Via Lindsey, I read this paper by Simon Blackburn (pdf) which appears, again, in Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life edited by Louise Antony, and containing essays by 20 or so atheist philosophers. The collection is well worth reading. Its not as though it can have been difficult to find atheist philosophers who are willing to talk about their views, but netween them the contributors display a nice range of attitudes toward religion, including deep respect, envy, and outright hostility.
Blackburn’s chapter is, for the most part, an argument against versions of respect for religion that hinge on interpreting the claims of religious believers as not being the kinds of claim that can be true or false, and he makes that argument rather well. The point in dispute, though, is whether we can truly respect people who have what we regard to be false beliefs. He thinks not:
We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.
So, just to be clear, we can respect them in all sorts of senses, and for all sorts of reasons, but we cannot respect their holding of that belief.
Like Lindsey, but coming at it from the other side (she has to figure out how to respect atheists’ disbelief in God, I have to figure out how to respect theists’ beliefs in God), I disagree. I do respect (some) Christians, and acknowledging their belief in God, which I think is false, does not detract from that respect in any way; in fact, I respect their holding of that (I think false) belief. I confess that for some of them I have absolutely no preference that they change their beliefs. How can this work?
Personally, I respect a person (and the part of that person) who I think legitimately came to believe what she did, or is being sincere and honest about what she believes and for what reasons she believes. That sort of belief I can respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. It’s the type of respect I have for my atheist and agnostic friends. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t have to. I recognize that they have some good reasons to believe what they do (even if those reasons don’t sway my own beliefs). That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.
I think that is right, and I want to add some comments about exactly what the respect consists in and what counts as “legitimate” in this context.
Here’s what I think my respect for (some) Christians consists in:
- some general, hard to define, pro-attitude to them holding that belief (and no preference that they change it).
- a genuine interest in their foundational religious commitments and practices.
- a highly skeptical willingness to consider, and reconsider, our disagreements, if occasion arises (highly skeptical not because I am closed minded, but because I have over the course of a so-far middle-lengthed life, already given them a great deal of consideration, and have a settled view, so would be surprised if it were to change now).
What underlies this respect? Some sort of judgment about the condition in which the person holds the sincere belief. Suppose I knew that there was a decisive proof of the non-existence of God that could easily be grasped by the person, and to which they had access. Then, certainly, I would not respect their holding the belief, but would think them either irrational or dishonest. But there is no such decisive proof. Suppose I thought that their belief were merely a rationalization of their own self-interest, or were something they used to justify a sense of superiority over others. Well, I do think this about some Christians, and I do not respect them. But I do not think this about all, or even most, Christians. Rather, I think that some Christians (the ones whose adherence to Christianity I respect) have genuine faith in God, which, though not rationally supportable, is not excluded by straightforward canons of rationality, and their faith is sincere and would survive testing and careful reflection. In that respect it is not unlike my belief in the basic decency of most human beings and our ability radically to improve the quality of social institutions.
The condition is something like this. It is possible to respect someone’s holding of a false belief if you believe that the person is someone of good will, and who has deliberated carefully, and honestly holds the belief given their non-irresponsible reflection on that deliberation and their personal experience.
It helps that I share a good deal of what I regard as very important beliefs with many Christians – specifically an ethical outlook that values virtues such as kindness and humility, and a political outlook that demands that we attend to the interests of the least advantaged. And while they tend to think that belief in God is importantly connected to these moral beliefs, I think (obviously, and for Euthyphro-ian reasons) they’re wrong about this. Lindsey talks about living out one’s values with integrity, and I agree that (or at least, trying to live out ones values with integrity) is a necessary condition on my respecting someone’s false beliefs (but not a sufficient condition—if the values are wrong enough there is no virtue at all in living them out with integrity).
But it is even possible to respect people who are wrong about moral truths, as long as their beliefs fall within some limits. Think about political principles: I can respect some conservatives and some libertarians who sincerely, and after careful deliberation, disagree with me, if I believe that it is careful reflection, rather than rationalization of self-interest and privilege, that leads them to hold onto their views. Some moral truths, and many truths about political morality, are not obvious. Of course, if I believe, as I do with some conservatives and libertarians, that their beliefs are really rationalization of self-interest, I do not respect them, or their holding of their beliefs, at all.
But the same is true of people who hold true beliefs in the wrong way. If you’ve been active on the left for long enough you have come across people who hold their views not in the sincere and thoughtful way I have suggested, but basically as prejudices or rationalizations of self-interest, and who treat their ideologies as weapons. (Michael’s friend David Horowitz has always struck me as someone who moved from a particularly nasty part of the left to a particularly nasty part of the right without changing the way he held his beliefs very much). These people: even though you agree with them, you don’t respect their holding of their beliefs.
A final comment. Throughout Blackburn’s piece he emphasizes that the religious believer holds false beliefs. Lindsey’s response emphasizes our recognition of our fallibility—the humility to know that we have been wrong about key matters, that our perspective is not God-like, and that we might, however unlikely it seems, be wrong about this now. My intuition (and that’s all I’ve got here—I’m already way outside of my professional areas of expertise, so no doubt some of our readers will think all this naive) is that she is right that this sort of humility is a virtue, and it is, indeed, part of respecting someone’s holding a belief that we regard our own stand as not infallible (my third condition was a skeptical willingness to consider the disagreement, implying recognition of the possibility of falsehood). The certainty that one is infallible about these things is one of the most unattractive, and unrespect-able, about some fundamentalist Christians and some militant atheists. There is a gap between certainty of one’s own infallibility and very-close-to-certainty that one is right, and that gap is what makes respect possible.