Do Religious Believers Deserve Respect?

Middle Eastern Businessmen shaking hands
Gary John Norman

An increasing source of conflict in the world today is centered around religious believers’ demands for respect. Muslims demand “respect” that would forbid criticism, satire, or mocking of their religion. Christians demand “respect” that would amount to something very similar. Nonbelievers are caught in a bind when it’s not clear what “respect” is supposed to entail and how it is supposed to be achieved. If respect is so important to believers, they need to be clear about what they want.

Respect vs. Tolerance

Sometimes, a person who wants respect is simply asking for tolerance. The minimal definition of tolerance is a state where one has the power to punish, restrict, or make something difficult but consciously chooses not to. Thus I may tolerate the barking of a dog even if I have the ability to stop it. When it comes to non-violent, consensual behavior, religious believers’ demand for tolerance is usually reasonable and should be granted. It’s rare, though, that this is all that is desired.

Going Beyond Tolerance

Respect and tolerance are not synonyms; tolerance is a very minimalist attitude whereas respect involves something more active and positive. You can think very negatively about something you tolerate, but there is something contradictory about thinking very negatively about the exact same thing you are also respecting. Thus, at the very least, respect requires that one have positive thoughts, impressions, or emotions when it comes to the religion in question. This isn’t always reasonable.

Should Beliefs Be Respected?

There seems to be a popular impression that beliefs deserve automatic respect, and therefore that religious beliefs should be respected. Why? Should we respect racism or Nazism? Of course not. Beliefs don’t merit automatic respect because some beliefs are immoral, evil, or just plain stupid. Beliefs may be able to earn a person’s respect, but it’s an abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility to automatically accord the same respect to all beliefs.

Should the Right to Believe be Respected?

Just because a belief is immoral or stupid doesn’t mean that there is no right to believe it. Belief may be unwise or irrational, but a right to belief must cover such beliefs if it’s to have any meaning at all. Therefore, a person’s right to believe things and to hold their religious beliefs must be respected. Having a right to a belief, however, is not the same as having a right to not hear criticism of that belief. The right to criticize has the same basis as the right to believe.

Should Believers Be Respected?

Although beliefs must earn respect and should not receive automatic respect, the same is not true of people. Every human being deserves some basic minimum of respect right from the beginning, regardless of what they believe. Their actions and beliefs may lead to greater respect over time, or they may strain your ability to maintain that minimum. A person is not the same as what that person believes; respect or lack thereof for one should not lead to the exact same for the other.

Respect vs. Deference

The most significant problem with believers’ demands for respect for their religions and/or religious beliefs is that “respect” too often amounts to “deference.” Deferring to religion or religious beliefs means according them a privileged status — something understandable for believers, but not something which can be demanded from nonbelievers. Religious beliefs merit no more deference than any other claims and religions do not merit deference from nonbelievers.

How Religion Can and Should Be Respected

The increasingly raucous demands from religious believers that their religions be accorded more “respect” in the public square and from non-adherents is a sign that something very serious is going on — but what, exactly? Believers apparently feel that they are being slighted and insulted in a significant manner, but is this true, or is it instead of a case of mutual misunderstanding? It may be that both are occurring at various times, but we won’t get to the root of the problem without being clear about our terminology — and this means that religious believers must make it clear what sort of “respect” they are asking for.

In many instances, we’ll find that religious believers are not asking for something appropriate — they are asking for deference, positive thoughts, and privileges for themselves, their beliefs, and their religions. Rarely, if ever, are such things justified. In other instances, we may find that they aren’t being accorded the basic tolerance and respect which they deserve as human beings, and they are justified in speaking out.

Respecting religion, religious beliefs, and religious believers do not and cannot include treating them with kid gloves. If believers want respect, then they must be treated as adults who are responsible and culpable for what they assert — for better and for worse. This means that their claims should be treated seriously with substantive responses and critiques if the criticism is warranted. If believers are willing to present their position in a rational, coherent manner, then they deserve a rational and coherent response — including critical responses. If they are unwilling or unable to present their views in a rational and coherent manner, then they should anticipate being dismissed with little afterthought.