(This essay was originally published in issue #1 of the AHS newsletter, Secular Future.)
As the New Atheist movement grows in size and influence, we’ve been assailed by pundits and theologians who say we ought to be more respectful – that we need to choose our words carefully and afford religious believers the courtesy they are due. And I couldn’t agree more. Respect is a moral imperative for all people, and I think it’s especially vital that we, as the vanguard of a reform movement seeking to make our mark on society, are respectful at all times toward the powers that be.
That’s why I think it’s especially important for atheists to buy ads on trains and buses, to speak out on TV and the radio, to publish editorials in newspapers and journals, and especially, continue to publish blockbuster books like The God Delusion that make the case against theism with force and candor. I also encourage atheists to speak out in their personal lives wherever possible, to make their views known to family and friends and to push back against aggressive and intrusive religious proselytizing whenever and wherever we encounter it. I believe that respect for the religious demands no less.
As you might have guessed, although I agree with clergy and apologists that atheists should be respectful, I define respect somewhat differently than they do. I believe that when you disagree with someone, especially in a matter of importance, the most respectful course of action is to speak your mind clearly and firmly, making certain that the other party knows exactly where you differ with them and why.
To my mind, this seems like the only honest definition. When religious apologists call for “respect,” what they generally seem to mean is that atheists should be silent and not speak our minds if doing so might offend someone. For instance, when Richard Dawkins was interviewed for the Canadian TV show The Agenda last May, the host, Steve Paikin, read him the following passage, which originally appeared on an atheist website and which Dr. Dawkins quoted in The God Delusion:
“You have included in your book the ‘new ten commandments’ for atheists, and I want to read out the third commandment, which is: ‘Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect.’ Do you think you have shown those qualities to those who oppose your side of the argument?” (see video)
Since I was the original author of that passage, I feel compelled to set the record straight. In context, my original essay most emphatically did not advocate refraining from criticism of others’ beliefs, and I strongly object to that misrepresentation of my views. (In fact, my “new ten commandments” also include these: “Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you”, and “Question everything”). How would that be showing respect? In what sense is it respectful to paper over your differences in the name of false amity, to stifle your opinions just because others might disagree?
That’s not respect, but rather condescension. This advice treats the religious, as columnist Johann Hari says, as if they were immature and excitable children who need to be protected from anything that might upset them. Acting this way toward theists would be to treat them as less than fully mature adults – it would be a failure to respect their status as rational agents who can evaluate an argument on the merits and respond to persuasion. Personally, if someone I knew thought I was making a disastrously ill-advised choice, but held back from saying so because they thought I couldn’t handle hearing it, I would find that far more offensive and disrespectful – verging on a lie by omission. No one should fear honest criticism.
Granted, there actually are some believers who can’t handle criticism without becoming angry or violent. (I’m thinking of groups like the Muslims who protested cartoons of Mohammed by marching through the streets of the UK waving banners that said things such as “Massacre those who insult Islam“). But even this is no reason to refrain from criticizing them. To do otherwise would be to send them the message that they can have their way any time they want it, just by threatening the rest of us if their desires aren’t met. It rewards people for being irrationally and violently protective of their own cherished ideas. The message we should be sending – the one that shows the most respect for all groups in a free society – is that the price of being able to air your views is that other people have the right to speak out as well, even if you don’t like what they have to say.
There’s another sense in which a strong and impassioned defense of atheism is a respectful act. Regardless of how certain specific religious groups feel about it, our society is founded, among other things, on the ideal of free speech as a human right. We are all heirs to the legacy of the Enlightenment, a grand historical tradition of rational debate and democratic inquiry. Countless brave people from history – activists, patriots, rabble-rousers, and freethinkers and believers both – waged great battles to wrest this basic human right from the grasp of tyrants. Our freedom is a precious gift which they have bequeathed to us, and we can best honor them by making full use of it. To silence ourselves, to refuse that gift out of some spurious and ill-advised notion of politeness, would be an act of extreme disrespect toward those who suffered and even died to bring it to us. The best way to honor their memories is by making full use of their gift and voicing our opinions boldly, trusting that the tumult of debate will ensure that bad ideas are defeated and good ones ultimately win out. I, for one, intend to show that respect to my forebears; and I encourage atheists everywhere in the world to do likewise.