How Should We Respect Other People’s Religious Beliefs?

The statement “All religious beliefs should be respected!” or the question “To what extent, and how, should I respect religious beliefs other people have?” come up often enough in my correspondence that I have finally decided to record a relatively succinct response that I can send instead of dictating more or less the same thing over and over again.

Should All Religious Beliefs Be Respected?

I will start with the so-called new atheists or unholy triumvirate (Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”; Sam Harris, “The End of Faith”, and “Letter to a Christian Nation”; and Daniel Dennett “Breaking the Spell”), which became the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with the addition of the bombastic and entertaining Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great”). These gentlemen stridently lay out the case against extreme, dogmatic religious belief. While they make many valid points, their books are full of strawmen argument, false dichotomies and many of the other tropes that characterize the arguments made by the dogmatically religious. This has regrettably exposed their position to justified criticism. I prefer Daniel Dennett’s approach considerably over the rest, but even his fails in many respects to take account of religion belief’s varied, nuanced reality.

That being said, I agree with one point each of these fellows makes – that religious belief has been granted an unjustified immunity from criticism. This is particularly the case within North America. We don’t hesitate to disagree with people who express political, economic, social, scientific or other views that from our perspective seem flawed. We accept that, in general, ideas and the social attitudes are improved by scrutiny, criticism, and debate. Religious beliefs are not treated in this way to the same extent as others. The idea that being faithful to almost any religious tradition is a good thing has taken root in our society. This, the new atheists indicate, has much more downside than upside. I wholeheartedly agree.

At its root, the insistence that religious beliefs should be per se respected amounts to little more than a kid in grade school saying “Leave me alone!” to anyone (teachers included) who tries to get him to do something he does not want to do. That is, the insistence that all religious beliefs should be respected means that, practically speaking, MY religious beliefs will be respected. There are many problems with this position. The two that occur to me first are “They Don’t Really Mean It”, and “Social Pressure is Responsible for Constructive Evolution in Religious Groups”.

They Don’t Really Mean It

In virtually all cases, it is easy to demonstrate that people who take the position that all religious beliefs should be respected don’t really mean it. What about religious beliefs that encourage people to strap bombs on themselves and kill themselves while committing mass murder? What about religious beliefs that require the sexual molestation of children, genital mutilation? Or religions that teach belief in demonstrably false versions of history (there was no Holocaust), reality (the Earth is about 6,000 years old) or social ordering principles (males or white skinned people should always be in charge)? What about religions that require adherents to cut themselves off from all non-believers, including family members, and follow without question the dictates of a religious leader?

When examples such as these are pointed out, the defender of all religious beliefs quickly begins to draw distinctions drawn between “good” or “legitimate” religious belief and others that should be discouraged if not disrespected. And after some discussion around issues of this kind, it becomes clear this area is far too complicated for blanket rules to be seriously proposed.

For example, if religions that require the complete submission to religious leaders are bad, at what point along the spectrum of required submission to religious authority do we draw the good versus bad line? Oddly enough, the defenders of religion invariably draw this line so that their particular brand of submission to authority is on the “good” side.

Social Pressure and Criticism is Responsible for Constructive Evolution in Religious Groups

Evolutionary principles apply to social groups. The expression of disapproval with regard to beliefs and social practices is one of the main drivers of this process. Since my inherited religious tradition was Mormonism, let’s use that as a case study.

Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, secretly instituted polygamy. He had occasional, clandestine sexual intercourse with many women, including underage girls and women who were already married to, and continued to live with, other men. When confronted with regard to this practice, he insisted that it was a form of “spiritual wifery” required by God, and then expanded his activities in that regard and extended the right to participate to others within Mormonism’s elite. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, institutionalized what became the Mormon practice of polygamy on the basis of what Joseph Smith did.

Mormon polygamy eventually became a political flashpoint, and under extreme political, economic and even military pressure from the United States Government, mainstream Mormonism eventually abandoned it. As a result, Mormonism quickly morphed from the American into an uber-American international force.

But for social opprobrium, and tremendous pressure of various kinds exerted by American society on Mormonism, this change would not have occurred and today’s mainstream Mormonism would probably resemble the Old Order Amish or fundamentalist Mormonism. In fact, there would be only fundamentalist Mormonism, which tries to be what Mormonism was before it abandoned polygamy.

Something similar occurred with regard to Mormonism’s position, up until 1978, that men of African ancestry could not hold the Mormon priesthood. Without the pressure brought to bear on Mormonism in various ways throughout the 1960s and 70s, it is difficult to imagine that Mormonism would have granted blacks the right to hold its priesthood.

Many other aspects of Mormonism’s evolution can be explained in this fashion. Faithful Mormons tend to insist that each and every step along this path was inspired (if not mandated) by God. There is no way, of course, to disprove God’s existence or his involvement with Mormonism in this way. However, if the God in which Mormons believe exists, the historical record of the way in which Mormonism’s leaders fought tooth and nail to preserve polygamy, including the way in which they consistently misrepresented what they were doing and told outright lies under oath in U.S. Senate hearings with regard to Mormon polygamy, provides arguably the best example ever of how God works in mysterious ways.

Similar examples can be provided with regard to many other religious traditions. The difference between Muslim practices in North America v. the Middle East is a great example. Western social attitudes regarding tolerance and plurality of belief have penetrated Muslim belief here to such an extent that the concerns regarding Muslim violence that are justified in other parts of the world are unjustified with regard to the vast majority of North American Muslims.

Overall, the pattern is more or less as follows. In any given period of time, many small religious groups are created. The initial members tend to be high energy, exploration oriented individuals. Most of these groups disappear after a short time. The few that survive to become large, bureaucratic organizations, go through a predictable lifecycle. As they become larger, their members become less exploration oriented and more conformist and dogma bound. Early in their life cycle, religious organizations tend to be aggressive, missionary oriented institutions (“We are God’s only true followers! You must join us and obey our principles in order to please Him and earn the right to live in Heaven after death!”). They also tend to have high standards, and to exclude anyone who refuses to toe the line. The larger they become, the more difficult their standards are to maintain. And, the more contact they have with other religious belief systems and social perspectives, the more quickly they evolve toward the dominantsocial forces within their host society. This explains the difference between North American and North African Muslims.

Over long periods of time, religious beliefs and practices may change radically under the same name. Again, Mormonism is a great example of this because its history is so short and well documented. Mormonism today has little in common with Mormonism during its first couple of decades, or Mormonism during its Utah period until it abandoned polygamy. You can perform the same sort of analysis with the Jewish faith, Catholicism, the older Protestant denominations, and different strands of Buddhism, Hinduism or the Muslim faith.

In summary, overt and implicit forms of criticism with regard to religious beliefs and practices perform a crucial, positive role with regard to the evolution of religious groups. That being the case, we should not truncate that practice. Rather, we should try to understand more about how it works and how it can be better used to create the kind of society in which we wish to live.

Is It Necessarily Disrespectful to Question Someone Else’s Religious Beliefs?

In short, no. What I have tried to do, with varying degrees of success, is to make a distinction between individual human beings or groups of human beings, and their beliefs and practices. I can respect, like and even love individuals while criticizing the beliefs and practises of the group to which they belong.

However, both social theory and my personal experience indicates that it is extremely difficult to maintain intimate or even friendly relationships over an extended period of time where a significant percentage of the communication involved is critical or negative. John Gottman’s research elegantly establishes the fact that unless we maintain at least a five positive to one negative communications ratio in our intimate relationships, they are almost certain to end. A similar principle appears to apply in all significant human relationships.

Accordingly, the rule of thumb in marriages and families tends to be to avoid all discussion with regard to contentious issues. This applies to religion, politics and other similar concepts which are fundamental to the operation of social groups, and hence important. Similar dynamics are responsible for the “no religion or politics” conversation rule that applies at most parties and family gatherings.

If one feels impelled to raise a potentially contentious issue, it is wise to remember the 5 to 1 rule. As long as at least five positive communications have been given, this may provide the opportunity to raise one potentially critical point without endangering the relationship. However, even on this basis, it is risky within our important relationships to venture into the potentially explosive domain of religious belief. One negative in that regard may be so painful for our loved ones to deal with that much more than five positives as will be required to create the relationship strength necessary to deal with it.

Outside of our most important relationships, however, a completely different set of rules applies. It is my experience that as long as one is polite and respectful, it is possible to discuss the empirical foundations of religious belief (Are the Book of Mormon and the Bible accurate historical records?; Was Joseph Smith a trustworthy person?; What is the approximate age of the Earth?; Is a homosexual orientation a matter of choice, or biology?) and the practical implications of living by certain principles (How do social groups that exclude women from positions of real authority tend to function and how do they affect young men and women raised within them?; How are gay people affected by being raised within religions groups that regard homosexuality as deviant behaviour?; What are the practical implications of encouraging large families, or discouraging the use of birth control?).

We all tend to be inconsistent in the way in which we apply principles. For example, religious conservatives consistently defend their own positions using rules that would justify positions taken by countless other groups with whom they vehemently disagree. The most significant of these is the idea that certain beliefs do not need to be supported empirically, and cannot realistically be questioned by empirical data.

The empirical justification of belief is the only way to separate reliable from unreliable beliefs. We tend to apply this rule automatically to other groups. We do not accept the miracles that are at the foundation of their belief systems because there is no evidence to support the assertion that these events probably occurred. Consider, for example, the Muslim belief in miracles related to the Prophet Mohamed and the way in which the Koran came into being. And, if one of their beliefs is inconsistent with well-established empirical data (such as the Young Earth Creationist belief with regard to the age of the Earth or the Alien Abductionist belief in extraterrestrial lifeforms), the unjustified nature of the belief in question tends to be obvious to us and we refuse to take it seriously. At the same time, we are not troubled by the absence of evidence in support of our foundational miracles (such as the Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and if you were Mormon, the apparition of various divinities and angelic personages to Joseph Smith), or the mountains of data that disconfirms certain of our basic beliefs (such as, if you were Mormon, the historical nature of the Book of Mormon or the biological nature of sexual orientation).

The most important rule with regard to belief formation is that the strength of our beliefs should correspond to their empirically justifiable probability. Are human beings a product of biological evolution? There is a massive amount of evidence indicating that we are. Did any particular form of God cause this? There is no reliable evidence to support this proposition, and also no way to definitively disprove it. Therefore, people who wish to hold this belief on a justified basis must acknowledge its extreme improbability on the basis of all evidence available to us. The evidence in favour of God, as understood within the Christian tradition, being responsible for all biological evolution is precisely as strong or as weak as the evidence in favour of Zeus, Brahman, or the Pink Unicorn Hiding Behind the Moon in that regard. And, there is much evidence to suggest that no one and nothing need to be responsible for this. Nature is to an extent self-organizing.

If a religious believer abandons the “belief strength must correspond to empirically justified probabilities” principle herself, she cannot justify applying it to other people’s beliefs. This means that each is as good, or bad, as the rest. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable with this position.

On the other hand, many adherents of the atheist or agnostic position do not understand the scientific or empirical basis for beliefs well enough to be fair when it comes to describing probabilities related to various religious positions. For example, the proposition that it is impossible that a god of any description exists is empirically untenable. Many thoughtful, religious people will (at least after being pressed a bit) describe God as the mysterious, creative force that operates at the base of all reality, about which we can say little more than that with any degree of certainty. This position, and many others similar to it, are defensible from an empirical or scientific perspective.

The process by which many religious believers have moved from more dogmatic positions regarding the nature of God to what I just described is a great example of how science has gradually winnowed demonstrably false belief out of religion, starting with Galileo and how the solar system functions. The Internet is accelerating this process, and producing a lot of stress within religious groups as a result of the rate at which belief and behaviour change is occurring.

Many of the stridently atheist or agnostic seem blissfully unaware of the metaphoric possibilities within religious traditions, and the extent to which many people who may appear to be (and even present themselves as) dogmatic believers in fact base most of their faith on metaphor. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have, in particular, being criticized for the way in which their books come across in this regard. Dawkins, at least, has moderated his position in interviews given following the publication of his book. This has been lost on many of the less well informed who read his book, had their prejudices about religious believers confirmed as a result, and have not kept up with the ensuing discussion.

Christopher Hitchens, regrettably, for all his intellectual firepower comes across as more of an entertainer, debater and gadfly than a serious student of social or any other reality. This makes him hard to take seriously. Dan Dennett, as I indicated above, is my favourite of this bunch. In particular, he argues for broad changes to our educational system designed to create understanding in coming generations of how different religious groups work. This, he suggests, may be an important long-term antidote for the tension currently experienced along the borders of many dogmatically religious groups. I agree completely.

Why Discuss Sensitive Issues With the Other Side?

Not only is it possible to have discussions of religious differences across tribal boundaries, but this kind of discussion is crucially important. First, as already indicated above, this is a powerful driver of constructive social evolution. And at the individual level, it is clear that we don’t tend to learn as much when we exchange information with people whose views we share, as when we exchange information with people who are well-informed, polite, and committed to positions that differ significantly from our own.

The Internet has opened up a vast world of opportunity with regard to discussions of this kind. It is not, however, this point easy to find polite, well-informed discussants. One of the regrettable consequences of remote (let alone anonymous) communication is its tendency to reduce civility. However, as the information and communication opportunities made accessible by the Internet continue to expand exponentially, the fraction that qualifies as well-informed and civil is also expanding. I have found, for example, through the auspices of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (see one of many groups within which civil and highly informed conversation with regard to potentially explosive issues has occurred over a long period of time. I expect more of this to become available as time passes.

One of the most important points regarding the possibility of communicating with people whose basic views differ from our own is that although we tend to perceive ourselves as teachers, we in fact have much more to learn than teach. This is one of those basic human ironies. Our need for security inclines us – almost always, everywhere, and everyone – to believe that our understanding of reality is much more accurate than it is. Since our biological constitution makes it difficult to grasp this and live by it, we should at least commit ourselves to pretend to be students more trying to learn than teachers intent to teach. Again, ironically, the better we become at this deceptive practice the more likely it is that we will learn, while occasionally having the chance to teach.

As Jon Haidt has pointed out (see, our tendency to exchange information exclusively within our tribes dramatically limits the rate at which constructive social evolution can occur, as well as the rate at which we personally learn. He also points out that the tendency of religious and political conservatives toward community and stability is a probably an important counterbalance, at the species level, to the tendency of the religious and political liberals toward individualism, energy and creativity.

The human species can be thought of as one organism within our ecosystem. At different times and places (such as scarce resource environments of the kind that produced both the Old and New Testaments), stability and communal effort will be important to human survival. In other more abundant times, individualism and creativity will be far more important. These largely opposing forces probably evolved within our species to allow it to adapt over the long term to different social and ecological niches. We should not expect (or hope) that either of these tendencies will be eradicated. Rather, we should seek to better understand the most basic underpinnings of the communal and individualistic forces within humanity, and encourage them to dance in a more peaceful, productive fashion as they do the job they evolved to do.


To return to the opening question, it is crucially important that we do not simply hold our tongues each time we run into what appears to us to be an unjustified religious belief. As we engage in polite, constructive dialogue with regard to these socially and personally important issues, we should expect to see our own positions change as well as to occasionally exert a positive influence on those with whom we communicate. And finally, the more regularly we venture into what seems like dangerous territory in this regard, and keep our emotions under control as we attempt to understand other points of view, the faster we will individually learn and the greater will be our contribution to social progress as a whole.…


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