Saturday, January 06, 2007

What is respect?

Atheist Austin Cline sends out a regular email on Atheism and Agnosticism. Recently, he asks the question (here), what does it mean to respect someone's (religious) belief? It is a fair question. He suggests that an acceptable respect is one that allows us to carry on with our silliness without interference, i.e. out rituals, etc so long as it does not harm anyone else (I suspect he means by that, that religion is kept out of politics, which is of course an impossibility if people with religious convictions are involved in politics).

However, quoting philosopher Simon Blackburn, he criticises that view of respect that seeks to exempt a system of belief from any criticism. The pressing issue here in the US would be that of Christian Fundamentalism. In Australia, I'd suggest that it is much easier to lampoon or question Christian belief than it is Islam (probably true in the US?)

I'd also take issue with the following claim:

"People can act brutally in the pursuit of political causes, for example, but they seem to act even more brutally when they believe that they have religious or even divine sanction for that cause. God becomes an "amplifier" for whatever happens to be going on; in this context, even more respect, deference, and reverence is expected for religious beliefs and claims than other sorts of beliefs and claims which a person might have. "

There are two problems here. Firstly, it is wrong to try and separate religion and politics, that is post-Enlightenment wishful thinking as William Cavanaugh explains (see for example his recent Zadok paper). Secondly, I think that it is historically naive special pleading. There are many examples of secular states killing people on a grand scale without appeal to God/god/goddess/etc. This is simply a myth of the atheists, a convenient one, but a myth.

Is there a respectful way to critique a belief system? I suspect there is, although this isn't something Cline discusses. Firstly, ad hominem attacks are out (I think this would leave Sam Harris with little to say). Secondly, nuance is required. The argument that all religious belief is equivalent is simply ignorant and simplistic. The content is not the same. Furthermore, people like Sam Harris commit the logical fallacy of the slippery slope argument, that unless I am a Fundamentalist I am copping out. Fundamentalists of the Christian variety buy into Modernism, something Atheists do. They are arguing on the wrong ground. Finally, as I think Cline argues, respect does not mean you permit people to believe just anything, and should work towards convincing them otherwise. This should almost always be by use of non-violent argument. Sometimes (and only rarely) will this be by force of arms (we believe it is our right to exterminate you must be defended by arms) or by the state (we believe that sexual relationships with small children is natural and permissible requires preventative, corrective and retributive justice).

Having said all that, Cline and others assume that Atheism is the default position and that all other positions are at best to be respected in leaving them to their practices. Christians need to engage with that view, to respect Atheists right to believe this but to argue strongly against it being true. I can't fathom Christians who don't see value in apologetics. In doing this, simply demonising people, engaging in anti-scientific apologetics, simplifying issues or insisting on reading Scripture always as modern science is the wrong way to go.

Organisations such as Zadok or ISCAST go about this in a positive manner. Let's argue vigorously, lovingly and in informed manner. Respect means live and let live but still going where angels fear to tread, the tension inherent in a liberal democracy.

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