Respecting Religion

04 Apr

I was reading this post over at The Friendly Atheist about respecting religion. Here is what might be the money quote:

The highest respect one can pay to another’s idea is to scrutinize it and explain what might be wrong. This is what “respect” means in the intellectual domain.

Is this an accurate statement? Let me think about it for a second.

If a two year old came up to you trying to explain how the world works (e.g. attempting to explain gravity, sunlight, etc.) would you take the two year old’s explanation seriously and refute his logic point by point? Or would you politely smile and say “Aww, what a cute kid! He’s such an angel; he’s always willing to help people like when he helps mommy with the laundry” ? In other words, completely ignore his contribution to world knowledge and only concentrate on how cute and adorable the kid is.

Actually engaging the kid with his reasoning would be to treat the kid like an adult. As an equal. Completely ignoring the kid’s factual claims and concentrate on his other qualities would be to treat the kid as, well, a kid; someone who is not an equal.

Now imagine an adult, or a peer of yours coming up to you and explaining something that is factually incorrect (e.g. 2 + 2 = 99). Would you have the same reaction to them that you had with the little kid? Or would you attempt to have a rational conversation with them about why they’re wrong?

So by not engaging with religion’s truth claims, and only pointing out other qualities (like it makes people feel better, etc.), is to treat religion like a sensitive little kid. I would think that this is disrespectful. It’s no less disrespectful than outwardly calling religion stupid and ignorant. It’s actually passive-aggressive disrespect. On the other hand, to actually engage in religion’s truth claims, as an equal in the marketplace of ideas, would be the only respectful recourse. Somehow, this is seen as “disrespectful”.

The only way this could be “disrespectful” is if you actually thought of religion as the two year old in the above analogy. It would be equally “disrespectful” — to the poor kid — if you shattered his truth claims about gravity with the more accurate description. Imagine how the little kid would feel if you actually took his assessment of gravity like an adult and corrected him matter of factly. It would probably hurt his feelings. What would be more disrespectful is if you threw in some personal attacks about the kid while correcting his truth claims. Analogously, by not correcting the truth claims of religion because we might hurt religious people’s feelings, is to passively-aggressively call religion the equivalent of a two year old.

So I say respect religion: Challenge their truth claims, without the personal attacks. Like an adult. Don’t passively-aggressively belittle their truth claims by ignoring them, like you would a clueless little kid.

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Posted by on April 4, 2012 in atheism


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