Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Why I respect beliefs that are not mine

Disrespect of others' beliefs seems to be common in the blogosphere. Even more, there has been some reasoning recently (see links at the bottom) to justify such a stance. I do not agree, and I have missed two points in the discussion so far. Firstly, respect only makes sense if both sides disagree in their views. Secondly, I can only expect to be respected if I am ready to respect others.

As a passionate chess player I have learnt that mutual respect in a situation of extreme disagreement is a vital part of this game. And I don't see why this concept should not be used in philosophic dispute as well.

One important point is the fact that a player who disrespects his opponent may still win but probably will not play his best chess. Most strong players always assume the strongest replies to their moves, even against weaker opponents and even if they doubt whether the opponent would find the strongest reply. Applying this principle to online disputes, I think that it is cheap to attack the weakest points of the opponent, and that it is much more rewarding to look for the strongest points and attack these.

Respect and disagreement

If someone shares my view, there is no need at all for respect. Why? Because there is no conflict. Even in the case of self-respect, a conflict is required. There are two situations where self-respect is of vital importance: Being attacked by others or being "attacked" by an inner conflict, for instance by doubts about the own value. Thus, the function of respect is handling of conflicts, and in the absence of a conflict there is no need for it.

Self-respect and self-esteem are often used as synonyms. But I think my point is exactly about the difference between them. I think that conflict makes the difference. There is a basic feeling of well-being that can be described as self-esteem. If it is still held up in a conflict situation, the same feeling may be called self-respect. But I think that conflict adds a different flavour.

My own beliefs are a matter of self-esteem as long as they are not challenged. In a dispute, they become a matter of self-respect.

Respect is no form of agreement

As a consequence, I also reject the idea that a belief deserves more respect if it is close to mine, or if it is more likely to be "true", or if it is shared by a lot of people, or if books have been written about it, or the like. What I reject in particular is the idea that respect is a somewhat weaker form of agreement.

I respect people who believe in God. I respect them as persons, which never has been disputed in the posts that I have come across. But I also respect their belief as such. I do not share it. But I respect that it is up to every person to set up a system of belief to live with, and that for some people this may be a belief in God or gods.

In turn, I also expect theists to respect my atheism, in particular, that I have my good reasons not to believe in God or gods, and that for me, such a view is best for coping with the ultimate questions of life, moral, and death.

Mutual respect is a matter of the Golden Rule: Respect others as you would like to be respected by others.

The limits of respect

One major reason not to respect a belief is one that disrespects my own belief. Tit for tat. You respect my belief, I'll respect yours. You disrespect my belief, I'll disrespect yours. That is, not the whole content but only the part involved with disrespect. But this may be difficult because it would imply a dialogue or dispute, and disrespect is a dispute killer in most cases.

The problem with mutual disrespect is that both sides, usually, only see the disrespect on the other side. A disrespectful response seems to be justified, then. But it may not be easy to figure out who has started the disrespect war.

Another problem is the anonymity of the web which does not favour a polite, fair dispute but facilitates disrespect and ad hominem attacks.

Besides violation of the Golden Rule, there is only one reason for me to deny respect: violation of human rights and threatening humanism in a wide sense. But I guess that all these are just special cases of violating the Golden Rule.

Other views

There is much more to be said about the matter, and others have done so in a better way than I possibly could, so I just try to review what I have found.

Simon Blackburn's paper Religion and Respect (PDF) has been published in 2005 already, but has gained new attention recently. It comes to the conclusion that respect is a case of true or false, rational or irrational, close to my own or far from my own belief.

Lindsey, at regardant les nuages, interestingly, has been convinced by Blackburn, counter-intuitively, to respect beliefs that she does not share. Lindsey is a theist and does respect atheists as far as they are ready to respect her theism. She says: "It is because of our fallibility that we should respect opposing beliefs held by others."

Chris, at Mixing Memory, says that it is important how someone comes to a belief. The reasons, and also the consequences of such beliefs are important when it comes to respect. I agree. I'll never respect a belief that implies bad, inhuman behaviour.

The Uncredible Hallq, at the group blog God is for Suckers, (no wonder) argues against respect, stating that truth is what counts, but missing the point that for different people, different truths exist, and that there is no (God-like) instance that may tell us which one is really true.

Harry, at Crooked Timber, just points out this uncertainty about truth, stating that "there is a gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right, and that gap is what makes respect possible".

Richard, at Philosophy et cetera, agrees to respect a belief only in so far as it is reasonable. While most religions are based on irrational assumptions, he also admits that he would respect a reasonably mistaken deist more than an atheist who is so without a good reason.

Brandon, at Siris, in addition to reasonability, also sees the beauty of content respect-worthy. This is not exactly what I would say, I rather would take respect as the default position and look for cases of disrespect. Brandon gives links to a number of other posts.

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postbox49 said...

I like this famous quote:
"We must respect the other fellow's religion,but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." -H. L. Mencken

We need to be passionate in arguing that Religious beliefs should not be beyond rational critique just because they are something people believe in.
Here in the UK some Muslims and Christians in particular seem to be determined to take offence, and be protected against free speech about their beliefs. This is the beginning of censorship, repression of individual freedom and ability to decide.

So personally I don't think it is irational beliefs I should respect, but a person's right to hold whatever beliefs they wish - in other words to allow the same privilages we would claim for ourselves.

Having said that I don't believe the use of ridicule, derision and scorn you see in a lot of atheist articles is likely to 'covert' many people. We should rise above the way some religious people behave.

But we must stand firm against those who would deny freedom of speech in relation to religions.

rob horton said...

excellent post! i have been following your blog for a couple of weeks and i really appreciate your heart and your ability to articulate your thoughts.


John Morales said...

Why I respect beliefs that are not mine

Such a general claim.
Does this apply to, for example, the beliefs of pedophiles?

Firstly, respect only makes sense if both sides disagree in their views. Secondly, I can only expect to be respected if I am ready to respect others.

1. admiration for a person or entity because of perceived merit
2. regard for the rights of others; tolerance

I think you're wrong in your first claim, under either definition.
In your second claim, your case only makes some sense under definition 2, and even then there are limits.

Christian said...

@ John: Pedophiles? I think I have made clear that I disrespect violations of human rights. Admiration? This extreme (and questionable) definition of respect is not the issue in the debate respect vs. disrespect of beliefs.

John Morales said...

Christian, perhaps you were too liberal in your phrasing; I think by respect you mean tolerance, and by beliefs you mean religious beliefs.

You don't think there should be limits to this respect?

Can you really respect this?