A few weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote a plea to atheists, asking us not to judge Christians by their more offensive representatives, offering in exchange not to judge atheists by our most extreme spokespersons, either. I’ve already agreed with Hemant Mehta’s reply pointing out the false equivalency of statements made by Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. But I’d like to counter with an offer of my own:
I promise to treat your beliefs with the same measure of respect with which you treat my disbelief. That seems fair, wouldn’t you agree? Does that prospect feel threatening? If so, why? As you think about this matter, be on the lookout for something called “privilege blindness,” which means that people of a favored class often are oblivious to the ways in which social and cultural inequities affect those on the losing end of things.
Have you ever read the biblical story of Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal? Christians love this story because Yahweh proves himself in an obvious way in front of a gaggle of disbelievers (of Yahweh, not of Baal). Today we are told not to test God in this way, setting ourselves (and by extension him) up for an embarrassing no-show. But they never criticize Elijah for taunting the beliefs of the prophets of this competing religion. He mocked them with flourish, shouting: “Maybe if you prayed LOUDER! Or perhaps your god’s ASLEEP! Or maybe he’s relieving himself!” Is this any way to talk to people of faith? Was this a respectful interchange? Does it ever bother Christians that he was mocking the other people’s faith? No, it does not. But then when someone else mocks their religion, suddenly they become champions of religious tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs.
I should add here that I don’t really subscribe to the notion that beliefs deserve respect, because beliefs are merely ideas, not people. People deserve respect; ideas do not. Ideas should be evaluated on their own merit because human progress depends upon challenging the ideas and beliefs to which we hold. That can be done in a respectful manner, for just as surely as you can “hate the sin but love the sinner,” you can also “hate the belief but love the believer.” Having said that, I have observed that people take their religious beliefs very personally, and many seem incapable of discerning the difference between disagreement and disrespect. As much as I wish this were not the case, it’s just the way things are. So again, I’m offering Christians a deal: I will treat your beliefs with the same level of respect with which you treat my disbelief. Now let me give a few examples to illustrate what that means.
If you speak of my disbelief like it represents a moral flaw, or a “phase” you hope I will grow out of, then I get to speak of your beliefs as a failure of reason, and a phase I hope you grow out of.
If you insist that I must refrain from speaking openly about my atheism, I will insist that you refrain from speaking openly of your faith. That seems only fair.
If you express or imply that passing my understanding of the world on to my children (or to anyone else’s) is somehow detrimental to their well-being, I will be sure to remind you that you should abstain from doing the same.
If you assert that I am incapable of making moral choices without the threat of divine retribution, then it seems only fair I assert that you, too, cannot or will not do the right thing without the threat of divine retribution.
If you resort to ad hominem attacks and personal insults when discussing our differences of belief, well…to be honest, I will not do the same to you because a guy’s gotta have his standards, right? I don’t care if others do it…I’m not going there because the use of personal insults implies that you don’t have anything better to offer. If your reasoning could stand on its own, you wouldn’t need to prop it up with something else.
I would love to see the general public learn to discuss ideas and beliefs without feeling personally mistreated every time someone expresses an opposite evaluation of those ideas/beliefs. But I also know what people are like, and I know better than to hold my breath on this one. So let’s compromise: With the caveat above, I promise I’ll show you the same respect you show me. Does that sound like a fair deal? Have you considered what that would entail?