Should we respect the faithful?

February 9, 2011 • 10:12 am

If you’re not regularly reading Greta Christina, you should.  She’s a good writer and a clear, intelligent, and forceful voice for rationality.  Her latest post on AlterNet deals with an issue we’ve all been pondering lately: how much “respect” we should show when dealing with the faithful?  Christina’s answer is clear from her title:  “No, atheists don’t have to show ‘respect’ for religion.

However, if ecumenicalism were just hypocritical bullshit, I probably wouldn’t care very much. Hypocritical bullshit is all over the human race like a cheap suit. I’m not going to get worked up into a lather every time I see another example of it. So why does this bug me so much?

Well, it also bugs me because — in an irony that would be hilarious if it weren’t so screwed-up — a commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility toward atheists.

I’ve been in a lot of debates with religious believers over the years. And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I’ve heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism. I’ve been called a fascist, a zealot, a missionary; I’ve been called hateful, intolerant, close-minded, dogmatic; I’ve been compared to Glenn Beck and Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler more times than I can count. All by progressive and moderate believers, who were outraged at the very notion of atheists pointing out the flaws in religious ideas and making an argument that these ideas are probably not true. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are passionate advocates for free expression of ideas will get equally passionate about demanding that atheists shut the hell up. Progressive and moderate believers who normally are all over the idea of diversity and multiculturalism will get intensely defensive of homogeny when one of the voices in the rich cultural tapestry is saying, “I don’t think God exists, and here’s why.” . . .

. . . In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said “practically.”) I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality… isn’t it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

Go read the rest; it’s a nice piece.

66 thoughts on “Should we respect the faithful?

  1. I agree that she is aces.

    If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can?

    I don’t understand this, either. People believe without a shadow of a doubt that they know who god is and that he has written an instruction manual…yet the VAST majority of believers cannot be bothered to actually read that manual cover-to-cover, but instead rely on someone cherry-picking parts of it once a week.

    It’s mind-bendingly stupid.

    1. Well it is comparatively recent in the history of Christianity that the clergy have permitted their flocks to read the bible for themselves.

    2. Bart Erhman tells how he asks incoming students for his introduction to the Bible classes:

      “How many of you have read The Da Vinci Code?” Nearly all hands go up.

      “How many of you have read the entire Bible, from start to finish?” Maybe a couple of hands go up, if any.

      “How many of you think the Bible is the Word of God?” Most hands go up. (He teaches at Chapel Hill, NC.)

      “So, if you think the Bible is the Word of God, why don’t you want to know what it says?”

      I think you could repeat the exercise with most lifelong Christians and get about the same response, only a few more would lie about reading the thing.

      1. Ehrman knows he has the kids caught in a predicament when he asks that last question, “…why don’t you want to know what it says?”

        They just can’t admit the truth: while the Bible has some juicy parts, most of it is boring, tedious nonsense. Heh, heh … how can you say that about the ‘Word of God’?

        1. The juicy parts aren’t much better for religion than the tedious bits. In Numbers 16, God nukes the site from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure).

        2. Most attempts to read the Bible are abandoned somewhere in Leviticus, if they get that far. It is indeed tedious stuff.

          I remember in my “Education for Ministry” classes in the Episcopal Church, in which one reads the entire Bible (among other materials). For most of the students — usually middle aged or older — it’s the first time they’ve actually read it. Talk about some shocked Episcopalians!

  2. The experience of having liberal, moderate religionists attack atheists & secularists, especially at the expense of fundamentalists, is familiar to me too.

    That’s a big part of the reason why I’m less sanguine about assuming liberals will ally against fundamentalism. Of course, since the main “sin” of liberals is to support fundies I still think libs are preferable but I really caution other atheists against assuming that they will will be solid allies in ameliorating the excesses of religiosity. Many have chosen sides and it isn’t with us.

    I think this was one of Sam Harris’s best insights – liberals act as a respectable front for religion in general which serves to promote the worst excesses. They don’t demonstrate or defend the values of liberal beliefs or secularism.

    1. It’s self-defence. The arguments which are levelled at fundamentalists are very similar to the ones which would undermine liberal theism. That’s why you may see liberals (like the Methodist Jerry visited) say that fundamentalists are “deluded” yet carefully avoid specifics lest they expose their own beliefs as delusions.

      1. And since the Fundamentalists are basing their arguments directly on the Bible, it is hard to both revere the book and teach from it while complaining that someone else is actually reading it how it was intended.

        Its like that woman who was arguing on a talk show about how real Islam is not misogynistic and then an Imam called her out as not a Muslim for not following the exact rules laid out in the Koran and the Hadith.

  3. The attacks against atheists from other atheists that I’ve seen recently around the blogs, is that we should be engaging theists on their ground, rather than building our own intellectual space.

    Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse say we have to become more ‘sophisticated’ and theological and take believers seriously as the intellectual giants that they are.

    While Tim Dean ( suggests that to get rid of religion we must create a new religion (sic?).

    And that is what is so great about bloggers like Greta Christina, Eric Macdonald and Ophelia Benson that blow the old cobwebs of muddled thinking away by reminding us ‘New Atheists’ are new, because we have ourselves our own intellectual space or ground to play in, and religion wants to force and coerce us back onto their territory, even recruiting fellow atheists in the process.

    Greta’s article is an article that reminds us, that we demand intellectual equality, and that respect works both ways. And if religion does not play by those rules and hypocritically condemns us, then why the hell should we respect that? That’s not something that should be respected, that’s something to voice against in the strongest possible way.

    1. Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse say we have to become more ‘sophisticated’ and theological and take believers seriously as the intellectual giants that they are.

      No they don’t! If I gave that impression with the post on the ontological argument, allow me to correct it. They say we have to argue seriously, but that’s a different thing.

        1. The thing is, and Greta has attacked this practice in a previous blog, our opponents (whether atheists or believers) will urge us to read serious theology and concommitant arguments.

          When we do, and say, nope, fancy words but still no content, they criticize us for not understanding it and ask us to re-read the sophisticated arguments.

          And so on and so on. It comes down to, if we aren’t persuaded by the big dawg theologians, we aren’t understanding them (it’s our fault).

          Maybe, like scientists, these theologians need popularizers who can convey they high falutin concepts in plain language.

          Or would that put the theologians out of business?

          1. When you talk bullshit in plain language it is obvious to all that it is indeed bullshit, this is what they are most desperately trying to avoid. The point about obfuscation is that you have a good chance that people will assume that it’s their fault they can’t understand it, instead of the writer’s.

    2. “The attacks against atheists from other atheists that I’ve seen recently around the blogs, is that we should be engaging theists on their ground, rather than building our own intellectual space.”

      I’d say both are valuable, and I’m not much inclined to tell other adults what they should do. I personally enjoy arguing with theists. I’m not much of one for being interested in posting my words into an echo chamber.

      This is not at all to say that I don’t see enormous value in there being places where atheists hammer out their own perspective on things, free from the intrusion of religious yammerings. I see a lot of value to both.

      “…religion wants to force and coerce us back onto their territory, even recruiting fellow atheists in the process.”

      Well, I am certainly in “their territory” in that I am a frequent poster at the forum of a highly popular theologian, but I’m ‘recruiting’ them. Those I manage to recruit will be few, but they will be people who know the ‘sophisticated’ theological arguments inside and out. And they in turn will (eventually) be in good position to recruit more precisely because they know the arguments inside and out.

      There are people who go to such places because they wish to know what they can believe with confidence. It’s not so hard to spot the ones who do care about what is true.

  4. I’ve been in a lot of debates with religious believers over the years. And some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric I’ve heard has come from progressive and moderate believers espousing the supposedly tolerant principles of ecumenicalism.

    She should really provide some specific examples to back up these indictments. This is way too similar to the sort of noise we usually hear from the other camp.

    1. A fair point. But Dawkins, of course, has given plenty of examples, including the video he filmed reading his hate mail from religious people. Sadly, I haven’t saved my own hate mail from the faithful, but I sure have gotten some!

      1. If we are to discount the comment section at Pharyngula, then I think we should also discount hate mail from random schmucks on the ‘Net.

        I think a lot would hinge on the sorts of people Greta considers “moderate.”

        Catholicism is the oldest largest denomination in all of Christendom and rightly has an excellent claim to being “mainstream.” Its head, the Pope, has recently had some truly nasty things to say about non-believers, including laying the blame for Hitler and the Holocaust at our feet. I think that’s a valid example.

        Bush the Elder doesn’t think that atheists are deserving of American citizenship. That, too, should be specific enough.

        I don’t think it would be very difficult to come up with more examples.



        1. Isn’t “the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric” built into post-semitic religions like christianity? If you don’t do as they say, you will go to hell.

          It is when we get to nuances among the bigotry that Ratzinger stands out.

        2. I just don’t think the Pope and Bush Senior would fall into the kind of liberal-moderates Greta was talking about. The Pope may be ‘mainstream’ but Greta was clearly talking about the kind of far-left, postmodern liberal who – mainstream or not – says things like “all religions are just different paths to the same goal” and “If it’s true for you then it’s true for you”.

          The Pope and Bush Senior have talked a lot of nonsense, just not anything like this particular species of nonsense.

          1. Meaning, yes, Greta should give examples of liberal-moderates giving “some of the ugliest, nastiest, most bigoted anti-atheist rhetoric” we’ve heard.

    2. Exactly. And, unfortunately, this certainly isn’t the first time that she’s made completely unsupported assertions (and, no, argument from personal experience isn’t sufficient evidence).

      For example, see this article from last November and
      this comment thread, in which my comment regarding her unsupported assumptions started a bit of a kerfuffle.

        1. Good idea. I generally like her articles, but I think she needs to pull up some specific examples to lay this to rest.

          My experience is that the conservative theists are trying to convert me and generally play nice, and that most of the expressed fury is from the liberal theists who do not like being called on their BS. Their favourite insult is to call me “fundamentalist”.

      1. From my own experience, it works both ways. Atheists can be downright nasty and angry, while believers can be nasty and mostly passive-aggressive or just plain weird.

        I know that example that Christopher Hitchens used about the strange woman who came up to him and talked about her friend having cancer and got better but then it got worse and he died in agony. And then she said ‘Of course he was a homosexual.’

        And of course she could have been an atheist or eccentric, or he could have made the whole thing up, I don’t know. But we’ve all encountered that awful creepiness when the believer looks at us and murmurs something like “I will pray for you.”

      2. In defense of Greta, all you have to do is go to any of her articles on Alternet and read the comments. Trust me, many of those attacking her claim to be liberal believers (alternet IS a liberal site). And the comments to thosse comments turn into debates.

    3. I can’t speak on behalf of Greta, but here’s Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who commonly writes for HuffPo:

      Even Hitchens acknowledges that the world’s foremost genocides have all been committed by secular, atheistic regimes who maintained the right to determine which lives were worth preserving, and which should be discarded. Hitler murdered at least twelve million. Stalin, another thirty million. Mao, perhaps 40 million. And Pol Pot killed one-third of all Cambodians in the mid-1970s. Indeed, the number of people killed by the secular atheist regimes of the 20th century dwarfs all the people killed in the name of religion from the beginning of recorded history until the present.


      I wish I could say he is just a crank that absolutely no one listens to, but this is shockingly common, and those on the religious left are just as likely to use it as those on the right.

      1. Yes, but Boteach hardly qualifies as either ‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’. The only representative voice I can think of is Barry Lynn, a minister and Executive Director of ‘Americans United for Separation of Church and State’. He’s a splendidly well-articulate and decent person.

  5. I really enjoyed it as I’ve had many of these same thoughts and arguments in my head. Thanks for the heads-up, Jerry.

  6. The target of “respect” has gradually morphed from the original one of “respect for your right to your own beliefs” to the current one of “respect for your beliefs”. These are clearly two different notions which have gotten conflated.

    I respect your right to believe any fool thing you want. Just don’t expect me not to argue against it.

      1. I remember a Catholic-convert friend insisting, “You WILL respect my faith!”, when it was rather obvious that I didn’t and wouldn’t. She was furious that I thought Catholicism was a load of bull and that I didn’t hesitate to say so.

        Beliefs have to earn respect.

  7. Ha, believers don’t care if its true, because even learning the answer to that question is not worth slogging through theology books.

  8. “Respect” is a very many-faced concept.

    Not treating any religious idiot like any other idiot isn’t respect.

    Most religious “reasoning” got some pretty obvious flaws. Pointing those out is treating them like a person that can be reasoned with, tiptoeing around them and “respecting sophisticated theology” isn’t respect, it’s writing people off and de-humanizing.

    Granted – in some quarters and some situations there might be a smidgeon of harsh language. Usually in humorous intent or as hyperbole. If someone mixes this with disrespect they really should study human interaction more.

    1. As has been pointed out many times during The Accommodationist Wars, it is hardly a mark of respect to treat someone as if their beliefs don’t merit serious intellectual analysis. Atheists are generally very respectful of religious people, in that we take them at their word that their beliefs matter, and take the time to look at the consistency and consequences of those beliefs and how they line up with reality.

      Honestly, how respectful is it to say “Yes, yes, dear, you go ahead and believe in that funny elephant-headed ‘god’ of yours.”

      1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who got that impression from those who affirm accommodation. I keep seeing messages that, while heavily obfuscated, roughly say, “We can’t go bursting their bubbles — they’re not strong/smart enough to survive without them!”

    2. Actually, that would seem the place to start.

      What is meant by “respect”? When ought respect be given to what manner of entity(s), and under what is-ought bridge is that “ought” claim made? If authority is to be accorded respect, is there a difference to be made between the form of respect to authority based on dominance and to authority based on prestige?

  9. It all depends on the god you believe in.

    As Nurse Duckett tells Yosarian in catch 22

    [T]he God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.

  10. If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can?

    Claiming to “love God” is a claim of tribal membership (one of “godspeople”), not an actual claim about some external character named “God.” We’re not part of the tribe and, worse, by questioning the existence/characteristics of their totem/flag/symbol we question their membership in the tribe. The fundamentalists are members of a different tribe, which props up the notion of tribes. The Gnus threaten the very notion of tribes.

    1. I think this is a very important point, and helps to explain how liberal theists can continue to belong to churches. Who can love the Ground of all Being, or Isness? (Not having grown up with it, I can’t even imagine loving the Invisible Sky Guy.)

  11. In AA I have to be careful with peoples belief in a higher power, they might have to get drunk over it. I just replace the the underlying concept they label God with the notion of randomness and we seem to co-exist.

    A spiritual approach to life is the same for an Atheist as it is for a Christian. We just call it different things.

      1. “Spiritual” is a meaningless concept. As such, head-on attack is better than running away.

        We lead a carnal life. Every thing we are and every concept in human society has it’s genesis in flesh. All knowledge and all sensation starts with the realization that we are incarnate minds.

        Spiritualism is just an expression of human dualist thinking, and it’s a bug, not a feature.

  12. Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

    Sure but good luck projecting that onto other people. What “is” and what “ought” are separate things. (Yes I am accusing her of two glaring fallacies.)

  13. I think the many believers’ reflexive defensiveness is explained partly by Robert Pirsig’s famous(?) observation:

    No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

    The need to have one’s beliefs validated by others is a powerful force in the human psyche, a force perhaps equaled by a need to define oneself as part of a group as distinct from others. This “tribal” remnant, if you will, of human evolution speaks to another explanation for the potency of religious beliefs and the vehemence with which people defend their own and condemn others’.
    All this is no new brilliant insight, I’m sure, but to me it goes a long way toward explaining – or at least understanding – why so many believers are wholly unconcerned with the logical fallacies, textual discrepancies, and overarching absurdity of religious belief, and why so many are equally unconcerned with reconciling those fallacies, ignore inherent contradictions, and can’t be bothered to actually read the texts they venerate so highly.

  14. Sure, I can respect a religious person, just as I can respect an alcoholic, or a man who wears a potty on his head. But I feel I might respect them a little more if only they would make some adjustments to their lives.

    But I don’t respect anyone’s beliefs. Not on any subject. Not even Jerry’s beliefs. A belief simply isn’t an appropriate object for respect. A belief is for agreeing or disagreeing with. Respect is only for people and other living things.

  15. Believers play this weird little game with each other. Each agrees that faith is “good” and they agree not to say what they really think about the other’s faith in return for like treatment.

    But they can’t barter this way with the atheist. They KNOW the atheist feels exactly the same way towards their magical beliefs that they feel towards all the other faiths they pretend to respect– and they worry that the atheist might be right to feel this way. This, of course, threatens this notion that they are “saved” based on what they believe!

    What’s a theist to do but to find something to convince themselves that the atheist is immoral due to their lack of faith!? If they didn’t do this they might accidentally see their faith the way they see all those other crazy beliefs and myths of “others”– and then their god might punish them forever and ever for “losing faith”!

    I think much of the nastiness of these “liberal theists” (like Rob Knop)is due to the projection regarding what they tell themselves about other faiths. They won’t say what they think about those other believers out loud, but surely they think those others are delusional when it comes to the supernatural beliefs they don’t share. Instead they hurl nastiness towards those gnu atheists who threaten to make them think about their own beliefs the same way.

    Faith needs the constant support of others to stay alive, and the outspoken atheist wants no part in furthering the mind virus. We’re not going to pretend that the emperor might be wearing invisible robes that only the chosen can see nor look away as others claim it’s good to promote such beliefs. I think the liberal theist and the faitheists are really asking us to give the illusion that some brands of magical belief are more “scientific” or respectworthy than those other “faiths”. Instead of “accommodating” such a request, I think it’s better to encourage them to keep their supernatural beliefs as private (and unprivileged) as they want the Scientologists to keep theirs. If their beliefs are true, they should trust that the data will accumulate to distinguish their beliefs from the supernatural beliefs of others that they are certain must be delusional.

  16. Great post. This is exactly how I lost my religion as a teenager.

    I reasoned that if god was as important as my parents (and people at church) claimed, it was my duty to learn as much about him as possible. This led me to read the bible from cover to cover. Long before the end, I was an atheist.

  17. It may be possible sometimes to burst people’s bubbles without first telling them that the reason they live in bubbles is that they are irrational idiots.

    There are different paths to persuasion, and not all of best of them involve assuming that people believe religious ideas because they are ignorant and intellectually weak.

    The point of respect for the person is to acknowledge their thinking in order to help them see where they are going wrong. No it isn’t always effective or appropriate to make that effort, or even possible to succeed that way. In the case of religion, it is easy to find extremes because people identify deeply with the ideas and get meaning from them.

    But that’s to me what respect would mean in the context of debate or discourse, when it is applicable. It would not mean compromising on facts.

    1. I think I get what you mean but the current status quo severely disadvantages the right to free expression of atheists. A lot of us really do feel that belief in Jesus is akin to belief in Santa. That is not a simple insult. It is in fact a major evidential reason for our conclusion that religion is empty. It is also not the same thing as calling someone an irrational idiot. To say we must refrain from using this line of debate is simply not an option.
      That religious people feel insulted when told this should not be an insurmountable problem. Remember that religious people in Europe also feel insulted when European atheists make the Santa argument but they still survive. What European religious believers tend do to so as to minimise hearing the Santa comparison is to refrain from trying to impose their religion on the rest of the population. As the UK prime ministers press spokesman once said, politicians “don’t do religion” in the UK.
      We are simply providing some tough medicine for the religious. Accomodationists are trying to avoid treatment in its entirety.

      1. @Sigmund: Thanks. I guess my confusion is with the atheist-polarizing stereotype of “accommodationism” which seems to assume that people with less of a “tough medicine” approach are also compromising on reality. I don’t think that’s neccessarily the case. I agree that it’s simply not an option to give up on the ideal of piercing our illusions.

      2. Too bad Santa Claus gets more and more attention in Europe nowadays. Although I suspect it has more to do with Mammon than Yahweh…

  18. Answering the question of “Should we respect the faithful?” – I have found Hitchens’ answer to it. I was quite surprised when he said “Yes” but he provided reason which I find powerful and compelling.
    He said something like this: “Yes, I do not respect people who lie to their [or the] children.”

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