Saturday, April 6, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: It's for People, not Beliefs

"Test everything, hold fast to what is good" - 1 Thessalonians 5 21-22

Douglas Adams, hilariously hyperbolic humorist and author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once attended a conference called Digital Biota 2, where he stood up and gave a impromptu, rambling, and altogether brilliant talk. People still read and quote it today, years after his death.

One of the topics he covers is the way people tiptoe around other people's religious beliefs:
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.
He goes on to say:
It's rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that's grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise - that's a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think 'Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity', what does it mean? Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that's holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so?
This question has been nagging at me lately. I absolutely agree with him that the best way to find the truth is to test and question every idea. Whatever ideas can survive the questioning are the ones most likely to be true or useful. But if questioning is essential, how do we approach religion? Religious people can be very attached to traditional religious answers to big, important questions like, "Where do we come from", or "How should we act?" Those who question those ideas can face a backlash. Once they were burned at the stake, and they still face violent reprisals and arrest in many parts of the world. Such backlash is just one reason people avoid questioning religion, but it's a pretty compelling one.

These days, it's not just Christianity that gets this kind of deference. Lots of secular liberals have a knee-jerk respect for most of the world's religions. That comes from an admirable impulse to avoid ethnocentrism, but it can be problematic, too. A while back, for example, I was reading about how Bob Marley died. He had found a melanoma on his toe, but when doctors advised him to have it amputated, he refused, saying it was contrary to his Rastafarian beliefs. He died of cancer at the age of 36. People praise him for being brave enough to stick to his beliefs in the face of death. I even had the same reaction at first. And then I thought, "Well, yeah, it was brave, but it was also a tragic waste of a brilliant life." If he had stopped to question why it should be taboo to amputate a cancerous toe, he might have stayed alive these last 32 years.

When people react to such stories with approval, rather than sadness, it shows that they're respecting people's beliefs more than their actual lives. And that's perverse. Beliefs have no feelings, no hopes, no family...people do. Beliefs aren't the kind of entities that deserve dignity and respect. People are. Life is precious, not belief.

When so many beliefs in this world are both wrong and harmful, being deferential to them is a luxury we can't afford, and that includes religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean we should start ridiculing religion willy-nilly, the way a lot of people in the secular humanist/atheist/skeptic movement do these days. There's no reason you can't question somebody's religious beliefs politely (unless questioning them at all is considered impolite, and that's what needs to be changed). Questioning is essential for all ideas, not just religious ones. But it can be done considerately: by trying to understand and respect people's feelings...and remembering they have every right to question your beliefs, too. Fair is fair.

But having a frank, respectful discussion of religion can be especially tricky. One thing secular types like Douglas Adams and myself forget is that religious people see the things they believe in as real and deserving of respect--even worship. To a secular person, God is an abstract idea. To a believer, God is the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, who loves them and watches over them. They may see any questioning of God or other sacred things, like sacred texts and rituals, as disrepectful to God; as sacrilege or blasphemy. Secular people have a hard time understanding blasphemy: how can an abstract idea be insulted? But to religious people, that abstract idea is very real. Maybe they're even right. But if the ideas that can survive our questioning are the ones that are true, and God is a real, all-knowing, all-powerful being, then he should have no trouble weathering our puny little human questions.

Ideas have to be questioned. It's the only way to figure out which ones are true. Such questioning might be the chief engine of human progress (a twin engine is compassion). But we can do our questioning with respect--not for the ideas themselves, but for the people who hold them. One reason to be respectful is simply practical: if you want someone to seriously consider what you're saying, the last thing you want to do is offend them. Sometimes you truly can't help offending people, but the less you do, the more likely they are to listen. The other reason to be respectful is that most people--religious and otherwise--really do deserve respect. When I think about the people I admire most in this world, some of them are atheists, and some of them are devoutly religious. I know truly great people in both camps, and at many points in between. I know people on both sides whose compassion and selflessness I find awe-inspiring. When I write this, I hope some of the religious people I admire will read it, too, so I'm trying to show them the respect they deserve.

I don't always succeed, of course. I get mad and scathing. I forget that the point of having a discussion is to get at the truth, not to win the argument or show off my debating skills. I let my ego get in the way of productive debate, and try to back people into embarrassing logical corners. Then I feel bad about it later, unless they're absolute jackasses, and then I really don't. Maybe I should anyway. I'm only human, though, and I still have a lot to learn from wiser people than myself--religious and otherwise.

My point is that we need to change how we conceptualize respect for other people's opinions. Maybe true respect is best shown by having an honest, civil discussion, with no taboo topics. After all, are you really respecting someone's intellect when there are topics you avoid, for fear of giving offense? I don't think so. I think polite honesty can be more more respectful than deferential silence. Besides, as I've been saying, beliefs don't deserve respect. People do, and that's why it's possible to question a person's beliefs while respecting them as a person. In fact, it's not just possible. It's essential. There's not much hope for humanity if we stop questioning old beliefs and looking for better ones. But there's also not much hope if we forget to treat each other with respect.