Religion · Skepticism

Respecting Everyone’s Beliefs

There’s a phrase that’s been annoying me lately. I don’t know whether it’s a new thing, or something that’s been floating around for years but only recently came to my attention, but it’s been bugging me.

“We should respect everyone’s ideas.”

This is exactly wrong. There are plenty of ideas out there that don’t deserve respect: the idea that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, that the ACLU hates America, that the Earth is flat, that good deeds are pointless unless you also believe in a Jewish zombie, that farts should be used as currency, and many more.

Respecting people, now that’s something else entirely. Everyone is entitled to certain rights, simply by virtue of being human. People can lose those rights, like a criminal who goes to prison and loses his rght to go where he likes, but every person starts out with a core set of rights. A more pedestrian example is that I tend to start out believing that you are a basically decent, honest person until you demonstrate otherwise.

But ideas are not people. They don’t suffer when they’re abandoned or overturned. They don’t feel shame when they’re shown to be idiotic, nor do they get lonely when held only by a handful of loons. Eliminating an idea is nothing like killing a person.

Of course, the problem is that many ideas, particularly religious or ideological ones, are tightly wrapped up in people’s sense of identity or self-worth; so saying that someone has a stupid idea or holds a stupid belief feels to them as if they’re being told that they themselves are stupid.

And so “all ideas should be respected” is really cover for “don’t criticize my religion”. The reasoning seems to be, “We both hold ideas that we’re not willing to abandon, even though we realize that they can’t stand up to critical examination. So I’ll agree not to shoot down your weak ideas if you’ll agree not to attack mine.” This seems to be the truce entered into in civilized countries where religions and other ideologies aren’t allowed to impose themselves through force of arms anymore.

But of course it all depends on all participants having weak beliefs that they want to protect. Along come skeptics who don’t want to hold weak beliefs, who want people to point out their false beliefs so they can get rid of them, and upset this unstable balance.

So fuck beliefs. They don’t automatically deserve my respect.

Now, I have friends (of the “I’d help them move a corpse, and vice-versa” variety) who hold wacky beliefs. (Mostly religious ones, as you might expect.) And yes, there are topics that, by mostly-unspoken agreement, we venture into only rarely. But that’s because I don’t want to upset my friends (see “sense of identity and self-worth”, above). In other words, it’s about respecting the person, not the belief.

9 thoughts on “Respecting Everyone’s Beliefs

  1. Obligatory pointer to Simon Blackburn’s essay “Religion and Respect”:

    Apropos your last paragraph: This last weekend, and old friend from evangelical days came to visit, along with two of her grown children (she has other family in the area, but they stayed with us). We seem to have a tacit agreement not to mention certain subjects ;-).

  2. Sadly, I’m stuck with just such an arrangement with my parents with respect to their weirdo alternative medicine nonsense. As long as it amounts to nothing more than a waste of money, it’s easier for me to keep my mouth shut than to start a fight. I’ve found there’s no way to have that argument without coming across as an intellectual bully or agreeing to disagree about things that are objectively wrong about physics and chemistry.

    Of course, just as I will smile and nod about religion until somebody proposes actual witch burnings, the altie medicine truce will end the moment somebody gets cancer and the idea of using magnets instead of chemotherapy is floated.

  3. arensb:

    Yeah, that was pretty much the point I was getting at. My problem with allowing the little placebo games to go on is that lots of them get selectively remembered and piled up into some distant cousin of “data” when the cancer discussion comes up. That’s alarming to me. You can’t tell people that the relief they feel is all in their heads without coming off as a total ass, but if you let them collect a million little anecdotes (and forget the bad times), that’s a lot of ammunition they’ve amassed to fight when it comes down to something important. I just hope we never go there.

  4. Troublesome Frog:
    There was also a talk at TAM 8 where one of the panelists mentioned seeing homeopathic cold remedies right next to real ones at Wal-Mart. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d like to be able to go into a pharmacy and just assume that the products sold under “cold remedies” are actual cold remedies. Ditto for other ailments.

  5. arensb Says:

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d like to be able to go into a pharmacy and just assume that the products sold under “cold remedies” are actual cold remedies. Ditto for other ailments.

    Personally I’d prefer there be an actual cold remedy but I’ll settle for accuracy in marketing so that products sold to treat cold symptoms are clearly labeled and marketed as such rather than as “cures.”

  6. Having homepathic remedies mixed in with real medicine drives me absolutely nuts. If you must sell those things on the shelves, at least have the real medicines marked with an easily identifiable seal of some sort so we can quickly skip over the stuff that people brew up in their garages or simply fill with tap water.

    My parents are convinced that homeopathic “medicine” and herbal remedies are not regulated by the FDA due to some sort of conspiracy by the conventional pharmaceutical industry to make them seem illegitimate. I couldn’t convince them that the last thing any of those companies wanted was for those products to come under the FDA’s regulatory scheme as they’d be pulled off the shelves in no time.

  7. In Canada, homeopathic, “traditional” and similar nostrums are regulated in that they have to be at least, non-poisonous. They pass through a regulatory process that basically blesses anything in the Materia Medica (homeo bible) or that “has traditionally been used for treatment of $CONDITION”. Evidence of actual efficacy is not required, although some of the more outrageous claims can be slapped down. I think the idea is that, given that people are selling this crap anyway, someone had better be making sure it isn’t killing people (at least, not directly).

  8. Eamon Knight:
    That’s a step in the right direction, though it’d be better if stuff that hasn’t been shown to work, or has been shown not to work, were labeled with a seal like the one Troublesome Frog suggested.

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