I've been thinking a lot lately about the issue of respect surrounding religious beliefs. I was slightly horrified at Christmas to learn that six members of my family - my parents, both brothers, an aunt and an uncle - all consider me to be showing gross disrespect for religious people when I call bullshit on their superstitions. One particularly jarring comment came from one of my brothers:
Brother: "You can't respect people if you don't respect their beliefs."
Dad: "He's right, Lu."
To be clear, my parents and my brothers are also non-believers. I'm less certain about the aunt and uncle, but if they do hold religious beliefs of any kind I've never seen any indication of it.
This issue of respect is one that comes up again and again, and I find the attitudes of other non-believers on the matter absolutely baffling - far more incomprehensible than the anger I sometimes get from believers. As I see it, there are two main problems with this idea that non-believers should just shut up and let people believe whatever they like.
1: Typically it is not the non-believers making this case who suffer for the privileged place religion holds in the world. My brother is in no danger of being prevented from living as he chooses to live because of religion; other people - particularly women, gay people, and atheists unfortunate enough to live in religiously-dominated nations - face real dangers and suffer real abuses stemming directly from religion.
2: It is deeply condescending to religious people to adopt the view that while we know better, the superstitious masses need the comfort of religion. I find it slightly nauseating to be told that I should avoid challenging a mentally competent adult on their beliefs, as if they lack the wit to think logically or to withstand the emotional impact of a rational argument. And it only seems to go for religious beliefs; no one demands that I refrain from questioning political ideologies, philosophical opinions, ethical decisions (unless religiously motivated!) or anything else. I think it would be disrespectful - not to mention potentially dangerous - not to give my honest opinion on a person's beliefs. I would go so far as to say that in pretending to respect religious beliefs, non-believers show breathtaking disrespect to the intellect of the person holding them.
This notion that even those of us who do not hold religious beliefs should nevertheless respect them may be the single most dangerous thing about religion. It causes well-meaning liberal people living safely in secular nations to grant greater importance to the wounded sensibilities of a Muslim man than to the oppression, routine abuse, mutilation and murder suffered by millions of women at the hands of his faith. It places the unfounded beliefs of the religiously-motivated "pro-life" (more accurately, anti-choice) lobby over the life of Savita Halapannavar, who died in Ireland after being denied a medically-necessary abortion because a religion to which she did not subscribe forbade it. It tells a religious parent that their wish to send their child to a "faith school" is more important than the child's right to have a decent education, and not to suffer psychological trauma in the form of horrific threats and unnecessary guilt over imaginary "sins".
If you make the argument that people like me ought to show "respect" to religious people by avoiding criticism of their beliefs, you are not only patronising and belittling religious people... you are also saying that one person's wish not to have his or her feelings hurt takes precedence over the rights of countless others to live their lives free of the threat or reality of violence, abuse, oppression and misery. That's about as un-liberal a principle as I can imagine.
My family and others living free of the rule of religious dogma are in a tremendously privileged position, unimaginable to millions of people worldwide who cannot safely speak out against the violations of their own rights. Not only do I have every right to challenge religious beliefs and practices - I think I have a duty to do so.