You might be surprised to hear me say that I don’t respect your beliefs. But let me explain what I mean by that.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with Greta Christina, Maggie Mayhem, and Chris Hall on the topic of sex & atheism. One of the topics that came up was how common it is for people to say that we have to respect their beliefs, or that we have to respect religious beliefs in general. And I think that’s exactly the wrong way to go.
In my experience, when people say that, what they often mean is “I don’t want you to challenge my beliefs.” It’s a way of avoiding controversy and disagreement around religion, but it also gives religion a free ride by removing it from the marketplace of ideas. I see no reason to privilege religious ideas like that. “Respecting beliefs” doesn’t only come up with respect to religion and spirituality, of course. People believe all sorts of things and some folks demand respect for their beliefs in order to make sure that they remain unquestionable.
I’ve found it much more useful to respect people, rather than beliefs. In my view, people deserve our respect, not because of anything they do (which requires us to buy respect), but rather because I think that each of us deserves to be treated with care, for our needs to be considered, and for our desires and wants to be taken into account. That doesn’t mean that our wants and needs will never come into conflict, but rather, that they deserve to be heard and when possible, a both/and solution sought.
I respect people by being willing to challenge beliefs that I think don’t reflect reality. I respect people by not coddling them and avoiding difficult topics in order to “not make them feel bad.” I respect people by listening to them, by checking to make sure that my understanding of what they mean is accurate, and by asking them questions. I respect people by bringing fierce compassion to our interactions, by being willing to set and hear boundaries, by engaging in dialogue instead of waiting for my turn to talk. I respect people by not trying to fit them into some idea of “normal” that bounces around my head. I respect people by not using shame or violence to try to control them. I respect people by being willing to reconsider my perspectives in light of new information and alternative ideas. I respect people by recognizing that we’re all a little different and nothing works the same for everyone. I respect people by trusting what they tell me of their experiences. I respect people by telling them when I feel anger, or sadness, or fear, or shame because of something that they’ve done. I respect people when I offer them gratitude.
I also respect people by engaging in this as a practice. By giving myself the room to make mistakes and amends. By being willing to take the next step in learning these skills (and no, I am most definitely not perfect at any of them). By not coddling myself when I get stuck.
But their beliefs? I think those are fair game. If the situation warrants it, I think it’s totally fair to ask someone to clarify their beliefs when they say something that is not supported by data or research. I think it’s completely reasonable to offer counter-examples and challenge them. I think it’s important to point out the ways in which their beliefs are simply stories they’ve made up or heard. Coddling people who can’t handle that is a cop out.
Personally, I try to not have beliefs and when I find myself stuck in one, I try to let go of it. To quote Chris Rock in the movie Dogma:
“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive, working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth. New ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
Challenging beliefs is a tricky business and often require a delicate touch. One way we can make it easier is to stop thinking of them as being above question. If we can step back from this notion of “respecting beliefs” and instead, think about respecting people, I think we’ll have a much better time of it.