to believe in a god. I believe that either way, this thought process is erroneous and irrational, leading to a belief that is very likely to be false. This is why I have to disagree with blogger Lindsey when she says:

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.

Going back to the celestial teapot, one of my favorite examples, does it make sense to respect the “part of the person” that believes in something that can’t be verified in any way? Clearly, it is irrational to believe in the teapot, so why should I respect the part of the person responsible for instilling them with an irrational belief? The only way to counter Blackburn’s point here is to argue that believing in a deity is rational, and I think you will inevitably fail in this regard, for numerous reasons. As I said above, atheism is the default position when it comes to believing in a god, and any deviation from the default must be seen as irrational.

There is, of course, a difference between tolerating an irrational belief and respecting it. Obviously, I tolerate people who believe in irrational metaphysical beings, but I don’t see any reason why I should respect those beliefs, in the sense of intellectual respect. If I sincerely believe that it takes an irrational thought process to come to believe in something, how can I respect that process in the 21st century?

In summary, I can respect a theist for many different reasons, but I can’t respect them on account of them holding an irrational belief. The only way that I could respect someone on account of their holding a belief in a deity, is if they provided an account of their intellectual thought process that wasn’t grounded in subjectivity or irrationality. This is a debate I would willingly have, so if anyone wants to argue that believing in a deity is not irrational, go ahead. Until I am convinced otherwise, I will agree with Blackburn.

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11 responses to “"Respecting" Religious Beliefs?

  1. I have not read Blackburn. But pushed for time, like the topic, so will come back later.

  2. Hi this is Lindsey from Regardant les Nuages. I just want to mention something that I’ve been getting heat for in my critique of Blackburn. I am well aware that Blackburn makes it clear that he can respect the person, even if he can’t respect their belief. But that’s not what this whole discussion is about (after all, that’s much less interesting than whether you can respect the *part* of a person you disagree with). Harry (from CT) and I both agree that you can respect a belief that you disagree with. We also agree that you don’t necessarily respect *all* beliefs you disagree with. Admittedly for me, it’s easier to respect beliefs that naturally fall closer to my own (because I understand my own much better than others). I used to believe, like Blackburn, that I could not possibly respect the belief that I saw as false (in my case, a person’s disbelief in God). I’ve realized that I’m wrong on this because there are cases where in fact I do respect the person’s disbelief, the part I see to be false. I respect it because they can articulate to me why they believe, and they subsequently live a life that matches their belief. Of course there’s probably more going on there, but that’s the best I have for now. In the same way, atheists like Harry have found that they can respect certain beliefs that they disagree with, precisely because they believe those beliefs are held for legitimate reasons and in good will. Belief in God is not equivalent to belief in a “celestial teapot” as you put it. Contrary to popular opinion in the blogosphere, philosophy has not ruled out the possibility of God, and in fact, some philosophers are actively showing how/why belief in his existence isn’t as irrational as many would like to think it is. As Harry said, if there was a knock down argument that I was purposefully ignoring, he’d have trouble respecting my belief. But there’s not, and in fact, there are legitimate reasons to believe in God. But that’s not the point. The point is that some beliefs, whether you agree with them or not, are reasonable enough (and held based on those reasons) that they warrant respect, even if you see them as false.

  3. Hey Lindsey, thanks for the well-thought out reply.

    I think where we disagree is on the point about whether or not there are “legitimate reasons” for believing in God. While I think there are many “reasons” to believe in God, I think that most of them are subjective and irrational. So the quesiton at hand hinges upon whether you think it is “legitimate” to belief in something that there is no evidence for based on subjective reasoning. I do not think it is legitimate, and thus I don’t think it would be intellectually honest for me, as an atheist, to come out and “respect” the beliefs of believers. I would only respect someone’s beliefs if they were able to spell out why they held that particular belief and the reasons they give are logical and rational.

    And also, it doesn’t matter whether there is a knock-down argument against the existence of God. What matters is that atheism towards gods is the default position and should it not be seen as rational to stick with the default, barring exceptional evidence or philosophical argument otherwise? To my knowledge, there are no good philosophical arguments for God, nor is there any physical evidence for his existence, so I stand by my statement that it is irrational to hold a belief in any supernatural deity, and it isn’t legitimate nor worthy of respect to hold onto a belief in the supernatural.

    The only sort of belief in God that I think is worthy of respect is some kind of Spinoza-esque, pantheistic equivalence of God with Nature. Spinoza showed a deep vision that denies the anthropomorphic version of God and maintains a naturalistic determinism. So while it is still more parsimonious to just leave the word “God” out of the picture and look at the holistic phenomena of the world as worthy of awe, I can respect the weighty philosophical systems that take Nature seriously, as opposed to the flimsy monotheistic “ruler-in-heaven” systems common to most Christians. I think it is interesting that a lot of thinkers, including Berkeley, considered Spinoza to be an atheist because of how naturalistic his system was.

  4. At last, two glasses of Merlot later, got a chance to read the document. The wine is a habit, but a bad idea in this instance because rational is just not possible.

    I accept that I am between disbelief and conviction as Hume correctly suggests.

    Religion and rational are not bedfellows. Religion appeals to the emotive centres of well being and gives purpose to “some”.

    Religion is more like a glue that binds people into communities of belief, trying to define the undefinable.

    I respect the others religion mainly because we are equally deluded and comfortable in our own. We are therefore the same.

    Thanks for the discourse!

    I respect the other person because like me he has his flaws.

    Perfection some say is god.

  5. Micah Allen

    Atheism as the default position eh? What exactly do you mean by that? I think at the end of the day, you can’t rule out the role of the subjective dimension in any discussion of religion or ethic. To your mind, it may seem that reason is the best standard by which to judge things. But to me it seems more problematic to pass judgment on ideas of spirituality. Spiritual ideas, like most metaphysical ones, are not really the providence of science and reason. They tend to be intuitive, highly subjective interpretations of an individuals life. And I think it’s an important to our sense of humanity and companionship that we allow everyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these sorts of ideas.

    By reasons standards, sure, these ideas seem wrong. But why the jump into respect? It seems to me that this debate can only be driven by the nature of the relationship between the atheist and the deist. I think in this sort of debate, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, atheism is as unproven as deism. Really both of these terms are linguistic approximations of reality, failing to capture the delicate beauty of the belief systems the represent.

    And that is why I say, forget this business about respecting or disrespecting a belief. Beliefs are ultimately subjective no matter the content, being based within the agent and dedicated to explaining external. And we both know science and reason are far from metaphysically infallible.

    I say, suspend your disbelief when discussing God, or stay away from the discussion entirely. What’s the point in ‘not respecting’ the teapot belief when you can instead try to understand the innate humaneness. I think more of this, and less of the other, will result in happier more united individuals who are capable of holding two seemingly contradictory terms (God and No God) for example as equally valid viewpoints.

    Tao anyone?

    I know this isn’t far off from what you are arguing, but for the sake of pragmatics, I really think we’re better off suspending our judgment of gods, and rather engaging in judgment of the actions of people.

  6. Thanks for the insightful comment Micah.

    Allow me to elaborate on what I mean when I say that atheism is the default position: we are all born atheists. No one believes in any sort of God when they first come into this world. People are driven to believe in God through some process of linguistic enculturation. Now granted, I guess it is possible that it is possible to have some sort of pre-linguistic understanding of a “higher power” through some sort of mystical experience, but I highly doubt that this is the norm. I imagine that for most people, they believe in God because the cultural norms and conceptual structures that emerge from the interaction of language and society drive them to do so.

    I agree that spiritual ideas are “outside” of the realm of reason and science, but that is precisely why one should strive to eradicate them from your conceptual vocabulary. While sure, it is all well and good to have some sort of pre-ontological intuition of some transcendent metaphysical plane, but once you start trying to put that into the language of “gods” or “deities”, then you run smack into irrationalism, which I think should be avoided in the 21st century.

    So, the point of not respecting the belief in the teapot is that it fosters a sense of metaphysical parsimony. Occam’s Razor should apply to all aspects of your conceptual structures, not just the “reasonable” ones. Thou shalt not multiple metaphysical entities beyond necessary, and as far as I am concerned, there are *no* necessary metaphysical entities for human life.

    And I agree that we should, for pragmatic purposes, engage in the judgment of the actions of people, but I think believing in a God is a kind of action. It is an action of the mind, driven by irrational thought processes. I don’t think there is anything wrong or unpragmatic about judging people for how rational their conceptual structures are.

    I’d like to get back to the idea of judging a spiritual, or metaphysical idea, based on reason. I think it is perfectly justifiable to judge a metaphysical belief through reason. Either there are good reasons for believing in something or there are bad reasons. Sure, there is this huge subjective dimension to spiritual/metaphysical beliefs, but by definition, believing in something for purely subjective reasons is irrational, and shouldn’t be sugarcoated as anything else. As a matter of fact I think it is cognitively unhealthy to paint subjective thought processes “just as legitimate” as rationalistic or scientific ones. One is epistemologically superior than the other because one is verifiable and the other isn’t.

    Now I am not saying there is anything *wrong* with having irrational belief structures, but I do think that ultimately it is a hindrance to the intellectual progression of humanity. Reason has a long, long track record of *working* for society. What good has irrationality ever done that couldn’t have been done just as well through rational means? Has there ever been any moral acts done by believers that couldn’t have been done by non-believers? I think those are important questions.

    Again, thanks for the comment.

  7. mike3

    So it seems you would agree with not respecting the ***PEOPLE*** who hold the belief, not the ***BELIEF*** itself? If you think the belief is not logical, you need not “respect” said _belief_ in that sense, but you _do_ have to respect the _people_ who hold it . There is a difference between those two things. And you seem to muddy it in your post. Sorry if that was shouted a little hard but disrespecting otherwise good-hearted _Human Beings_ is the last thing we need if we want a world with peace.

    Furthermore, with such “subjective” subjects outside the realm of empirical science, they could nto be proven _or disproven_ via empirical science — no verification _either way_ would seem possible. It would seem then that from a viewpoint of rock-solid, 100% pure empiricism, one would have to take an “agnostic” position on these issues: simply “I don’t know” (and in this case, perhaps added “and there is no way to know”.). The “atheism of the baby” is sort of this way, as well, he/she does not know or have any opinions on the matter, he/she doesn’t even know what the term “God” means. If you call this position an “atheism”, go ahead. But if the type of “atheism” you claim to follow is that God has been proven not to exist, how does that jive with your claim these things to be fundamentally outside the realm of science and emiprical verification: how can one verify God does _not_ exist any more than one can verify God _does_ exist?

  8. mike3

    And I might also add “and naturalism” as well to the above “100% pure empiricism”.

  9. gruesome

    Hi, I do not think that in the absence of evidences, atheism ( I know there is no God) is the default position, but I rather think it is agnosticism ( I do not know if there is a God or if there is no God).

    I am not “agnostic” about the celestial teapot, I am atheist about it, because I think there are many positive evidences against its existence (teapot are products stemming only from human beings, it is impossible for them to be formed naturally, and no man has even been so far in the space).
    So, contrarily to what Russel affirmed, it is quite possible to prove that there exists no such entity, and this is the ground why most people don’t believe in it, and not merely because of the absence of evidences.
    However, I am agnostic about the existence of a plastic teapot floating right now 100 km away from new York, I have clearly no evidence, but it may well have fallen out of a ship and arrived at precisely this place.

    I really think atheists have to provide positive grounds for their belief, merely pointing out to the absence of evidences does not suffice, for it only leads to agnosticism by itself.
    Now, I know many very clever folks who agree with that and have written a lot of stuff in order to disprove the existence of God as I have just disproved the existence of the celestial teapot.
    For example, Michael Martin:

  10. Well, while this topic is a rather old one now, I wanted to read through it regardless.

    Gary, I think your position goes too far in stating that the subjective is irrational. If this is the case, then I simply am compelled to believe that human beings are not rational, and should not be rational. Rationalism is not a worthwhile goal for humans if it means the distrust of subjective experience.

    At the same time, I understand how one both could respect a religious belief and not respect a religious belief. For example, Lindsey talks of respecting that a person has scrutinized himself and his experiences and has come to a conclusion that is authentic for himself…this seems to be a respect for a subjective process (which would allow one to respect someone for a belief, even if they didn’t believe the belief was right.)

    However, I can also see how this process isn’t necessarily respectable. For example, what if someone went along, did some “soul searching,” and came to the conclusion that he is happiest and most fulfilled as a racist. So, even though he has been “through the process” and is “true to himself,” one would not respect this person for the end racism or for the process that he was true to. One might respect him for any number of other beliefs (like the fact that he doesn’t believe in engaging in violence or discrimination), but the racism would *always* be a sticking point.

    What made me want to comment, though, is gruesome’s latest comment. It just REALLY gets to me how the words ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ are being hijacked to meaning rather insensible things.

    Agnosticism is a position on knowledge. Agnosticism is “I don’t know.” Atheism is a position on belief. At the minimum, it is “I don’t believe.” So, these positions are not mutually exclusive. You CAN be (and most atheists, I would imagine, ARE) agnostic atheist: “I don’t know if there’s a god or not, but I don’t believe there is.” So atheism is not, “I know there is no god.” This is at best, gnostic strong atheism…a position that FEW atheists (even Dawkins, etc.,) would take.

    However, I would lastly want to take ANOTHER stab at Gary’s reasoning…that is…your position seems to derive on “default” positions being rational…and atheism being default.

    This is a scary argument, because it could turn out that human “default” positions aren’t exactly what we would consider to be rational. For example, what if we found out that humans are “hardwired” to believe in god?

    I think we already have evidence of this, so to keep on trumpeting that babies are default atheists and will never (or rarely) gain theism without some kind of culture in the mix is disingenous or ignorant. Rather, we *know* that children, from a very young age, are programmed to believe in design — so intelligent design (or some form of it) is more intuitive to the young than evolution for certain.

    Does this mean God exists or that belief in god or belief in intelligent design is rational? No. (It also does not point out to any SPECIFIC deity, by the way…so you’re right in that no child is born a specific kind of theist.) Rather, it points out that human evolution isn’t really geared toward truth, necessarily. There are still lots of hiccups. Subjective experience is one such hiccup that is pervasive and persuasive.

    Another example: humans are “geared” to a belief in persistent consciousness — that is, an afterlife. Does this mean that an afterlife exists or that belief in an afterlife is rational? No. It just means that evolutionarily, we are very used to interpreting sense data with our consciousnesses (seeing as…that’s the only way we CAN interpret this data). So, we don’t devote a lot of brain cycles toward TRULY comprehending what it would be like to not have the tool to interpret sense data.

    Really, rationality’s got to be made of tougher stuff than the dubious “default” position, first of all. Secondly, to wave off subjective experience as irrational is not a very popular (or alluring) path to go down. At best, if it IS irrational, then I’m sure most people would find that rationality’s not all that great a concept anyway.

  11. Gary Williams

    Thanks for the insightful comment Andrew, it is strange that I can only really answer your questions based on what I have studied since writing that post, so I am glad you have come back to this oldie.

    In terms of seeing the subjective as irrational, I think if you begin to read some of my more recent posts on this blog you will realize that I am actually a huge supporter of the subjective – after all – I see myself as a phenomenologist by trade. It is in this sense of subjective that rationality and subjectivity can co-exist because one can, as a normal human being, have the subjective experience of using reason and logic. So, in the context of this blog post, the sense of “subjective” I argue against is only of the personal theological sort being used as evidence of universal metaphysical beings. As you know, that form of “subjective experience” is loaded with epistemological problems in terms of trying to make a single person’s experience of the divine a rational argument for God’s existence.

    This brings me to what I see as your most interesting question: of whether “rationality” is the default human position. You asked “what if its true that humans are hardwired for God?” I already think this is true based on existing evidence. Look up some of my posts on Julian Jaynes. It is not so much that we are directly wired to believe in Biblical God, it is rather that we are wired to hear disembodied auditory hallucinations that we unconsciously interpret as God’s voice thanks to cultural heritage. Thus, when I say atheism is the default, I only mean epistemologically, not ontogenetically.

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