Can You Respect A Creationist?

The ever-wise Richard Wade responds to a letter from an atheist who is struggling with how to continue to respect someone who he likes a lot and shares a lot of interests with but who has recently been revealed as a creationist. Richard replies:

If it happens between his ears, such as his thoughts, judgments, opinions and beliefs, those do not define what he is. If it happens between your ears, such as your thoughts, judgments, opinions and beliefs, those do not define what you are either. Look for his and your persistent actions and behaviors. Those are what is real in the world; those are what he and you are. Does he treat you and others respectfully, kindly and decently? Do you treat him and others that way? If so, then you are both respectful and therefore respectable people.

There’s respecting someone’s beliefs, and then there’s treating someone respectfully. You don’t have to respect his beliefs. You can’t if you find them absurd. Don’t worry about your judgments of what goes on between his ears. Judgmental thoughts are just another not-in-the-real-world thing going on between your ears. Focus on treating him respectfully, kindly and decently. I think if you concentrate on that, you will be less aware of feeling perplexed and frustrated by his beliefs. Between-the-ears stuff will become less important, and out-in-the-real-world stuff will become more important. It sounds like the things the two of you share are pleasant, and so it seems worth the effort for both the pleasure of the friendship and for the continuing maturing of your own character.

I think this has been challenging for you because you might be associating his creationist belief with some other people who share that belief, but who also have perpetrated disrespectful and unkind actual behaviors against others. If they take reprehensible actions to deliberately hurt people who are different from them, those define what they are. If they do illegal deeds to circumvent the Constitution for instance, those define what they are. If they put forth effort to oppressively deny people their rights, those define what they are. Their belief in creationism might be a big part of their motivation for those doings, or it might not have much or anything to do with it at all. People who believe in creationism don’t have to take hurtful, reprehensible, illegal and oppressive actions because of that belief, and many don’t.

I have wrestled myself, here on Camels With Hammers, with questions of how we can truly embrace and love our religious friends when so much of their belief and practice which makes up who they are is religious, and not just a particular belief that we can bracket and ignore. I recommend three posts especially for your consideration and thoughtful replies:  Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?, and “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?”

And if you have never read my 8 part interview with Richard, in which we discuss these and many other matters, you can begin with part 1.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • gman

    I disagree: thoughts ARE real, not imaginary, and we CAN judge others for their culpable beliefs since beliefs drive actions and actions affect others. I follow Clifford on this. I also think our beliefs, desires, etc. are truly constititutive of who are: take away my mental states and there’s not much left.

    My view is tempered by (1) the belief that I can disrespect one belief without condemning the entire person (2) the need to respect others and (3) the belief that frequently people do abandon implausible beliefs.

  • The Lorax

    There’s merit to the argument… your brain is a processing center, your body performs the actions that your brain deems worthy. If your brain is jacking off whilst you’re dolling out soup to homeless people, does that make you a bad person? I’d like to think not.

    On the other hand, knowing what’s going on between the ears and NOT knowing whether or not the brain is going to fully filter that sort of stuff out does beg the question: what is the potential for this person to not always be decent? Will we be playing chess in the park one day, and all of a sudden, from out of the blue, they’re going to insult a homosexual couple? Is it possible to predict that action by knowing what they’re thinking? I think that matters. I think that matters quite a bit.

    Of course, the only way to really know is to observe. Some people have better filters than others.

  • Roxane

    I agree that actions, rather than thoughts, are much more important. For years I’ve been very good friends with a devout Catholic–despite the fact that practically the first words that fell out of our mouths were “I’m an atheist” and “I’m a Catholic.” As the child abuse scandal continues to go on and on with no end in sight, though, it bothers me more and more that she donates large sums to an organization like that. It really isn’t any of my business what she does with her money, but I think much less of her than I used to, and if I still lived in the same state, there may have been a blow-up.

  • Monado, FCD

    Interesting perspective! We do have a tendency to judge beliefs and not actions and to do the conflating mentioned above. But we know that out in the real world, people with different beliefs can love and respect each other. Thanks for reminding me.

    I once read an essay by a Christian apologist in which he advised a Christian woman to refuse marriage to a non-believer because he wouldn’t share her deepest values. I re-wrote it for a believer in Santa Claus, posted it on my blog, and directed him to it. He thanked me but didn’t change his tune.

  • asmallcontempt

    I still think it’s best to communicate with people by action, first and foremost. Philosophical and moral questions can come later, but I think it’s awesome that the writer was able to first see all of the good things and all of the middle ground that the creationist had to offer as well.

    My not-very-secret hope for them is that they might be able to strike up the conversation naturally – he mentioned video games, so maybe they can have a nice little chat about the misogyny displayed in the new GoW (or whatever the case may be).

    That’s all just to say that these conversations are so. much. better. when they come about naturally through honest discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I understand people being a bit queasy about creationists, but they aren’t so bad as you think (often times just misguided or misinformed – I should know!).

    So, to sum up my little atheist sermon: Go befriend a Young-Earther TODAY! You can leave your tithe in the palm of my hot little hand on your way out.

  • Patrick ONeill

    “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” —H.L. Mencken

  • usagichan

    To be honest I don’t think I know any creationists, let alone have to worry if I can be friends with one. However judging from this and other posts, I have to say that I doubt I would have enough in common with most creationists to develop any sort of friendship beyond the most superficial social contact.

    Having said that I once had a very entertaining friend who was completely normal apart from his membership of the Flat Earth Society – whether this was from genuine conviction, or was a stictly maintained affectation I was never quite sure, although our discussions on the shape of the Earth did require me to catch up on quite a bit of basic physics (on the days before the Internet this meant actually reading books). I doubt that many creationists would have the wry wit to make one half doubt the sincerity of their convictions – they sound like a Poe Faced bunch at best.

  • Gordon

    I think it is worth mentioning that the questioner specifically mentioned the fact that this guy has kids and will probably pass these anti science views on.

    I’m not saying that means he should be shunned. If anything it would be beter for the kids to have access to dad’s friend who believes in science so as to minimise the damage.

    But it does mean that this isn’t some inert idea. Creationism is a behaviour almost as much as it is an idea.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I think it is worth mentioning that the questioner specifically mentioned the fact that this guy has kids and will probably pass these anti science views on.

      The monster!

  • hoverfrog

    I can’t respect creationists. I think of them as deluded, anti-science fanatics at their worst and just plain idiots at their best. It’s like respecting someone who tells lies to their children because lies are easier than the truth. I know that Richard’s advice is good, it usually is, but I couldn’t follow it. I would want to shake their false beliefs out of them or keep away from them so they don’t contaminate me with their stupidity.

  • ralphwiggam

    They have the right to believe whatever they want to believe, and I have the right to believe that their ideas are crazy. If they want to discuss their beliefs with me, I will discuss my beliefs with them. I will respect their beliefs to the same extent that they respect mine. And that is where respect usually fails.

  • AYY

    I’m not sure Richard answers the question. Some beliefs have consequences, others don’t, but as I see it the real question is what does the fact that the person has those beliefs tell us about whether the person’s thought processes is worthy of respect and what does it say about his likely behavior.
    But if you look at it that way, you can’t limit it to Creationists. You can just as well ask can I respect a Quaker, a fundamentalist (of any religious persuasion), a supporter of a political party you don’t agree with, etc. At that point you have to analyze whether having those beliefs is something moral, and to do that well you have to actually analyze the beliefs rather than caricaturing them.
    Then again what’s the practical point of the question? You’re not marrying the person, you’re usually just interacting with him in a limited setting where the extraneous beliefs don’t come into play.

    BTW, I suspect the person who joined the the Flat Earth Society did it as a way of showing individuality, much like some people folow religious practices not because they believe them, but because of various social pressures to do so. He might practice Flat Earth Society rituals, dress in Flat Earth Society garb, and study the Flat Earth Society texts, but this could show only that he was raised as a Flat Earthist and may, at this point, be reluctant to break with tradition.
    He may well be what’s called Flatearthprax–a practitioner on the outside, but a heretic on the inside.

    If that is the case then I don’t see why you couldn’t respect him.