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.

“Choose Faith in Spite of the Facts”
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Although it’s never been a huge issue, I keep waiting for this to loom up on me one day; I’m the only atheist in my family. Immediately, my family is weak theist, but on the extended side, strongly southern baptist. I have to agree that although I have long respected my family’s beliefs and bowed my head in silence, I certainly will not do so while they are at my home, thanking a ghost for providing the food that I worked for, bought, prepared and served graciously! The idea of reading an atheist benediction actually seems right along the lines of something I would do. So Adam, do you know a few such readings I could print off and store somewhere, for just such an occasion? Much appreciated if you, or anyone else, does.

  • Montu

    Ha, my sentiments, exactly to both Adam and BWM! I often wonder what I should do in these sorts of situations, especially when I go home to visit my parents. The situation at my dad’s house is an interesting one, in that he still considers it my home, as well (even though I’m going to school on the other side of the country, and to my mind, this is more home then his house). The house is mainly secular, but my step-mom is a closet atheist. She has admitted this to me, but feels guilt-tripped into teaching her boys about Christianity and instilling a belief in god because she’s afraid that they wont have a moral compass otherwise (I honestly think the main reason is because my dad does believe in the Bible, even though he doesn’t go to church, or claim any one version of Christianity). Every night at dinner, he says a prayer, at which point I simply zone out, but it has made me think. I know it would be disrespectful to ask him not to do it because he worked hard to get the money to provide the food, but my step-mom is the one who prepares it, therefore the effort is shared. Is prayer at this point being disrespectful of my step-mom’s beliefs, or would asking my dad to refrain be disrespectful of his beliefs? Does majority rule, when it is my step-mom and I against my dad, when he considers the house home to all three of us? And what about my stepbrothers? Should they have religion in their lives, and then choose later on down the road to either maintain belief, or reject it, or should it be the other way around? How do you teach a child both views simultaneously? Or do my dad’s beliefs not count because they are not his kids? These are all things that I’ve thought about when having dinner at home, I don’t expect you to have any answers, they’re really just thoughts.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    Personally, I think both options which you mention are wrong. Beliefs and ideas, though powerful and of a semi-autonomous nature, deserve no respect be they good or bad. Instead, we should respect the people who hold particular beliefs. I know that this difference is obvious, and that it is what people mean when they speak of “respecting beliefs”, but I think it changes the whole direction of the conversation.

    Now if a person is trying to impose their beliefs on me, then you’d better be darn sure that I’m going to let them know how I feel about their beliefs, as well as share a few of my own. Even when people aren’t doing this, however, I would consider it okay to ease your way into a discussion regarding their religious beliefs, for the very fact that I do respect them; I assume that they want to know the truth, or at least what I believe to be the truth.

    If people don’t want to talk about their beliefs and are thus not making these beliefs public nor are they imposing them on me, this is where I respect the person and their wishes. Sometimes certain things are just too close to the heart for a person to discuss, and if such a person hasn’t provoked us in any way, I would consider it disrespectful to engage such a person.

    Thus here is my answer. I engage any beliefs that have something to do with me and my life out of a respect for myself. I engage other people’s beliefs unless they are not comfortable with it out of a respect for that person. I don’t engage the beliefs which have nothing to do with me and are too personal to people out of a respect for them.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I do not see the difference here between what you say and what Adam said. Unless I am not understanding, Adam basically said that we should feel free to challenge, respectfully, any beliefs that are being used to affect us unfairly, but that we shouldn’t try and make trouble. Isn’t that essentially what you are saying? And I hate to say it, but most people do NOT want to know the truth; it’s easier to know a superstition and ignore the truth. That is why it’s often said that religion is a topic one shouldn’t speak of in most cases; few people care for anything than propagating their views, truth be damned.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The idea of reading an atheist benediction actually seems right along the lines of something I would do. So Adam, do you know a few such readings I could print off and store somewhere, for just such an occasion?

    A very good question indeed. I have to admit I know of none specifically written for a dinner occasion (and hey, maybe that’s a topic for a future post!), but I can think of some more general ones that might be suitable.

    You could try an excerpt from “Secularism” by Robert Ingersoll, or a version of the atheist invocation given by Michael Harvey. (The FFRF suggests some other atheist invocations). All could be suitable for dinner, I think, with a little modification.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Much appreciated. I’ll save some of those, maybe modify some for multiple occasions.

  • Azkyroth

    Huh; this didn’t add the first time I clicked submit. My apologies if it produces a delayed double-post.

    A little off-topic, but Montu’s comments tie into a concern of mine. I was raised by an agnostic father and a passively liberal Christian mother; I wavered on belief for years and have been a conclusive atheist since I was about 15. My wife, on the other hand, was raised primarily by an agnostic father, but her mother’s side of the family are quite conservative Catholics (officially). My wife herself seems to be going to a great effort to avoid making a conclusive decision on whether she’s a [heretically] liberal Catholic or an agnostic; she maintains some semblance of religious belief because, by her own admission, it comforts her and helps her cope with an acute fear of death and/or abandonment (her childhood, needless to say, was less than happy, though the details aren’t particularly relevant). While she maintains that she doesn’t believe in the “bad” parts of Catholicism (and attends church a few times a year), she feels that her religion helped her to cope with her childhood, giving her a feeling of hope and of community. I’ve attempted to articulate to her that religion is not necessary for this, but she isn’t very receptive to that idea.

    The problem, from my perspective, concerns our 20-month old daughter. My wife wanted to have her baptized, but decided against it because of my reservations on the matter: her stated reasons for wanting it done were primarily of the “family tradition” variety rather than a reflection of genuine religious faith, which I felt was dishonest and “poseurish” for lack of a better word, but the main issue was that I found the implication that my daughter needed to be cleansed and forgiven simply for being human both absurd and offensive. This not to say that I wouldn’t have allowed her to be baptized, merely that I was uncomfortable with the idea; my wife decided against it but apparently harbors a fair amount of resentment.

    Now, she’s decided she wants to take our daughter to church when she’s a little older (preschool or primary-school aged); I’m not comfortable with this either, for a number of reasons. My wife says that she wants to share the same sense of comfort and belonging she felt as a child with our daughter, and rationalizes (I think) that it will be good for her to be exposed to a variety of belief systems. While my wife insists that she wasn’t “made” to believe anything, and that our daughter won’t be either, I’m very much aware that the church makes a concerted effort to “hook” kids while they’re still trusting and naive, before they’ve developed much in the way of critical thinking skills. Many of the doctrines of Christianity are exceptionally poisonous, and I’m particularly worried about the messages regarding gender roles, particularly those of the Catholic church, and on reproductive choice. The doctrine of Hell and the demonizing of doubt and normal, healthy human behavior bother me even more, as do the numerous atrocities depicted in the bible, particularly the old testament.

    I agree that she should be exposed to different belief systems at the point where she’s able to make an intelligent decision about them, but at her age I’m as worried about her being exposed to aggressive religious indoctrination as I am about her being exposed at length to cigarette ads. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to convince my wife on this point. Anyone have suggestions?

    On a slightly more related note, my wife’s (staunchly Catholic, supposedly) grandmother has been pressuring us, semi-seriously, to have more children in the near future. My wife’s not sure if she wants more children ever, and I’m quite certain I don’t; regardless, we plainly and simply cannot support any more children at this point in our lives. What’s a tactful but firm way to tell her this, that is likely to get her to leave us alone about it?

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I too have been often unable to post. This site is apparantly being overloaded; it keeps telling me the server is too busy.

    Anyway, I am not a father, so I can’t offer any from-experience advice. But to throw in my two cents, I can think of two compromises that might be acceptable, but neither of them are incredibly likely to workout. I would suggest, first, looking for an atheist and agnostic religion-like group. I know they exist in some places, but they are like a church that is voluntary and would help build the support structure your wife seeks. I don’t know a whole lot else though. The other choice, to me, would to join a church that is at least not as bad as the Catholic Church. Some churches focus on hellfire and damnation, some focus on inherent depravity and sin, but others are at least more positive in focusing on self-improvement and confidence. It’s not a stellar solution, but at least it provides some good things and a weaker indoctrination. I don’t know exactly where you would find one of these either, though.

    That’s all I can think of, I’m afraid. About your somewhat pushy relative, I feel that’s one of those things you must simply ignore. I was raised with a grandmother (Father’s side) who hated my mother. She simply wouldn’t change her mind, and it was the best solution just to ignore her (She was southern baptist, which was a large part of the reason). You have my support, whatever good it does, and I wish you good luck.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    Yeah, I knew that my position was going to be pretty much the same as his post, but I thought that the distinction between respecting beliefs and respecting the people who have the beliefs makes the question a little easier to answer. With regards to religion I say if you make your beliefs public, you have declared them open game for anyone. Of course this doesn’t mean that I have the right to say whatever I want to whoever I want regardless of what they want. If some missionaries knock on the door, I see no reason whatsoever to hold back in any way. To go knocking on other peoples doors, however, is a whole other matter. I know, that’s just what the post said as well. I guess my point is this, we have not only the right but the obligation to be just as open regarding our feelings about other people’s religious beliefs as they are open regarding their own religious beliefs; no more and no less. I think that’s pretty fair.

  • Jonas

    I agree with the entry and with BMW – I think of it like respecting free speech. To paraphrase Voltaire – “I may not respect what you say, but I will respect your right to say it”. Similarly with beliefs. I will respect your right to believe as you wish, but I do not have to respect your actual beliefs. In practice, I try to argue respectfully when it arises, but if I think that ridicule is called for I will deliver :).
    I think our situation over here in the UK is different – certainly no-one in my extended family prays before dinner – so I can’t say how I’d react to that.
    I do have an inqusitive 5 year old son, so perhaps my experience may be relevent to Azkyroth. I do bathtime/bedtime duties for both my boys (the other is 18 months old), and part of our routine is to have “a talk” after stories. This is where my son asks questions that have been on his mind. Of course, he can ask questions at any time, but I mention this because it’s like me getting the last word every single day. I use this sometimes to go back to questions he’s asked during the day, to clarify things I’ve said perhaps. We have spoken about religious issues many times – my wife’s family are what I would call followers rather than believers. That is, they go to church on occasions and repeat the comforting beliefs when asked, but wouldn’t dream of arguing with my atheism.
    My approach with my son is this – what he ends up believing isn’t what’s truly important. How he decides IS. So I emphasise evidence and reason. I will talk to him about logic more explicitly as he matures. As an example – he likes the Star Wars films, and after watching “Return of the Jedi”, he asked me about the part at the end where Obi-Wan, Yoda and Annakin appear as ghosts to Luke. He wanted to know what ghosts are. So, I explained that it was just an idea in the story, but some people think that ghosts are real, that when someone dies, some part of who they are can exist afterwards as a ghost. Then I explained that I don’t believe that, and then, and this is the most important part, explained why. I talked about brain injury, and how it can affect behaviour – essentially who you are – and about brain and thus mind affecting drugs. I explained that this evidence leads me to believe that who we are, our minds, is something our brains do, so that if the brain dies, then who we are is gone. Now, I expect that a good deal of what I said was over his head, though he is a smart 5 year old, but the point is that he knows that I have good reasons based on evidence for the opinion that I gave him. About 2 weeks later, his great-grandad died. I broke the news to him, and though he was upset, he dealt with it very well. About 20 to 30 people have tried to tell him that his great-grandad is in heaven with Jesus, and only I have told him that he isn’t. It could be because I’m his Dad and my opinion is important. However, these other people are his maternal relations, school teachers and friends. He tells them his great-grandad is not in heaven, I think, because they can give no evidence based reasoning for what they are saying, whereas I make a point of always doing so.
    I guess I’m saying maybe you can innoculate your daughter by being a constant example of critical thinking.
    Another suggestion (and I’ve used this one to great success on my wife) is simply to get a bible and read Leviticus 27 word for word to your wife. I wonder whether her wish to take your daughter to a church would survive the reading and subsequent discussion.

  • Archi Medez

    My comments just got deleted “page not available”. Oh well, I should’ve saved them.

    Anyway, the main points of that post, the greatest post in the history of mankind, which would have solved all of our problems…well, okay, it wasn’t that good.

    My main points:

    1. Much of what has been said above sounds reasonable to me, but seems slightly more inhibited than my approach. I would focus on asking questions, introducing what Sam Harris calls “conversational pressure.” Re the prayer group example, I’d definitley comment on it and ask questions in that situation. I wouldn’t be terribly upset, but their (the prayer group’s behaviour) is sufficently overt and over-the-top that it almost seems inappropriate to fail to address/investigate it. Put the spotlight on it.

    2. We should pick our battles. There’s issues over table manners, and then there are people today being killed because they apostatize from or criticize a religion or run afoul of some dictator. This is not to trivialize the table manners example–we should deal with these everyday examples as they arise; every local action toward the acceptance of atheism helps the larger global cause. But we need to be careful in picking our battles; we should do so strategically with the larger goal in mind. My goal, BTW, is not to wipe out religious belief, but rather to reduce its tyrannical role, such that it is merely a personal matter and not a tool of political, social, economic, and militaristic power; and not an unnecessary impediment to freedom, safety, and health throughout the world.

    (Steps down from soap box here)

  • Quath

    My wife’s family is pretty agnostic/atheist. So family dinners with them is not a big issue. Our nephew seems to be dabbling with religion now, but he is not the type to be confrontational about it (yet).

    My side of the family is mostly religious (though not too huge on the rituals). But when they visited me, they didn’t try to do a prayer.

    I have been to events where they liked to hold hands to pray. I hold hands but don’t bow my head out of slight protest. (I like the idea of coming together to work on problems, but don’t like it that it is put off on a higher being to make it so.)

    I have two step-kids. Luckily, my wife is atheist, but their father is Christian and grandparents are Buddhists. They seem to like atheism so far (ages 10 and 12). But we never try to push it on them. We just talk about the different religions and we tie it back to reality on occasion.

    For awhile they believed in Jesus, Buddha and the Easter Bunny. When the youngest (at age 8) tried to explain Easter, I understood how confused she was. She believed that Jesus died on the cross and three days later, he rose from the dead as the Easter Bunny. It made more sense, so I didn’t try to correct her.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    These error messages people are getting when trying to post comments are of concern to me. I haven’t experienced this myself, but if anyone continues to encounter problems, please e-mail me a screenshot of the error you’re getting so I’ll have something to take to tech support.

  • Chris

    Or, even better: give an atheist benediction by reading from Robert Ingersoll or Dan Barker as the food is served!

    Or thank the wise and powerful FSM for a lovely meal of His pasta. RAmen.

  • Vjatcheslav

    Why wouldn’t you quote from 2 Timotheüs (at least, the letter where it is said that women have to stay silent) to your grandmother when she says you should have another child?

  • Alex Weaver

    While I appreciate the irony, most of our extended family is all to willing to believe absolutely anything negative they hear about me, and I doubt many of them have ever actually read the Bible, so the intended irony will likely be lost on them (if there’s one thing I’ve learned, too, it’s that there is no statement or phrasing so obviously facetious that at least a few people who, being smarter than rocks in other matters, ought to know better, will not interpret it as a fully earnest expression of one’s actual opinion or intent…though I suppose that *could* just apply to high school students and faculty).

    (It’s been a while; apparently my messages were still signed as Azkyroth at that point).

  • Nurse Ingrid

    To those of you who are trying to decide whether to take young children to church, I would say DON’T. I was raised by agnostic/atheist parents but was sometimes dragged to church by my fundamentalist grandparents,who would seize any opportunity to try to “save” me. It really messed me up, hearing all that stuff about hellfire and damnation when I was so young. And it was very confusing, because I knew my parents didn’t believe in that stuff, but my grandparents did, and weren’t adults supposed to know everything? Eventually I thought it all through for myself, and became the happy atheist I am today, but it took a LONG time to shake off the fear of hell that was instilled in me at such an impressionable age. I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely free of it.

    As for the nosy grandmother who keeps pestering about more kids, I suggest the Miss Manners technique: “That’s very personal, and we prefer not to discuss it.” Keep your voice calm. And if she persists? “That’s very personal, and we prefer not to discuss it.” Repeat as needed.

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    Interesting article, Adam; I particularly find the one-way expectation of pre-meal prayer an interesting and even arrogant part of modern religion.

    I’ve dined at few places where such a custom takes place, but one that particularly sticks out in my memory is my great aunt’s house. As a young, blooming atheist (around twelve years old) I had decided for the first time in my life that I would sit aside quietly rather than “politely” close my eyes and clasp my hands in shallow prayer. My family’s reactions weren’t particularly warm: my great aunt lookde tragically offended, and I was shut in my room by my mother until I agreed to “apologise for my rudeness” (I gave in about five minutes later).

    While I accept that my parents weren’t so much worried about my newfound loss of faith than the effect such a sight might have on my fragile aunt, it reveals an astounding double standard. I’m not so sure it would be acceptable if I shut my Christian grandson in his room until he agreed to apologise for rudely saying a quiet prayer to himself at dinner.

  • Sean

    Very interesting question.
    I have a some what more complicated situation.

    I am an Atheist, my wife is a Christian.
    Her family are also theist and pray before meal time, I have no issue with this as t takes nothing to accommodate there views.
    I love my wife and support her, she has recently asked me to go to church.

    Was wondering if others have faced religious spouses?

    I should note she does not want to convert me or anything like that but wants to treat it as a social gathering to make friends as we are new in town.

  • Adele

    Once again, Adam, you are perfectly on.

    While on one hand I feel that we shouldn’t be fussed about the prayer as we know it does absolutely nothing, I am highly opposed to the “untouchable” position religion enjoys in society. Religious people can say and do almost anything and get away with it so long as they do or say it in the name of their religion.

    I would personally just go to church with your wife. As far as you are concerned – I believe, perhaps I am mistaken, feel free to correct me – church is a meaningless ritual. If your wife is not, as you say, interested in converting you, then see it exactly as she does: as a social gathering. I find it fascinating to go to church – when I have time I do go because it is vastly amusing to watch. Televangelists are the same way.