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Belief, and respect

June 1, 2012

Please excuse any typos/autocorrect weirdness I may miss, since I’m temporarily stuck posting from the phone. I considered using the WiFi Keyboard app to type on the Chromebook rather than the phone, but with the need for pasting in links, etc., keeping changing the input method seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Good chance to get more practice with the sliding QWERTY keyboard now that my hands and wrists aren’t so prone to cramping up from hypocalcemia, though. 😉

At any rate, last night I ran across another excellent post from Charlie Glickman, which approaches some things I have been thinking and wanting to write about from a slightly different angle: I Don’t Respect Your Beliefs. You might want to read the whole thing.

One of the topics that came up was how common it is for people to say that we have to respect their beliefs, or that we have to respect religious beliefs in general. And I think that’s exactly the wrong way to go.

In my experience, when people say that, what they often mean is “I don’t want you to challenge my beliefs.” It’s a way of avoiding controversy and disagreement around religion, but it also gives religion a free ride by removing it from the marketplace of ideas. I see no reason to privilege religious ideas like that. “Respecting beliefs” doesn’t only come up with respect to religion and spirituality, of course. People believe all sorts of things and some folks demand respect for their beliefs in order to make sure that they remain unquestionable.

I’ve found it much more useful to respect people, rather than beliefs.

He goes on to describe what that entails for him.

From my perspective, I would add that when someone demands that you must respect their beliefs, not only is the demand itself rude, they frequently seem to think that their belief system is more deserving of respect than actual human beings are. (Much like some people’s emphasis on flags and other symbols, with a to-me disturbing amount of reification going. I am resisting the lure of going off on a tangent, with some of Robert K. Thomas’s observations on reification and nationalism specifically, which got me thinking in some interesting directions.) That kind of respect often seems to have more in common with “awe” (and that good old “respect for authority”) than how Charlie Glickman and I are using the term. This would be beyond the problem, not too surprisingly pointed out in comments there, of the too-frequent expectation that this demanded “respect” is not going to be very reciprocal.

Hell no, I am not agreeing to that kind of demand! Respect has very little in common with capitulation; that is a very controlling (and, thus, disrespectful) model, right there.

And that touches on one difference in approach: as far as I’m concerned, you have a perfect right to believe anything you want to, no matter how ridiculous I may think it is. It would be almost as rude for me to tell you outright that your personal beliefs sound nutty and totally lacking grounding in any common sense or reality as I know it, however politely phrased, as it would be for you to continue lecturing me about them–with an eye toward conversion, or no–once I have shown a lack of enthusiasm, and/or tried to change the subject. (Another application of enthusiastic consent. 😉 ) At that point, the problem I have is not with your actual beliefs, but with your disrespectful behavior and obvious disregard for my own way of looking at things. More on the importance of behavior later.

One of my favorite quotes on the matter:

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia , 1782

I am put in mind of a related observation (yet again) from Barbara Mann’s Iroquoian Women (pp. 297-298), which describes a pattern I have repeatedly watched unfold, and have gotten caught up in many times myself. (Not always in religious and/or political contexts, but the misunderstandings can be a major problem there.)

The missionaries likewise mistook decorum for fascination with their theologies. For instance, the Iroquois commonly suffered missionaries to preach as long as they liked, sitting quietly to the end, since it was customary for seers to present their visions in full. [Plus, it’s super-rude to interrupt people, especially ones you don’t know well, and tell them to shut up! Again, however polite the words chosen. -U.] Thinking “conversion”, not “vision quest etiquette”, excited missionaries reported back to their sponsors that the Iroquois were listening to their sermons in rapt silence.

The missionaries also refused to accept that neutral silence did not imply agreement.

She goes on to produce some of the exact same politely neutral phrases (in English translation) that I have heard and used myself repeatedly, in similar situations–as quoted by Lahontan in 1703. *sigh* Yep, I’ll think about it, all right…


[Chief Elias] Johnson recounted a hilarious tradition about the Iroquois politely hearing a missionary out, thinking that they would thereafter “relate to him some of their legends.” When they came back with their own stories, however, the outraged missionary “could not restrain his indignation, but pronounced them foolish fables” as opposed to his Christianity, which was, he insisted, “sacred truth.” Affronted themselves at this point, the Iroquois rebuked the missionary, saying, “we listened to your stories, why do you not listen to ours?” The Iroquois concluded that the missionary could not possibly have been “instructed in the common rules of civility.”

Indeed. There is a longstanding tradition of this kind of “respect for beliefs”. 😦

BTW, that section of the book also offers an excellent detailed description of why Christianity was not embraced by many Northern Iroquoian people, which does not apply only to them. I was just about rolling in the floor when I first read it, having also heard and thought the same “but, that makes no sense!” objections, based in similar philosophical traditions. 🙂

As for faith, said Lahontan, the mere word was “enough to choak [sic] them.” They “Jest of it.”…

In fact, monotheism was baffling to them. In 1609, Marc Lescarbot used the fact that the Iroquois did not worship any particular God to argue that they would easily be “ready to receive the Christian doctrine,” but, by the nineteenth century, their atheism constituted one of the chief charges against the Iroquois as savages.

I prefer to use nontheism, in part because it is coming out of very different philosophical traditions from Western atheism (or theism, or the perceived dynamics between these things). Gaiman’s fictional observation that gods needed to be imported to North America in general? A lot of truth there. This is another reason I do not identify with atheist or skeptical movements myself these days, but often consider myself an ally. Not all of our assumptions and interests are the same. (As I increasingly realize also applies to other political and politicized movements–which deserves its own post(s), when I have the spoons.)

But, my main point in throwing in that quote was that I do react similarly to what many people say (often unsolicited) about their “beliefs” or “faith”–so often used more-or-less synonymously. The very idea of what many people mean by “belief” and “believing” kinda makes me “choak”. But, while I may hope that they’ll learn some critical thinking and start making some sense*, I just don’t have the right to interfere and try to change their thinking. Respectfully debate ideas, yes; try to convert them to my version of rationality, not so much. Everybody is responsible for their own soul/duyukta and behavior. As much as I may want to start yelling or at least snarking at certain people at times–usually when hateful attitudes get wrapped in “belief”, and thereby declared off limits–it’s also unlikely to do any good. Sometimes all you can reasonably do is walk away and leave people to their own thoughts.

Now, as has been touched upon here, problems arise when someone’s “beliefs” serve to justify or even require lousy, disrespectful, interfering behavior which can do harm. I have been meaning to write more about this for some time, specifically as religion gets roped into that, but will have to wait for another post.


* I am not lumping all religious, or theistic, ideas into the nonsensical category. I also have serious problems with that, especially when people get rude and condescending with it. More oppositional binary rubbish, to me, besides the disrespect. But, if you start insisting that I respect your beliefs in the sense I’ve been writing about here, that is more than enough enough to engage my bullshit detector.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2012 8:43 pm

    Love the believer, hate the belief system. A high enough standard of brotherly love, I think. No less humanitarian than “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

    • urocyon permalink*
      June 6, 2012 5:52 pm

      Agreed there, condescending as the sin-based version always sounds.

  2. June 21, 2012 1:27 am

    Yeah, I’ve certainly noticed a double standard about respect and accommodation of one’s beliefs — you can expect people to bend over backwards for you if you are a particularly vocal conservative Christian (see the recent freakout over employers being asked to cover contraception in their insurance policies), but you’re on your own if you follow any other tradition.

    The biggest problem I have with religion comes with the kind of things I think you’re getting at in your last paragraph — the “disrespectful, interfering behavior which can do harm” that some religious sects encourage. Aggressive evangelism, trying to expunge material deemed unchristian from public school curricula, making it harder for women (and other uterus owners) to get contraception or abortion services … you get the idea.

    Random book tangents: I *loved* American Gods! Both the idea that the gods are still around, in semi-retirement, and the idea that new gods are being born. (I also found it interesting on a personal note, as I am of Slavic descent on my mom’s side and the book has a lot of stuff dealing with Slavic paganism in it. I hadn’t known anything about that tradition before, so the book kind of stoked my curiosity about it, both in a finding-one’s-roots sense and in a hey-that’s-interesting sense, as the relation between Czernobog and Bielebog intrigued me on an aesthetic level in the same way that the Norse myth about Ragnarok did. I am very susceptible to a kind of bleak romanticism.)

    • urocyon permalink*
      June 21, 2012 6:08 pm

      Yeah, the whole “anti-bullying policies which cover QUILTBAG kids interfere horribly with my religious freedom to harass people into doing what I want, and who cares if some of them die from it? I need to interfere with their SOULS” thing got me particularly worked up. Not the only example of this kind of fuckery, but one of the most appalling I’ve seen anytime lately. That kind of belief deserves no respect whatsoever.

      And I probably need to reread American Gods now. 🙂 I don’t have any known Slavic heritage, but found that interesting enough to look into it a bit more, too.

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