So, this is a bit late to the party, but Greta Christina made a post entitled “No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion” just over a week ago, and I want to talk about it since this “respect” thing is a commonly raised issue, and one where I do think that atheists don’t show proper “respect” at times. We’re going have to settle what “respect” means — but if you’ve read the title of the post, you’ve got a pretty good hint where I’m going to go with this — but that can come later. Let’s look at the post first:
(I found it through “Why Evolution is True”, so that he can get the points for referring the post through his own. I always like helping people get free referral bonuses … as long as I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t want to do already [grin]).
So, basically, this post is against progressive or moderate religious people who, in Greta Christina’s mind, advocate respect and tolerance for other religions. She interprets “showing respect” somehow as “not disagreeing openly”, and then builds a case against such moderates and progressives that it’s somehow hypocrtical because they do disagree with those they call extremists. Sometimes openly. So that must be a problem.
Well, first, there’s an issue that the definition of “progressive” or “moderate” does not, in fact, include that. For example, I’m probably as moderate a religious person as you’re ever going to find. I disagree with, well, everyone. That’s almost certainly true. I even disagree fairly openly. So that’s probably not the real issue here. So let’s look at the actual objection:
“Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections.”
Yes. Yes, we do. I suppose mine may not be passionate, but I clearly don’t think they’re right. So? If I make a reply like “Can’t we all just get along?”, I’m not saying that I agree with them. I clearly disagree. I may even disagree in a way that could be called an objection. Even a serious one. I’m saying something else. So, does Greta Christina get what I’m saying?
“But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.”
Well, she gives no examples, but I’m not sure that people are calling that sort of “speaking out” religious intolerance. Speaking just for me, I don’t even think about levelling any such claim — even the “You aren’t showing the proper respect” claim — just for disagreeing. I think it is okay to say that, say, I believe that those who think that atheists will go to hell are getting it wrong. And I’ll even argue for that. But here’s what I won’t say:
– That they’re delusional for thinking otherwise.
– That they’re irrational for thinking otherwise.
– That they’re stupid for thinking otherwise.
– That they’re just following a set of superstitions and are just to afraid to give up childish things.
– That they are clearly and obviously wrong.
Now, how many of those things above do atheists actually say about religious people?
Yes, some of the moderates and progressives might be that passionate, and they’d be just as wrong. Some of them, yes, would be hypocrites. But, then, some of the atheists that get so upset when asked to “show respect” would be very upset and would in fact make comments about how someone was strident and disrespectful if they said the same sorts of things about atheists (and I know this because, well, lamentably some religious people do say those things, and we can see the reactions). There are hypocrites everywhere; that’s not a surprise.
But the question is: are the above things showing any sign of reasonable respect? Let that simmer for a while, and we’ll move on:
And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.”
Well, religion may, in fact, be special. It is a protected right. I have the right to my religious beliefs, no matter how ludicrous they may seem to other people. That is true in the U.S., in Canada (more relevant to me) and in most democracies. As such, we have to strike a balance here. Can people disagree over religious beliefs, and talk about it? Sure. But because it is a right, we have to watch out to make sure that there aren’t any unreasonable constrictions on practicing it. Excessive social criticism of religion can, in fact, border on harassment, and you can’t impede someone’s ability to practice a right through harassment — morally if not legally (and I think it true legally). So when would this public criticism turn to harassment? It isn’t clear; the line is not a sharp one. But it is the same thing as, say, harassing people for their sexuality (which may not be a protected right in some jurisdictions) or anything else that they practice that is protected by a right.
Now, yes, some religious people seem to come close to and even cross that line with atheists and over sexuality. And so we need to figure out how to handle that. But debate that’s too vigorous may indeed cross the line, which is a concern that seems to be dismissed here.
Note — since I have to note this — that I don’t necessarily think that the things I listed above, or even the standard public debate about religion cross that line. So this is a bit of an aside, and as such is mostly filler (thank you, Willow!).
“Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multiculturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why.” ”
Well, again, if that’s all she was saying I, at least, woudn’t be upset. It’s those thngs above that I mentioned that seem far more than “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why”.
And then atheists come along, and ruin everyone’s party. Atheists come along and say, “Well, actually, we don’t think any of you are getting it right.” Atheists come along and ask hard questions, like, “You actually have important differences between your religions — how do you decide which one is true?” Or, “Religion has never once in all of human history turned out to be the right answer to any question — why would you think it’s the right answer to anything we don’t currently understand?” Or, “If there’s no way your belief can be proven wrong, how do you know that it’s right?” Or, “Why do the six blind men just give up? Why don’t they compare notes and trade places and carefully examine the elephant and actually try to figure out what it is? You know — the way we do in science? Why doesn’t this work with religion? Sure, if God existed, he/she/it/they would be vast and complex and hard to fathom… and what, the physical universe isn’t? Doesn’t the fact that this never, ever works with religion strongly suggest that it’s all made up, and there is, in fact, no elephant?” Atheists come along and make unnerving points, like, “The fact that you can’t come to any consensus about religion isn’t a point in your favor — it’s actually one of the strongest points against you.” Atheists come along, like the rain god on everyone’s parade, and say things like, “What reason do any you have to think any of this is true?” ”
So, let’s look at these things that presumably are the sum total of, at least, what she says, and let me answer them as me:
1) Feel free to go deeply into your reasons why you think none of us are right, and that you’re right about that (and yes, she does later, but I’m taking it all in order).
2) I do philosophy and theology, and even a little science. So far, haven’t proven any view — even the atheist one. Personally, philosophically I think it not possible to prove (this will come up again later) and am more than willing to talk about what that means for whether or not I should believe. Oh, you find that and philosophy/theology boring? Oh, well.
(Note that the last is the common reaction of most common people to that progression; Greta Christina may be made of stronger stuff but you’ll all forgive me if I am skeptical).
3) The only relevant question is “Does God exist?”. That it doesn’t explain directly some other things doesn’t really mean that much, does it?
4) I don’t. That doesn’t mean that I can’t still believe it, though (see 2).
5) We do try to do those sorts of examinations of the six blind men and the elephant. It’s called theology. And at least some of your atheist compatriots — P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne — have denigrated theology and called it pointless. And it’s oft-cited that they care about what the man on the street believes, not what the experts believe. Which is, in fact, precisely the opposite view we take of science. So, if you accept that theology is valid, then you have to accept that the answer to your question is: We already are. We may not be doing science on it, but whether or not we can do science on God is, in fact, a theological or philosophical question, so we’d have to start there.
6) Is the physical universe that complicated? Even if it is, does it matter? If God is not physical, then we can’t use physical methods anyway, and so perhaps theology just hasn’t found the right methods yet. Certainly, finding God is likely to be more complicated than a field based primarily on “Go out and look to see what’s happening right in front of you” that then systematized that.
7) Does the fact that it doesn’t work suggest it’s made up? My response is: how? Please, in detail, tell me how not being able to work it out — and remember, the elephant example is strictly about subjective data — objectively right now suggests it’s all made up. It doesn’t lend support to it, but you do need far more than that.
8 ) Possibly. Depends on how you view God. See theology.
9) Well, first you have to define what counts as a reason to believe. That’s epistemology. See 2.
Well, she may be raining on someone’s parade, but probably not mine. Nor, I think, can it be said that I was particularly angry or insulting in my replies. So, a moderate who thinks that atheists sometimes don’t show proper respect has just replied to the things calmly that she thinks make at least many of us really, really mad. At least she should now decide that, perhaps, discussions with people like me are more productive than discussions with those people that bother her so much.
This idea that religion is just a matter of opinion? That the most crucial questions about how the universe works and how it came into being should be set aside, because disagreements about it might upset people? That it doesn’t really matter who actually has the correct understanding of God or the soul or whatever, and that when faced with different ideas about these questions, it’s best to just shrug it off, and agree to disagree, and go on thinking whatever makes us feel good? That figuring out what probably is and is not true about humanity and the world is a lower priority than not hurting anyone’s feelings? That reality is less important, and less interesting, than the stories people make up about it?
It drives me up a ******** tree.”
Um, well, see … there’s a difference here. I think pretty much everyone agrees that as things stand, right now, we don’t know whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or which god might exist if one does. None of us can prove it. A lot of moderates and progressives, then — on all sides — say that it that’s the case all we can do is agree to disagree. Without proof, and with different starting assumptions and things that we find important, what else can we do? And if you continue to berate me over points that we clearly disagree on at a fundamental level, I’m going to get annoyed, and quite rightly so. At some point, without better evidence or argumentation, debate isn’t going to be productive, and is going to turn into badgering. And see the section on “harassment” about where that leads …
“In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” ”
Well, I can only answer that for me, but I can indeed say “No, not really” in a very specific sense: if a belief I have generally works out for me, and if seeking out the evidence to prove it true or false would take a lot of effort, then, no, I don’t really care if it’s “true”. I mean, I do care if it’s true in really important senses, but not enough to dedicating my life to proving it such. If it was proven false, then I’d abandon it, and I will abandon it at the point where it doesn’t work out for me anymore, meaning that if I act as if it’s true I will no longer generally succeed. But that’s not a bad kind of “I don’t care”, is it?
Now, at the end she does go a bit into the third option that she thinks atheists have, and it doesn’t sound all that bad. But I don’t really see it as being consistent with the things I listed above. So, when I say “respect”, what do I mean?
Take the time to understand my position, understand my specific concerns, debate to my actual conception of God, and if we hit a roadblock admit it and move on. Do not presume or state that I am delusional, irrational or stupid unless you can prove it by appealing to my actual position … and possibly not even then.
Again, find out what God means to me, and act accordingly.
I don’t think that’s asking too much. But I do think that sometimes some atheists don’t do that. Hence, not showing respect.