Wednesday, 28 December 2011

On Respecting Beliefs

     I have a feeling that many of my blog posts will consist of me taking a common expression or turn of phrase, and complaining about how it propagates a bad habit of thought that needs to be corrected. In this post, I'm going to take issue with the idea that we need to respect people's beliefs.

     We absolutely do not. We need to respect people, not the beliefs they happen to hold. To be sure, respecting a person means respecting that they hold beliefs, and further we should presume that they have good reasons for holding those beliefs, but all of this is part of respecting the person, not the belief.

     Now, it may be that when we talk about respecting beliefs, that's really just a shorthand for respecting the person who holds them, in which case I've no complaint. But these kinds of shorthand expressions tend to gravitate to their literal meaning in our thinking, and so we fall into the habit of thinking that beliefs themselves should be respected, rather than the people who hold them.

     So what does it mean for a belief to be respected? In short, it means not to challenge it. Beliefs, if respected, become sacred, not to be criticized or disputed. While one need not adopt a belief in order to "respect" it, one cannot contradict it or even suggest it might conceivably be in error. At most, one can remain silent.

     Yet this is backwards. Beliefs have no interests, let alone any rights to respect or to be taken seriously, in and of themselves. Any obligation we may have with respect to beliefs stems from our obligation to those who hold them, or perhaps our own obligation to seek diligently after truth. To treat beliefs as independently deserving of respect or protection is actually to deny the rights and dignity of the belief holder.

    Consider: Jack believes that a power outlet has been disconnected, and is about to remove the faceplate and start rewiring it. You happen to know the outlet is live. Respecting Jack's belief by not contradicting it puts Jack himself at risk of serious injury or death.

    To be sure, that's a rather simple example. Few people invest a lot of their identity in a claim about whether or not an outlet is live, and most would rather be mildly embarrassed than electrocuted. It may appear to be different with deeply-held identity-defining beliefs, such as religious tenets. Yet these too, in some cases, expose the believer (or others) to serious dangers. Even when a false belief is essentially harmless, it remains false, and it is not especially respectful of a person to presume he'd rather believe a falsehood than a truth.

     Now, I'm not at all saying we should go around correcting every mistaken belief we encounter. Most people don't really like to be corrected, and respecting people also entails not subjecting them to needless annoyance. As well, we're as likely to be mistaken as they are, so we should always be prepared to consider that our perception that they're wrong might be based on incomplete or inaccurate knowledge itself; we should always be prepared to be corrected ourselves.

     What I AM saying is that we should discard the idea that disagreement is disrespect, and we should be willing to engage in respectful dialogue people with whom we disagree. By respectful dialogue, I mean that we must always remember that the authority to decide what the other person's opinions ought to be always lies with that other person. We can suggest alternative interpretations, we can point to new data, we can point out logical fallacies or apparent inconsistencies in their stated opinions, but we must not simply demand their agreement. We also must be open to their arguments and evidence, and do our very best to interpret it charitably and in good faith, not simply dismiss their positions out of hand. We should not take offense at honest, good faith disagreement, and we should not presume that they will, either.

    The end result is very similar, a lot of the time, to what we hope to achieve by "respecting people's beliefs". We "agree to disagree" (which is another phrase I just might take apart one of these posts, but I'm not sure whether I like it or hate it yet), and recognize that we each enjoy full responsibility for our own beliefs. But we do not subjugate the interests of human beings to the interests of their beliefs, true or false. So I think it is best to speak just of respecting people, and leave aside this nonsense of respecting their beliefs.

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