Respect My Religious Beliefs!

respect and diversity
respect (Photo credit: Heliøs)

The demand from religious believers to "respect my religious beliefs" is one with which most atheists will be familiar. We have encountered it more times than we can count, and it rarely resonates. Why should we respect a set of beliefs that is both irrational and harmful? Is it even possible to respect such a set of beliefs, or are we just supposed to fake it?

Still, I cannot help wondering if some of us might have misunderstood what a believer who makes this demand is actually requesting of us. Moreover, I am convinced that many of my fellow liberals misunderstand what is being requested so much so that they run the risk of creating a host of other problems by attempting to comply with the demand.

When a religious believer demands that you respect his or her religious beliefs, what is he or she really asking of you? Is there something in particular that the believer wants you to do differently? Imagine yourself responding to the demand with something like the following:

I hear you asking me to respect your religious beliefs, and it is clear that this is very important to you. I'd like to comply, but I'm honestly not sure what it is that you are asking me to do differently. Please help me understand what you'd like to see me do more of or less of. That is, if I could manage to increase the degree to which I respect your religious beliefs tenfold, how would my behavior change? What would I do differently?

What I am getting at here is that I do not think the religious believer actually cares that I change my thoughts or my feelings; I don't think respect is what the believer is after. I think what he or she is really after is a change in my behavior. So what does this change look like? What does the believer want to see me do differently to provide evidence of an increase in my respect for his or her beliefs?

It seems to me that there is really only one thing the religious believer wants to see change in my behavior: a cessation in criticism of his or her religious beliefs. "Respect my religious beliefs" is little more than a demand for silence. It is about silencing dissent and criticism. It is a request that I no longer exercise my right to free expression when it comes to the religious beliefs in question. The believer who demands respect for his or her religious beliefs is demanding that the rest of us grant him or her the privilege not to have these beliefs critically examined.

May of us on the left strive to be tolerant of the many ways in which humans differ. When we mistakenly interpret demands to respect religious beliefs as pleas for tolerance or understanding, we find ourselves poorly equipped to respond appropriately. We may even make the situation worse by hurling accusations of "Islamophobia" and the like at vocal critics of religion. If we realized that these demands from believers were not about tolerance but about complying with religious privilege by silencing ourselves, we might do a better job of responding. At least, I'd like to think that we would.

I strive to respect people, their rights, and their freedom. I may go so far as to say that I will try to respect a person's right to his or her beliefs, even though I've never been particularly confident that such a statement is meaningful. What I will not respect are the beliefs themselves. Some beliefs do not deserve respect and cannot reasonable command it. We respect religious beliefs at our peril.

When I face the demand to respect someone's religious beliefs in the future, I plan to respond by trying to clarify what the person making the demand is asking me to do differently. If I am correct that what he or she wants is simply for me to remain silent, I'll then be in a position to explain why I am not going to do that.