Out of Respect

A recurring topic of debate among atheists is just how much respect we should pay to people’s religious beliefs. A substantial number of nonbelievers, I am certain, would unabashedly proclaim that religion is all so much superstitious rubbish, and we should not pay other people’s ridiculous superstitions any respect, regardless of the esteem in which they themselves hold them. The opposite position (more common among liberal theists, probably, than among atheists) is that all religious beliefs should be treated with respect and deference; whether we ourselves follow them or not, we should obey them when in the presence of people who hold those beliefs, and we should not speak out against them.

I agree with the former position only so far as this: Religious beliefs that encourage or condone the harming of others, the oppression of others, or the denial of others’ human rights should never be respected or tolerated. Such beliefs deserve nothing but criticism and rejection from all people, whether atheist or not.

Similarly, I will not respect any religious beliefs that ask me to obey a set of rules to which I did not consent, or to pay religious people any deference or special courtesy which they have not earned from me. The recent fiasco over the Mohammed cartoons, for example, falls into the former category. If Muslims choose to abstain from publishing depictions of their holy figures, that is their choice, but I have not consented to any such rule, and if I choose to exercise my right of free expression, I will do so and I will not be swayed either by pleas or by threats. For the same reason, I would not address a priest as “Father”, or any other title that would imply I recognize them as holding some special or privileged status, since in reality I recognize no such thing. (I would find it very amusing for an atheist to address the pope as “Mr. Ratzinger”, should that chance ever arise.)

This question arises from a recent column written by the advice columnist Amy Dickinson, in which she answers a query written by an atheist distressed that her religious relatives, when invited over for dinner, initiate a public group prayer before the meal without asking the consent of their host. Dickinson’s advice was less than stellar, to say the least:

Rather than ask them to stop doing something they’ve always done, you should tell them that you respect their desire to pray but that you and other nonbelieving guests won’t be joining them. Then just sit quietly and go to your happy place or disappear into the kitchen to check on the roast until they are finished.

When an atheist is at a religious person’s house, I do not consider it disrespectful to sit quietly during their prayers. The host sets the tone of the event; that is understood in social situations. It would be rude and inappropriate of me to demand that everyone else refrain from praying just because I am there – that would be forcing my attitude toward religion on others, which is just as wrong for an atheist to do as for a theist. (This is not to say that attending a religious ceremony requires one to passively accept whatever is said. If, for example, my religious host took the opportunity to offer a pre-meal prayer wishing that all of those evil, ignorant atheists would come to know the love of Jesus, I would get up and walk out. This strikes an appropriate balance between showing a host respect by not disrupting their own house and making it clear that this does not give them the right to treat you as a captive audience.)

But when it is the atheist who is host, things are entirely different. Dickinson’s advice was just flat-out wrong: it is disrespectful for a religious guest to initiate a group prayer at an atheist’s house without asking permission, and it is equally disrespectful to say that atheists should stand for this sort of behavior. That response implies that religion has some kind of moral superiority or priority over atheism, which it does not. Again, the host sets the tone of the event, and if they decide that there will be no pre-meal prayer, guests should either accept that rule or not come by in the first place.

This is not to say that I advocate atheists banning all prayer in their own house – that would be just as obnoxious as a theist requiring his guests to pray along with him, on pain of being kicked out. But we can and should make it clear that no special consideration will be given to religious beliefs. I would advise the writer of this letter that she should tell her guests to pray quietly in the kitchen, if they feel the need – and if they ignore her wishes, I would advise her to simply start eating while they pray. Or, even better: give an atheist benediction by reading from Robert Ingersoll or Dan Barker as the food is served! I would wager that her inconsiderate religious relatives will not like it when the shoe is on the other foot.

This relates to a larger point: Far too often, calls for respect of religious beliefs are a one-way street. Consider the following article from IslamOnline.net, which discusses efforts by Muslim scholars to “educate” the West to show respect for Muslim beliefs and prevent a recurrence of things like the Mohammed cartoons. Reading the article, it is fairly clear that what these scholars mean by “respect” is that Islam should be exempt from criticism, that nothing that offends Muslims should be published. Many other religious leaders, when they ask that respect be shown to their beliefs, mean something similar.

This ploy should be rejected. Showing respect for religious beliefs, in my mind, involves not being disruptive at events hosted and controlled by religious people, and not going out of my way to harass or offend individual believers. But it definitely does not involve exempting religious beliefs from criticism or treating them as if they were superior to atheism.

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