Religion is Owed no Respect

The idea that all religions are owed respect and understanding comes readily tripping off the tongue these days. Tolerance might be mentioned, but often only in passing. Since religious doctrines conflict with one another, it is hard to see how mindless respect can be extended to all of them at once. Respect would have to be equally given not only to the conflicting Christian doctrines of Trinitarianism and Unitarianism, but also to the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, not to mention atheist, denial of these doctrines.

The demand for understanding is ambiguous but can be sorted out. It might mean simply grasping the significance of a doctrine for a community. But anthropologists and psychologists do not have to be believers to work out the significance that a religion has for its adherents. Understanding might mean grasping the semantic meaning. This too can be readily achieved, though the notorious obscurity of religious doctrines has preoccupied an army of commentators down the centuries. But other kinds of understanding might be hard to realise especially since most religions require some kind of unfathomable mystery at their heart as a means of keeping the faithful in awe. Even the most astute apologists of Christianity have had a hard job sorting out the pseudo-profundity of doctrines like the Trinity or the Eucharist in the long history of Christian apologetics.

Here the focus will be on why tolerance is often downplayed in favour of respect. Tolerance is in fact much more important and can go along with lack of respect, and even disrespect. This is strikingly expressed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the secular Turkish Republic: “I have no religion; and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea …’. Clearly this is to show religion no respect. He continues: ‘Let [the people] worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided that it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow man”[1]. Having no respect for religion is quite consistent with having respect for a quite different sort of “object”, viz., the rights or liberties of people to indulge in religion if they wish.

What need to be spelled out are the different kinds of respect we can have for a diverse range of different “objects” of respect, such as God himself, or the right to disbelieve in God. But before this, two other matters. What reasons do atheists have for their lack of respect for God? And what is the difference between having no respect and having disrespect?

1 Atheism and the Sacred

Atheism at least involves the claim: God does not exist (this will not be argued for here). A more comprehensive atheism rejects all divinities, all forms of religious spirituality and all forms of religious eschatology – in fact it rejects the whole framework of religious thought and practice. Included in these rejections would also be the claim that anything is sacred, whether it is God, his various prophets, holy books, their doctrines, etc. The religious do not really spell out what they mean by sacred. But we can suppose the following: that some object is sacred just means that the religious take their God to love that object, or approve of it, or command believers to revere it. But if there is no God, then there are no objective grounds for anything to be sacred. Instead something is sacred only because religious believers sanctify it. There is only what people take, or believe, to be sacred, or project onto the world as sacred; the sacred is merely a human construct imposed on the world that is alleged to have objective existence – but does not.

This has an important link to respect. As anthropologists point out, the sacred is surrounded with a host of rules that tell us what we ought to do in the way of observances concerning the sacred, and what we ought not to do. The latter are bans, prohibitions and taboos directed at preventing profanation and blasphemy of the allegedly sacred. Thus Jesus Christ threatens us, at Matthew 12: 31 & 32, when he says that blasphemy against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven either in this world or the next. (Here blasphemy can be as tame as simply denying the existence of the Holy Ghost.) Sometimes the ban is even extended to any kind of questioning or criticism of the sacred. Importantly, those who sanctify some object often demand that others also sanctify it in the same way; or at least they demand that others respect the sacred. Not to have respect, or to actively disrespect, gives offence to the religious, and this raises their anger.

What are the grounds of the demand for respect? There are none, as will be argued.

2 The Incoherence of Respecting the Non-Existent.

Normally people who think that God exists, accord God some respect. But it is possible that a person believes that God exists but accords him no respect. Perhaps because of a version of the argument from evil, they take God to be responsible for the world’s evils. If it is in God’s power to have lessened or prevented these evils, but he does not, then the theist might abandon their respect for God – while still maintaining that God exists.

This is not the atheist’s position. In what follows it is not even necessary to assume atheism, viz., that God does not exist; all that is required is that a person believe that God does not exist.

Can a person claim both of the following: ‘I respect the fairies, but I do not believe they exist’? No; this seems incoherent. Surely one would respond: ‘if you do not believe that fairies exist, you are being incoherent in according them respect, or even disrespect’. Similarly, can a person claim both: ‘I respect the gods, Zeus, Baal and Wotan, but I do not believe they exist’? This is incoherent in the same way. There is something distinctly odd about exercising all the trappings of respect for a God that one also believes does not exist.

The atheist lack of respect for God, or religion, turns on the following: if a person accords respect to some object, then they must also believe that the object exists. And this is logically just the same as: if a person does not believe that an object exits, then they cannot also accord respect to that object. Nor does it follow that they accord disrespect. So, one atheist argument for why we owe religion no respect turns on the claim that it makes no conceptual sense to respect, or disrespect, what one also believes does not exist.

Two further points are related to this. (a) There are some beliefs that one cannot share because one does not respect them. Many neither share nor respect the beliefs of flat Earthers, the beliefs of those who think that Alien abductions occur, the beliefs of those who hold that we all go to Heaven after death or the beliefs of those who think that Jesus Christ is our saviour. (b) One cannot respect belief systems which one also thinks lack all epistemic credentials in that they are false, or they have little or no evidence in their favour and much against. This will include the mindless accordance of respect to all religious doctrines since they are inconsistent with one another.

3 The Jesus Christ Fallacy.

The above turns on avoiding the Jesus Christ Fallacy stated in Mathew 12: 30 and Luke 11:23: “He who is not with Me is against Me.” On this view neutrality is impossible; there is no third position in which a person is neither for nor against Jesus Christ (JC). Not only is this a display of megalomania; it is also commits the fallacy of inferring that if one is not for JC then one must be against JC.

Consider the two propositions about some person A: ‘A is not for JC’ and ‘A is against JC’. These are not equivalent. Nor from the first can one validly infer the second. The contradictory of ‘A is for JC’ is ‘A is not for JC’; it is not ‘A is against C’. To make the fallacious inference is to ignore a logical point, the difference between contradictory and contrary propositions. Two contradictory propositions cannot be either true or false together; but two contrary propositions, while they cannot both be true together, can be false together. Thus ‘A is for JC’ and ‘A is against JC’ are contraries and can both be false together; there is the possibility that A is indifferent to JC in that A is neither for nor against JC. To make the fallacious inference is to ignore the indifference option through confusing contradictory with contrary propositions.

A similar fallacy is made concerning the topic under discussion: we owe religion no respect. If A does not respect religion it does not follow that A disrespects religion. To so infer is to commit theJesus Christ Fallacy. It is open to A to be indifferent to religion, or to be bored by it and so pay no attention to it. Independently, there is the very interesting issue of active disrespect for religion through satire, lampooning, blasphemy and profanation – but this is not the topic here.

4. Six Kinds of Respect – and “Respect Creep”

The above sets the scene for determining what the slippery and highly ambiguous word ‘respect’ means when it is claimed that religion is to be owed respect, or no respect. There are many distinct meanings to be found in most dictionaries, six of which are relevant to our purposes here.

Respect1 In this sense a person pays attention to some object X, or they have regard to X, or they give careful consideration to some detail or aspect of X. Thus: a person can pay respect to just one feature of, say, a car, e.g., its colour, or its make, but not pay respect to any other feature of the car (such as its fuel efficiency). In this sense an atheist can pay respect to the Bible. Like Hobbes, Hume, Gibbon and many others, they can pay careful attention to what the Bible says but remain sceptical of, or disbelieve, its various claims.

Respect2 In this sense a person does not interfere with X, or they actively (not passively) let X be. Thus a person can respect another person’s betting on horses, or going to their chosen church, even though they think both bets are an utter waste of time! They do not interfere with the other’s gambling or going to church; they simply let others be to do their thing.

Respect3 In this sense a person is considerate, polite, civil or courteous towards other people. So to those who proffer their religious beliefs one can simply say politely: ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’ But when one finds, say, evangelicals at the door who remain intrusively persistent, and so impolite, a modicum of disrespect can become appropriate.

Respect4 In this sense one person can have admiration for another, or their abilities. Thus one can respect another’s piano–playing in the sense that they admire it. Again, one can Respect4 a person’s skill, for example in cracking a safe, but not Respect4 them as a person.

At this point one must be aware of an important phenomenon that Simon Blackburn calls ‘respect creep’[2]. Respect4 goes along with Respect3; admiration for a person commonly goes along with politeness towards them. But the converse is not true; one can have Respect3 for a person in the sense of being polite to them but not have Respect4 in the sense of admiring them. It is fallacious to respect creep from the third kind of respect to the fourth.

Respect5 In this sense a person has deferential esteem or reverence for some X. For example, Zoroastrians have Respect5 for their prophet Zoroaster, and their Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazdah, in that they revere both. But do any of us pay respect to this prophet or god in the sense of revere either of them? In the case of the Zoroastrian God, apart from a very tiny minority the rest of us do not accord it any respect because we do not believe that it exists; we are atheists with respect to Ahura Mazdah.

What of respect creep? Respect5 for a God or a prophet goes along with Respect4, being an admirer, and Respect3, being polite about them. But the converse is not true; admiration of, or politeness towards, X can obtain without reverence for X. Respect creep from the first four senses to the fifth is fallacious.

Respect6. Respect5 is a factual matter which may be indulged in by an individual or a group. Some person or group may, as a matter of fact, revere the Zoroastrian God, just as another individual or group may, as a matter of fact, revere the Christian God. Importantly Respect5 is a factual and not a normative matter. What Respect6 adds to Respect5 is a normative dimension which goes beyond the individual factual nature of Respect5 in that it is deemed to be universally binding on all others – something all others ought to do.

Respect6 does this in two ways typical of the demands associated with the sacred. First, those who Respect5 (revere) X, demand that all others also ought to revere X. Or, secondly, the demand may be slightly weaker: those who revere X demand that others not criticise, insult or denigrate X, or at least conform outwardly to the demands of reverence (think of all the times atheists have been stuck at a table at which grace is being said). The demand can also extend to prohibitions against lampooning, or poking fun at or satirizing X in any way (for example the Danish cartoons). Here the demand for reverence by others comes into conflict with, and attempts to restrict, free speech in ways which the other kinds of respect do not.

Upon what grounds can those respectfully reverent towards X demand the same reverence of others? Logically there are none. Here the demands do not concern the respect of paying attention to (Respect1), or letting be (Respect2), or being polite (Respect3). These one can independently grant readily enough in many circumstances. Rather, one is obliged to admire (Respect4) or revere (Respect5) what others admire or revere, or at least outwardly conform.

What is deeply problematic about Respect6 are the fallacious grounds on which Respect5, reverence and esteem, is extended beyond the individual and the factual and is turned into an imperative applicable to all. This commits two fallacies. The first fallacy is to infer a general claim applicable to all from the basis of particular cases of reverence (no matter how many there may be). In particular, the personal avowals ‘I respect X’ or ‘X is worthy of respect’ entail nothing about what attitude others ought to respect or find worthy; it remains entirely open whether anyone else makes, or does not make, the same avowals in their own case.

The second is the is-ought fallacy of inferring from the factual Respect5 to the normative Respect6. Commonly in the case of religion, such a demand is illegitimately founded upon the sacredness with which religions are imbued and their associated taboos. It is also an extreme case of illegitimate respect creep from acceptable kinds of respect to the unacceptable. Such respect creep is pernicious; those who revere some X demand that everyone else also revere X, on pain of some kind of sanction, punishment or threat of intimidation or actual intimidation.

This kind of respect creep is well described by Salman Rushdie:[3]

‘respect’ is one of those ideas no one is against … everybody wants some of that. … But what we used to mean by respect … a mixture of good-hearted consideration and serious attention … has little to do with the new ideological usage of the word. … Religious extremists, these days, demand respect for their attitudes with growing stridency. Very few people would object to the idea that people’s rights to religious belief must be respected …. But now we are asked to agree that to dissent from those beliefs – to hold that they are suspect, or antiquated or wrong, that in fact that they are arguable – is incompatible with the idea of respect. When criticism is placed off limits as ‘disrespectful’ and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of respect’.

Ominously Rushdie goes on to describe an example of respect creep which culminates in the universal demand for reverential respect: ‘…in recent times both the American National Endowment for the Arts and the very British BBC have announced that they will use this new version of ‘respect’ as a touchstone for their funding decisions’. Those who do not display this “new” kind of respect are to be penalised.

Believers might pay religion respect in all six senses. But atheists need not pay religion respect in any of the six senses; and this will include not paying attention even to the vast industry within philosophy that has, from medieval times, bolstered religion. As Grayling points out, such lack of respect ‘… will inflame people of religious faith, who take themselves to have an unquestionable right to respect for the faith they adhere to, and a right to advance, if not indeed impose … their views on others’.[4]

5. Categories of “Object” of Respect

Not only are there different kinds of respect, but there are also different categories of “objects” of respect that also add to the confusion over the use of the word ‘respect’. By ‘object’ is meant the logical or grammatical sense of ‘object’ and not the physical or material sense. This can be grasped by considering the incomplete sentences ‘Person A respects ….’, or ‘A does not respect …’ and noting the different ways in which the blank can be filled by different categories of “object”. So far we have spoken broadly of respecting religion, but this covers many different categories of “object”. Here are six of them.

1. Divinities: God, the gods, spirits, angels, etc.

2. Persons: prophets, saints, monks, Popes, priests, Imams, etc.

3. Ordinary objects: holy books, icons, totems, sacred places & buildings (e.g., Lourdes), etc.

4. Actions: performing the Eucharist, praying, specific rituals such as genuflexion, etc.

5. Person’s rights and liberties to act, believe, disbelieve, poke fun, etc.

6. Acts of believing and the contents of belief.

The first four categories obviously yield possible “objects” of respect or disrespect. Consider God in the first category. The American satirist H. L. Mencken wrote a piece called ‘Memorial Service’[5] which is a roll call of over 140 past gods that were revered by millions of people, but now no one reveres them at all: Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Wotan, Baal, Mithra, the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazdah, (well, a few of the reverent are left), Huitzilopochtli (a Mexican God to whom thousands of the reverent were sacrificed), and so on. Even the religious who currently revere some god revere none of these other gods. So do we owe respect to any of these gods? None of us do – unless one argues for a syncretism in which all gods are one and the same! Atheists have good grounds for respecting none of them.

The fifth category is important and concerns rights and liberties of people as “objects” of respect. The kind of respect involved here is hardly the reverence of Respect5 (though some misleadingly put it this way). Rather it is the more secularized Respect1, in which each of us is to pay careful attention to the rights and liberties of others in our dealings with them; or it is Respect2 in which each of us is to refrain from interfering in the (lawful) activities of others. Atatürk’s remark illustrates these points. He has no respect for one kind of “object” religion, but he has respect for another kind of “object” viz., the right or liberty of people to believe in religion, or not as the case may be.

The sixth category raises some important issues only a few of which can be addressed here. The term ‘belief’ is ambiguous in ways not often recognised. Philosophers distinguish between the content of a belief and a person’s act (or state) of believing that content. To illustrate the difference, suppose a person A believes that Christ will return one day. The proposition that Christ will return one day is the belief content; in contrast the person’s act (or mental state) is A’s believing that Christ will return one day. A question now arises: Which is a possible “object” of respect, the content, the act, both of these, or neither?

The claim that will be advanced here, but not fully defended, is that it is incoherent, or meaningless, to respect belief contents. In contrast since a person’s act of believing is an act of theirs, it can be a possible object of respect or lack of respect. To illustrate the difference, consider an uncontroversial example of a belief content: that 2+2=4. Can person A coherently respect that 2+2=4? In the case of Respect1, all this means is that A pays attention to the (correct) belief that 2+2=4 when A does mathematics, or performs addition. This is coherent; but other kinds of respect generate incoherence. People cannot sensibly let be or interfere with the belief content that 2+2=4, or admire it or revere it. Some mathematical nerd might revere or admire that 2+2=4; but this means that they are a pathological case.

Similarly the proposition that Christ will return some day, might be accorded Respect1, in that one has to pay attention to it when dealing with Christians; but it is incoherent to admire or revere that propositional content. This point can be extended to all the belief contents expressed in holy books or religious doctrines. Other than Respect1, it is incoherent to accord respect to such belief contents. One might possibly respect different “objects” such as the person Christ, or the Bible which tells us that he will return (if it strictly does); but none of these objects of possible respect are belief contents. Trickier is the difference between true belief contents and the facts they express. Can facts, the items that make up the world, be possible objects of reverence? Yes. If we assume that it is a fact that Christ died on the cross then, on the interpretation that Christians give it (viz., through it God lets sinning humanity off the hook), that fact can be an object of reverence; but it is not an object of reverence for those who do not grant that interpretation. But the facts that make up the world are not the same as the belief contents that we can entertain; the former are possible “objects” of respect but the latter are not.

Matters differ when it comes to acts (or states) of belief of a person. Consider the act, A believes that Christ will return some day. One might Respect1 A’s particular act of belief in that one pays attention to it and gives it consideration when one comes to deal with A (for example, one knows that A is a bit touchy about this belief). Also one might Respect2 A’s act of belief in letting A hold their belief, or disrespect it in attempting to prevent such acts of belief on A’s part. This becomes important when according respect to another “object” viz., A’s right or liberty to act in certain ways, including acts of believing. Further, it is possible to Respect4 (admire) or Respect5 (revere) A’s activity of so believing (believers do admire the strength of their acts of belief). But equally as well these can be “objects” of disrespect – and even dismay especially in the case of dogmatists. But at least it makes sense to respect, accord no respect or disrespect, the mental acts of persons, in contrast to the belief contents of those acts.

The above only touches upon the important and subtle difference between acts and contents of belief as “objects” of respect. The ambiguity of the word ‘belief’ disguises this difference which in turn leads to a host of confusions. On the whole, it is meaningless to respect belief contents; but acts of believing or disbelieving (not to be confused with the persons who believe) can be coherently accorded respect or disrespect. This last point can be extended to cover many other kinds of mental acts such as protecting one’s beliefs from criticism, or refusing to evaluate them, or engaging in a critical evaluation. Consider fundamentalist religious believers. They might protect the proposition that Christ will return some day from critical examination, or resist examining it. But note that protecting that claim from criticism, or resisting criticism, is not a propositional object: it is an activity (directed upon a belief content). And this activity is something that is a possible “object” of respect (in the sense of letting it be), or of disrespect (in that others attempt to overcome the resistance to criticism). The same applies to religious doctrines and the propositional contents of holy books, as distinct from the books themselves as objects. As argued, it does not make sense to respect such contents. But enabling or resisting criticism of the contents are different “objects” altogether which are open to respect or disrespect.

6. Tolerance – but No Respect

All of the above points come together in an account of tolerance that need not involve respect. There are three broad aspects to tolerance. Tolerance requires (1) that there be something to which one objects, but (2) one puts up with the objectionable. Putting the matter somewhat paradoxically, toleration involves tolerating what one finds intolerable. The trick to tolerance is (3) how to achieve the right balance in tolerating the intolerable by setting the right limits to tolerance.

The “objection” component of tolerance can be illustrated in the case of Atatürk’s wishing all religion at the bottom of the sea. Supposing that Atatürk’s lack of respect for religion is well grounded, then these grounds can also provide good reasons for objecting to religion. Here the “objection” component cannot be watered down to something like indifference; one cannot sensibly tolerate that to which one is indifferent. Having a well founded objection to some X, like good grounds for lack of respect, is an essential component of tolerance.

The second aspect of tolerance requires one “to put up with” that to which one objects. One has to put up with the objectionable if one is powerless to do otherwise. But being powerless is not a component of tolerance as normally understood. One has to be in a position to act against the objectionable either because one already has sufficient power to so act, or if not so, one can act politically to obtain such power in the long run. What the second aspect of tolerance requires is that one refrain from either exercising successfully one’s powers or acting to obtain them. Here the acceptance component is a matter of not interfering with or (actively, not passively) letting something be, when one could interfere. Putting this in terms of respect, one gives Respect2 to the liberties and rights of others to believe and act as they choose without interference.

For what reason might one so restrain oneself? Suppose one were to object to a human rights violation but one also restrains oneself from acting against the violation; though one might do this for prudential reasons, such restraint is not an acceptable part of toleration. There are limits to toleration. Spelling out these limits is a complex matter not attempted here. But it leads to the third aspect of tolerance in which the right kind of balance is to be struck in tolerating the intolerable. One way of achieving the balance is through the recognition of the autonomy of others, even when the autonomy of others involves matters to which one has objections. In particular, others are autonomous agents when it comes to their holding religious beliefs even though one has no respect for religion and wishes it at the bottom of the sea. And conversely one is an autonomous agent in having no respect for religion; but this is a matter to be accorded Respect2 by the religious even though they may have objections to one’s stance. Tolerance is a two-way street.

Autonomy for all goes along with tolerance on the part of all. But it is a tolerance that involves only Respect2, that of the recognition of the autonomy of others, in particular their rights and liberties. It does not involve other kinds of respect, and may even involve absence of these kinds of respect or positive disrespect. This applies in the case of religion – it is owed no special respect. Importantly for a tolerant society, respect creep to Respect6 with its demand for universal respectful reverence for any or all religious stances simply has no place.

Within a liberal society in which there is tolerance there is, of necessity, scope for each to have objections to the positions of others. There is no scope for suppression of any sort. Nor is there scope for the universal demand of respect for any one point of view. Nor is there scope for a mindless respect which encompasses all points of view, especially since these are often inconsistent with one another. Tolerance is quite consistent with according religion no respect.


1. Andrew Mango, Atatürk, (Woodstock NY, Overlook Press, 2002): 463.
2. Simon Blackburn, ‘Religion and Respect’ in Louise Anthony (ed.), Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2007): 179-193.
3. Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line (London, Vintage, 2003.): 145-6.
4. A. C. Grayling., Against All Gods ( London, Oberon Books, 2007): 17
5. This is collected in Christopher Hitchens (ed.) The Portable Atheist, (Philadelphia PA, Da Capo Press, 2007): 143-46.

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