Multicultural Respect

I keep trying to make sense of recurrent demands for “respect” of religious traditions that come from politically liberal and leftish circles, whom you wouldn’t immediately think of as affirming ways of life in which religious faith is central.

But then, these days “left” often means the multicultural left, the postmodern animal, rather than the left wing of the Enlightenment political tradition. So maybe the background notion of “respect” for other cultures (“the Other,” if I succumb to the standard academic terminology I find distasteful) that shows up in the popular media is derived from the multicultural left. Something like, for example, Charles Taylor’s argument that our identities are bound up on other people’s recognition and respect for us as individuals and group members. Equal concern for human beings then requires substantial respect, not mere tolerance, for their cultural identities. Disrespect is not just a possible precursor to possible material harms, but is a harm in its own right.

Maybe. There is something to all this. Nonetheless, very often I find that I cannot, in all honesty, extend respect to many religious beliefs and practices. I favor ways of living together that allow for a cold peace of “toleration” rather than happy-faced multicultural affirmation all around. Especially conservative religious people and I have deep and unreconcilable conflicts of interests and perspectives. I’m no more likely to bury my distaste for the public consequences of widely held conservative religious identities than the religious are likely to stop thinking I am destined for their hell.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Abhors a

    Maybe this study is relevant:

    Racial Tension In A 'Split Second'

    "… Yale University psychologist Adam R. Pearson along with his colleagues from the University of Connecticut wanted to know … Can brief hesitations in conversation (often associated with anxiety) actually cause interracial tension? …

    … Unbeknownst to the participants, half of the conversations occurred with a brief delay—equipment was used to delay auditory and visual feedback …

    The results … revealed that a mere one second delay in conversation was sufficient to raise anxiety in intergroup but not intragroup interactions. Both whites and minorities in the delayed intergroup conversation felt more anxious and viewed their partners as being more anxious compared to participants who engaged in conversations in real time."


    I'm not suggesting you are racist, merely using it as an analogy. Maybe what it suggests is that when there is a natural preference for people like us, whether physically or ideologically, then moments of silence give us space to contemplate the differences with the "other".

    And if modern diversity advocates know this as much as us less "happy-faced" folk then they could simply want to fill all public space with positivity, in order to avoid the awkward contemplative silence – and thereby not give you the space to foment negative emotions. It's an interesting question …

  • Keith Parsons

    Taylor's argument is palpably absurd. On the contrary, the hostility and animosity of some should be a source of pride that strengthens one's identity and reaffirms a sense of purpose. Over the years, some of my comments and critiques in various venues have prompted harsh, sometimes scurrilous outbursts from religious apologists (the Hays, Turkel/Holding gaggle), right-wingers, and postmodernists. I even once had a truculent New Ager scream at me and storm out of a talk. Such abuse is music to my ears. If you have not provoked some vehement opposition, then you have never stood up for anything.

    The flip side of the coin also holds. If you respect certain ideals, then there will be some people whom you do not respect. I do not respect creationists. I tolerate them. I think they should be allowed to publish their own journals, establish their own "research" institutions, museums, and "think" tanks, and generally make as much noise as they please. But on what grounds should I respect them? What about them merits respect? Their sincerity, dedication, and energy? But sincerity, dedication, and energy in promoting pernicious, irrational claptrap is not something admirable.

    Taylor's claim does raise an interesting philosophical issue: To what extent should one's well-being be a factor of the respect of others? The ancients spoke of the regard of others in terms of receiving honor. Aristotle recognized that honor is a good, worthy of being desired like good health or a modicum of prosperity. However, he denied that receiving honors is THE good. His reason was that the ultimate good should be something that others cannot arbitrarily withold from us. Clearly, many receive honors who do not deserve them, and many who do deserve them do not get them. THE good should be something in us that others cannot so easily take away, so Aristotle identified the highest human goods with the moral and intellectual virtues. The virtuous man is happy even when dishonored. Aristotle probably had the example of Socrates in mind. Even when he stood before the Athenian assembly, reviled, denounced, and condemned to death, Socrates was the happiest and most enviable man there.

  • Taner Edis

    Keith, Taylor's argument doesn't make much sense in a context of intellectual debate, but what if it's applied in a different situation? As I read it, his main concern is what happens in society and politics at large, not in philosophy or science departments. He's addressing the notion of equal respect in complex societies with multiple groups and little cultural unity. In that case, the disrespect you and I exhibit might be fine within academic walls, but disruptive of the peace in the wider social realm.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    Charles Taylor has written a lot. Can you point out the relevant source where he argues that we should respect other peoples' cultural identity?

  • Keith Parsons


    I have on occasion heard Christians wistfully speculating on what life would be like if humans treated each other with unconditioned love. Unconditioned love?? Hell, I'd settle for common decency or even good manners. To think that people could achieve any sort of genuine respect for others, even conceding for argument's sake that this would be desirable, seems to me as pie-in-the-sky as awaiting the Age of Aquarius. Talk of getting people to a stage superior to tolerance seems vapid when we are so far even from achieving tolerance. The thing about people like Taylor that really gets to me is that I would bet a hundred dollars to a donut that there are some groups of people of whom he is loudly, persistently intolerant. I would bet that if you got him in his cups and brought up right-wing radio pundits, or TV preachers, or smokers, or Philadelphia Phllies fans, or somebody, you would get treated to a lengthy tirade.

  • Taner Edis

    "Charles Taylor has written a lot. Can you point out the relevant source where he argues that we should respect other peoples' cultural identity?"

    Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," in Amy Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton UP, 1994).

  • Not My God

    In the name of maturity, as an older teen/younger adult, I went out of my way to respect religion and even see beauty in it. Even post-September 11th, I went with my co-liberals– in the name of tolerance, I kept saying, "It's not about Islam."
    New atheism made me think twice about all this. Why should I respect religion? Why is it exempt from criticism? There is little that deserves criticism more…

  • Keith Parsons

    On what possible grounds could religious people say that their beliefs should be protected from criticism? Is it the fact that religious beliefs are very personally significant and even are important for defining one's identity? Yet the same could be said of someone's sexuality, and religious bodies have never shown any hint of restraint or moderation in their strident condemnations of sexual proclivities or practices that they do not like.

    Could they say that by criticizing religion, we are dissolving the glue that holds a society together and undermining the basis for morality? Yet religions have not traditionally refrained from, often vehement, criticism of all religious traditions other than their own. Woodcuts in propaganda pamphlets from the Reformation showed the Pope as the antichrist and Catholic pamphlets retaliated in kind. Even to this day you can find programs on fundamentalist channels condemning Catholicism. I saw a John Ankerberg show doing just that a few months ago. In the bookstore the other day I saw a book, published by the right-wing press Regnery, that argued that Christianity is a religion of peace but that Islam is not. When a creed loudly condemns all other creeds, on what basis can they rationally object if I were to criticize just one more? ("But ours is truuuuuue!!!" they wail.)

    As for undermining the basis for morality, as we have noted repeatedly in this forum, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that societies are made better by becoming Christian or Muslim, and no evidence that they are harmed by becoming secularized. The Roman Empire, for instance, was certainly not improved when it was Christianized in the Fourth Century. It remained as brutal, truculent, and imperialistic as ever. In fact, the appeal of Christianity for the Roman emperors was that the bishops had control over Christians in a way that pagan priests never had over a pagan populace. Therefore, if you control the bishops, you can control the people. It was the authoritrianism of Christianity that appealed to the emperors.