The freeedom not to respect

Quinn O’Neill, in her much-discussed piece on religion and reason and “tolerance” offers a familiar confusion:

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is undoubtedly important in securing secularism.  As Michael Shermer eloquently put it: “As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.”

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is important for a lot of reasons, but ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion does not depend on being “respectful and tolerant” of the content of individuals’ beliefs. It does not, and it cannot, because that would in fact interfere with everyone else’s freedom of religion (which, of course, includes freedom of non-religion). That is a very coercive, illiberal line of thought that has been entrenching itself lately, and it must be resisted. You are free to believe what you like, and I am free to pour scorn on any belief, and vice versa. Freedom cannot require the automatic “respect” for beliefs of the rest of the world, because such a requirement would itself be insanely coercive. Demanding “respect” for any belief is itself thoroughly anti-freedom.

O’Neill continues with the confusion.

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.  If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). 

Personal attacks on any individuals, if they are literal attacks, are inconsistent with freedom in general and with the rule of law. But of course she’s probably not talking about physical attacks…she’s probably talking about verbal disagreement. Well, that is not inconsistent with religious freedom. Respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is not the same thing as respect for the irrational beliefs themselves. O’Neill simply conflates the two, either sloppily or dishonestly; I don’t know which. The result, at any rate, is sheer bullshit. Yes, of course we have to respect everyone’s right to hold irrational beliefs, but no of course we do not have to respect the irrational beliefs themselves. There’s a difference, and the difference matters.

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