Thursday, July 21, 2011

The nature of "respect" for others beliefs.

A lot of people tout the idea that we should be respectful of each others beliefs. If you’re an atheist, and your neighbor is a christian, you should respect that, and treat that person with the same kindness and compassion that you would another atheist.
But there’s a fundamental problem with the notion of respecting others beliefs, because it requires on your part that you grant their beliefs credibility. Nobody unconditionally respects someone else’s belief. They say “well, I agree that your belief has enough credibility, that I will respect your having adopted it, even though I don’t agree with it.”
You can respect your neighbors belief in UFOs for example, because you can say “well, I don’t believe they exist, but I don’t know for sure. My neighbor could be right, but at this point in time I disagree.”
Would you respect your neighbor if they believed that you were ten years younger than you actually are? You might be flattered, but you’d think they were crazy if they honestly stuck to that belief in the face of your birth certificate. You would not be able to respect their belief, at all. Likewise, you wouldn’t be able to respect their belief if they believed that cars can fly, or that Star Wars was filmed in 1950. You wouldn’t be able to respect their belief if they believed that cats have three stomachs.
In other words, no human has any place within themselves to find respect for a belief that they know cannot be true. And this is the thorn in the side of the notion of unconditional respect for each others beliefs. We can behave kindly towards those who believe things that we know cannot be true, but we cannot respect their beliefs. You would have to delude yourself greatly in order to convince yourself that you’re feeling true respect for their belief. You cannot respect it because you know it cannot be.
When you feel that you cannot know for sure one way or another, then you can respect opposing viewpoints, because you agree that there is a possibility of their authenticity. And of course, in all areas where it’s a matter of taste, such as which movie is good, which car is most comfortable, etc, in those cases it is easy to respect others beliefs, because it’s a matter of taste. There is no empirical reality about it out there.
This is how mixed religion marriages can work. If an atheist marries a christian, and feels “well, I don’t believe what my partner does, but there’s always the slim possibility that it’s true,” then that’s great. The atheist is granting credibility and possibility to the christian’s beliefs, even though they don’t agree. But if an atheist enters a relationship with the knowledge that the christian stories cannot be true, they will not be able to respect the beliefs of their partner.
So, nobody is really respectful of others beliefs. They are only respectful of what they themselves have agreed to grant credibility to. When a person feels that something simply cannot be true, there is no respect for it.

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