Among the more active and vocal atheists, there’s a fairly common distaste for the words “respect” and “tolerance” when religion is the object of discussion. Take, for example, Greta Christina’s suggestion that “Atheists Don’t Have to Show ‘Respect’ for Religion.” Her post is by now a well-know and oft-cited rebuttal when atheists online are asked to “show respect” for one’s religious beliefs. Today this article made the front page of /r/atheism, prompting my response. Here are some excerpts:

“[The ecumenicalists] don’t see that there’s an option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief… while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken. They don’t see the option of being passionate about the right to religious freedom, of fully supporting the right to believe whatever you like as one of our fundamental human rights… while at the same time seeing the right to criticize ideas we don’t agree with as an equally fundamental right.”

Just ask an active atheist to show tolerance for religion, and you’ll likely hear something that sounds very much like this:

“And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass.”

Another common response is for an atheist to say “I respect you, but I don’t have to respect your belief if I think it’s nonsense.” Neither of these responses are any way to start a productive discussion, and religious believers recoil in horror at the cold, callous atheists. “I knew they were rude and bitter bigots all along,” they’ll think, fuming over the insult to their deeply-held beliefs. But why should we care if the truth offends the religious?

I, for one, only engage in debate to change someone’s mind. If there’s no one speaking or listening willing to consider what I say, why continue talking? Why invest in a conversation if the absolute best outcome accomplishes nothing but upsetting another person and making myself feel smugly superior? I will have improved nothing in this world, each of us departing more arrogant and more defensive about our respective beliefs than ever.

Am I saying we should bow down and let religious people walk over atheists? No, absolutely not. But the answer to the question in the title is, in my view, far more nuanced that Greta Christina or even Sam Harris have been willing to admit. The disagreement largely continues to swirl around poor communication and poorly-defined meanings, as long-running debates often do.

Can’t We All Just Get Along Define Our Terms?

Much of our problem here lies in the definition of “respect” and “tolerance.”

  1. Avoiding disagreement and critical discussion.
  2. Holding something in high regard and esteem.
  3. Showing civility and good manners.

This is why I sigh when atheists wave their fists or smash their keyboards angrily when a religious person requests tolerance: it’s far too easy to conflate these meanings, unintentionally swapping back and forth as the conversation changes. Most atheists have encountered this problem with the ill-defined meanings of words like “God,” making the atheists sound like he or she is flip-flopping between atheism and agnosticism as the use of the word “god” changes throughout the discussion.

To pick on Greta for a moment, she seems to be assuming that (1) is intended.

“But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive”

And then suddenly she goes on to bemoan the hypocrisy and lack of civility she’s received for her own beliefs – the #3 definition above:

“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.”

I’m not sure what the intended take-away is from the quote above, but it definitely sounds like, “if you can be mean to me, I can be mean to you.” This is not how we change minds; this is not how we change the world for the better.

Respectfully, Disrespectfully Yours

If someone is demanding (1), we refrain from disagreeing with them, or especially (2), that we cherish their beliefs as they do, we should flatly refuse. No one should have a belief that is not subject to scrutiny, especially when that belief influences political policy, law, and cultural norms. But if someone is demanding (3), that you be civil, listen to their point of view, and refrain from petty insults based on their beliefs – well, that seems like a fairly reasonable request. If we can’t do that, we’d best stop complaining about being unfairly compared to Hitler.

The next time someone asks you to respect their beliefs, try understanding what they mean by “respect” rather than assuming they’re asking you not to disagree.