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Do We Need to Respect Others' Beliefs?

What do I mean when I say that I respect your beliefs? Does that mean that I think they are valid? Or noble? Or helpful?  What if I don’t think they are, but I believe that you think they are and are trying to live by them? Can I respect your belief in those beliefs but not the beliefs  themselves? And what if I abhor those beliefs? Can I still respect your belief in them?

Some people say, “I respect you as a person, but not your beliefs.” Isn’t your belief part of who you are as a person?

I think these are difficult questions, although I also have a suspicion that they may not be useful ones. However, respecting people’s beliefs, in the sense of both allowing them and not forcing someone to violate them (within the limit of not harming others), is a central part of our constitutional democracy. This is a different, although related, meaning of “respect.” Merriam Webster dictionary has two meanings of respect: 1) a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc. and 2) a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way. It is this second definition of respect that is related to our constitutional guarantees of freedom of belief, although we limit those beliefs to religious ones.

This latter fact, that those beliefs that are protected by our constitution are religious ones is an historical anomaly related to the constitutional protection of religion and religious expression. The historical anomaly continues, however in that we still seem to interpret belief primarily as a religious concept, although most things people believe have nothing to do with religion. Essentially, we believe whatever we would say is true if we were asked, which includes many things we have never been asked, but if we were, we would say are true (e.g. I believe I am taller than a midget , although no one has ever asked or will ever ask me if I am; I believe that gravity will keep me from floating upward and result in me falling downward, although no one would probably ever ask me if that was the case).

That religious beliefs carry more weight than non religious beliefs with regard to American laws can be demonstrated by the laws related to conscientious objection and to being allowed to circumvent the requirement in Obamacare to provide birth control medical services to employees.  So when we talk about respecting someone’s beliefs, we are probably talking about his or her religious beliefs. We don’t have any compunctions about not respecting someone’s beliefs on issues such as which is  the best sports team, who would make the best president, whether man-made climate change is real, whether we should send troops to Syria, etc. In these cases, we are probably talking about the first definition of respect in the case of respecting or not respecting these beliefs, that is, we either do or don’t think they are good, valuable or important.  If they are held seriously by someone we may say that we don’t agree with them, but we respect their right to their opinion (more and more we may not even grant that, as people in the U.S. seem to have developed a proneness to attacking not just the belief of a person, but his or her character for believing it).


We’ve certainly seen instances where deeply held, even religious, beliefs were not respected by the majority of people. We routinely hear jokes about the apparent radical Muslim belief that becoming a martyr for Islam will result in a male being entertained by 72 virgins in heaven. In France, the Muslim dress codes for women, which are determined by their religious beliefs, are outlawed by the state.  Exorcism as a religious belief has been caricatured in films and books. So our respect seems to be limited by how familiar a belief is to the majority of members of our culture. What is respected in one culture may not be respected in another.


So there are limits to what we are expected to respect about other people’s beliefs, even if they are religious (and outside of our American culture there are certainly numerous culture where religious beliefs that do not agree with the dominant one are not respected, even vilified and punished). But here we’re talking about America and our so-called tradition of respecting other people’s religious beliefs. But really, isn’t the respect toward the right to hold the belief, not the belief itself? Yes and no.  Commonly, we talk as if there is something wrong with showing disrespect for someone’s religious belief.


Recently, many people who are not Native Americans were disturbed by reports that an oil pipeline-laying company was laying a pipeline that could not only disturb the water supply to the local reservation, and the surrounding wildlife areas, but also that it was “desecrating sacred land and burial grounds” surrounding the reservation. We all may be alarmed by the pollution of the water supply, but what does it mean when a non-believer in the Native American religious belief system is disturbed by violation of what is sacred to the Native Americans, but not to him or her?


There may be something in the concept of freedom of religion that makes us sensitive to violation of anyone’s religious beliefs or practices, even if they are not our own. Perhaps we project ourselves and our religious views into their position and imagine that, if their religious views and practices can be violated, why can’t ours? To defend the right to hold one set of religious beliefs, or engage in one set of religious practices, one must defend the right to hold or engage in them all (this is not true in countries that do not guarantee religious freedom and in which one religion is the official one).


But why would I respect someone’s religious belief if I don't believe in any religion at all, if I am an atheist?  As an atheist, I believe that a person’s religious belief, no matter what it is,  is wrong.  I may or may not believe it is harmful, but either way, I think it’s misguided. Do I think that if someone’s freedom to believe in his or her religion is violated, then my own freedom to not believe in any religion is also in danger?  Probably. And probably I am right. So there is a sense in which I must respect someone else’s right to believe in his or her religion if I expect them to respect my right to be an atheist.


But isn’t there more than just this self-defensive justification of the right to hold a belief?  Isn’t there a sense in which all of our beliefs are acquired from our environments, are no doubt flawed in some ways, are hypotheses, as opposed to immutable facts, and are limited by our human imaginations? We can be pretty sure some of our beliefs are correct and we can be sure that some beliefs of others are incorrect, but if we understand how someone else came to harbor such beliefs and why, given their assumptions about the world (which may be different from ours), those beliefs make sense, can’t we respect how they came to believe what they believe at least enough to say we shouldn’t attack it unless a) we believe it is harmful to them and others (not just because it's wrong but because of its implications for real actions), or b) it is being used to force our own beliefs from us or force us into believing that belief? This is basically the humility argument. Don’t attack what you don’t understand or what doesn’t harm you.  Of course some atheists would argue that all religious beliefs fit a) above and most have been used in ways as described by b).  But, assuming that that is not true, there is no reason to attack someone’s sacred belief just because you don’t agree with it.

Why not?

Because people’s lives may be built around a set of beliefs that do no harm to us, and give meaning to them and in which they have a strong emotional investment. To disabuse them of those beliefs, even if they are wrong beliefs, would cause anxiety, unhappiness, loss of meaning,  and, in some cases, social disruption. Does that mean that we need to pursue a hand’s off policy with regard to everyone’s most cherished beliefs, no matter how incorrect we think they are? Not really. We can still try to change their minds or offer them alternatives. That’s the point of allowing all varieties of belief in this country. You are free to believe whatever you want and I am free to try to change your mind.






Reader Comments (1)

Clinton made a good point about this in the debate last night. She said if Trump's statement about banning Muslims from immigrating to the US were enforced, it would throw our society within the US into dysfunction since our nation is founded on the principle of religious freedom. I respect people regardless of their beliefs. As a former agnostic and now devoted Christian, I try to treat everyone I meet, and everyone my words and actions might affect, exactly as I'd want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Usually it just means being kind, patient, and generous--however my religion does require me to speak up about my faith in certain situations. I'm called to acknowledge Christ before others and testify about his help in my life, so other people can hear and possibly ask him for help and start a relationship with God through him. Sometimes there's a thin line between respecting others' religious beliefs and speaking out for Christ, but usually there's a way to do so that doesn't insult anyone or step on any toes. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, all deserve the same level of respect as Christians or anyone else.

October 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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