The Ethical Dilemma: Respecting Religious Beliefs

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Respecting Religious Beliefs: What does it mean to respect religious beliefs?  Is it possible to respect beliefs you don’t share?

–With All Due—Or Don’t

Dear Due,

This is quite a controversial topic in the world of non-believers, with no one right answer, or even a universally accepted interpretation of the question. Respect can mean that the non-believer genuinely acknowledges and even reveres beliefs he or she doesn’t share–sincerely finding those ideas admirable–or it can mean simply tolerating them (being polite, not ridiculing).

Some non-believers really do hold religions and their believers in high esteem, citing their good works, the sense of community and comfort they provide, the beauty in their rituals, concepts and spirituality. Others can muster respect only in the sense that they bite their tongues and support everyone’s right to their own beliefs, regardless of harboring negative opinions about those beliefs.

And still other non-believers can’t or won’t display any form of respect. Many see no reason to suppress their disdain for what they view as ridiculous religious (or, as Bill Maher put it, religulous) concepts and practices.

Although there seems to be a current trend in non-believer circles discouraging disrespect toward religions and encouraging more of an “it’s all good,” “live and let live” demeanor, it’s important to honestly express the extremes as well as everything in between, rather than flatten responses under a one-size-fits-all blanket of courtesy. We need people like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to articulate what’s wrong with religions and why they can be not only silly but also harmful and dangerous to humanity and the planet. We also need non-believers who can work in congenial partnership with religious people, whether it’s to aid disaster victims or to push legislation that does the greatest good for shared causes.

Most of us not only fall between the extremes, we may also react with different responses to different issues. I don’t support forcing or faking respect (unless there are undesirable consequences, such as losing your job). For example, I’m not going to be respectful when someone advocates teaching kids creationism in place of or alongside evolution in public schools. I won’t meekly tolerate those who want to impose their personal religious dogma to deprive all women of birth control. But I am going to try to be civil and reasonable whenever I think that’s the best approach, and I will walk away from fruitless arguments with people who just won’t respond to facts or logic, if even that may seem disrespectful.

Although there’s rarely anything to be gained (and often much to be lost) by being insulting or nasty, the same is true for professing respect you don’t feel and that isn’t deserved. We all have to pick our own battles, whether it’s religious displays on public property, or laws obliterating the wall between church and state. I respect everyone’s right to believe whatever they choose, even though I may criticize those beliefs—not only among other non-believers, but also directly to any believers who lord their beliefs over mine.

You needn’t respect the beliefs of anyone who disrespects yours. While we all need to co-exist as peacefully as possible, it’s also crucial for non-believers to expect respect, not just pay it. But we can lead the way by modeling respectful, respectable behavior for others to emulate.