I Don’t Respect Your Beliefs

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 ChristinaMaggie 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.

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16 Responses so far.

  1. Dawn Fortune says:

    I like the idea of challenging ideas and of challenging beliefs, and of questioning both without ridicule or shame, but I think what is missing is an understanding that matters of faith are that: matters of faith, and not all can be measured, quantified and duplicated using scientific method. Also what must be kept in mind is that faith is enormously important for a lot of people, and some traditions have doctrine that calls questioning of those beliefs an exercise in sin to begin with.

    Arguing about the origins and relative authoritativeness of a particular belief/idea is not going to be productive. When one person uses scripture as a cite-able reference and the other does not view that text as authoritative in any way, conversation rapidly becomes a shouting match and no growth happens.

    In cases like that, I think it is important not to threaten a person’s beliefs, but to differentiate their behavior from their beliefs. Yes, holy texts say any number of things about sin and sex and the roles of people in society and with one another. But we live in a secular world and we must follow secular rules and laws. Yes, you can believe a particular trait or behavior is wrong or immoral, but you are not allowed by law to behave in a way that is discriminatory, particularly if you are operating in commerce. 

    Civil rights laws did not change how people think, but they changed how they could behave, and gradually, that behavior has become normalized and THAT has changed how people think. People who have firm beliefs in things that are not proven by peer-reviewed academic journals may not be inclined to our very logical and scientific research, but we can force people to adhere to a particular code of conduct (laws) and eventually, slowly, that thinking will come around. 

  2. Christine says:

    I felt so uncomfortable reading this article.  The thought of ‘confronting’ people about their beliefs just made me feel queasy, but I couldn’t agree more! 

    I think people (I) feel that ‘confronting’ another person’s beliefs means their beliefs are being criticized.  And that’s a sign of insecurity. 

    I guess my discomfort comes from the aggressiveness people use in confronting beliefs other than their own.  Calm, thoughtful discussions (confronting) are always welcome, but that is rarely the case.
    This article is making me more open to confronting my beliefs as well as other people’s beliefs.

  3. Charlie says:

    Christine, personally, I find it easier to confront someone’s beliefs by asking them questions that challenge them. That’s what I was trying to allude to when I wrote about “ask[ing] someone to clarify their beliefs”. Though I do sometimes take a more direct approach, depending on the situation.

  4. John Ullman says:

    I’ve been watching Greta Christina’s blog and the atheist posts on Big Think for a while, and one thing that I would challenge is that there are two kinds of beliefs, those supported by “data” and those that are not. I think if one examines the concept of belief, it turns out to be a label for something we don’t have enough data to be “certain” of. For example, if I usually eat lunch with Joe, and he generally has an apple with his lunch, and somebody asks me if Joe ate an apple today, I might say “yes” if I ate lunch with him, but “I believe he did” if I didn’t eat lunch with him, so I couldn’t be certain.

    Religious types misuse “belief” to mean something they “know” to be true, without evidence other than unsubstantiated assertions. Atheists dismiss beliefs as worthless because they are not backed up by data.

    I feel the usefulness of beliefs is that they can guide you to a course of action based on what you would like to be true, even if you can’t prove it. This means taking the risk that you will eventually find out your beliefs are not be true.

    For example, in 1965 I held two beliefs. One was that I could get a PhD in microbiology. The other was that getting the PhD would be the beginning of a life long career in science. The first belief turned out to be true, the second was not true. So if people don’t act on their beliefs, they may not make mistakes, but they will also miss opportunities. And they will miss the satisfaction of a life well spent.

  5. John Ullman says:

    I also want to say that what I respect is the right of people to have their beliefs, espouse them publicly, and rebutt civil challenges to their beliefs civilly. I make value judgments about people’s rights to act on their beliefs. Acting on sex education is ok. Acting on racism is not ok.

  6. Doghouse says:

    While we’re all being good and humanistic and secular and clever it’s fun to talk about breaking down those big bad beliefs that are so often seen as anchors for ignorance. But let’s not forget that these things cut both ways.

    For example, let’s take the belief that everybody is equal. You don’t need to be a particularly clever scientist to destroy this belief. But just because this belief can be demonstrated to be false, does that mean that this belief should be taken to bits? Should we abandon notions of universal equality in the face of reality? Or is this a belief that we think is worth not only keeping, but fighting for?

    I think that we have to accept that some beliefs are good, some level of intransigence in the face of reality is a good thing. To an extent beliefs in things that are unlikely are the cornerstone of hope, which is pretty much the only thing keeping us all from shooting ourselves en masse. A person who lacks beliefs, or rather who merely functions entirely on the best available data at the time, that person is going to be a bit of a mess.

    So I guess what I’m rambling around to is that we should respect beliefs, as a key building block of human character, they are powerful things. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged, but it is worth remembering that when you attack a person’s belief system you are attacking their character, you’re attacking them at a fundamental personal level. You’re attacking their parents, their teachers, their peers, everybody who made them who they are today. And if you’re going to do that you absolutely must show respect when you do it or they’re likely to just nail you to a cross or something. 

  7. Greg Bailey says:

    You, Sir, are a Hypocrite.  You claim the right of free will, and do not grant it to others.  You don’t understand respect; you do not give respect, and therefore are unrespectable.  You take the free ride you claim religion gets because you feel that you can seperate their intellect from their beliefs.  Respecting the intellect without respecting the desision it makes would be like saying your writing would reflect you intellect, if you had a frontal labotomy…

  8. Kelly says:

    Dear Charlie,

    Excellent article! Thank you for sharing this. You raise valid points. I agree that respecting people and their rights to their beliefs is different than respecting those beliefs. In religion, people often confuse belief with fact, but they are totally different.

    I say this as one of many Buddhists around the world who believe in rebirth in the literal, proven sense, e.g., regeneration of cells, reawakening of our political, social, and moral consciousness, rebirth of plants and living things that die in the fall and come back to life in spring. I do NOT, however, feel any pressure to believe in the traditional notion of reincarnation. It is not something that has been proven, and I have no consciousness of it being my experience. It doesn’t meant it’s not possible, but it means it’s not a fact. Again, belief and fact are different.

    The Buddha himself supposedly said something that resonates with me: “Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.”

  9. A. Nuran says:

    I absolutely respect a person’s right to have his beliefs.
    That doesn’t require me to respect those beliefs.  

  10. Dan Linford says:

    Dawn — I wrote a blog post to respond to your comment. Available here.

  11. googleitout! says:

    “The problem with several established religions is not in their unfalsifiable claims ; it is with their falsifiable and falsified claims.” 🙂

  12. Ghostpaw says:

    Thank you for this one, Charlie. I’ve just started studying psychotherapy, and a classroom rule is that we have to ‘respect the beliefs of others’ – you’ve just helped me clarify how I can keep that rule, but still challenge people if they say something busted. And given the demographic of most of the students, I suspect busted is inevitable, which worries me no end given what we’re going to be doing once we graduate 🙁

    Incidentally, you’re a big influence on why I’m moving career to psychotherapy, I hope I can live up to the inspiration 🙂

  13. Bob says:

    If someone told you they believed their garden grew because pixies came at night and sprinkled all the plants with magic dust, would you think people needed to respect thee belief? What a ridiculous notion.

    Respect people if by their actions they show themselves worthy of respect. Respecting beliefs regardless of whether or not they are based in fact is stupid; respecting religion, doubly so.

  14. Therese Walker says:

    I really want to share this article on FB but the share button seems not to be working. It is an excellent article and one I would like to save.

  15. Charlie Glickman says:

    Therese– are you logged in to facebook? It seems to be working fine for me.


  16. Joshua says:

    I respect you as long as your religion isn’t violent.
     I think you should be able to converse and debate as long as
    you don’t force it apon anybody.

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