Thursday, March 13, 2008

Respecting Contrary Beliefs

The internets are ablaze with commentaries on British philosopher Simon Blackburn's paper on respecting the beliefs one does not share, "Religion and Respect." As it comes from an atheistic and liberal perspective I have no interesting quarrels with its basic conclusion:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds. [emphasis mine]
I think this makes a very appropriate distinction between the belief itself and the person doing the believing, and I think it's trivially true (as well as fortunate) that we can appreciate, value, like, and otherwise respect our fellow persons without reference to differences of belief.

Despite my rather obsessive focus on matters of belief in this precious, precious blog, it rarely surfaces in my so-called real life. I have friends and family with whom I disagree, or think I do, on religion, politics, philosophy, and the like. Likewise I have significant and frequent interactions with coworkers, teachers, school administrators, neighbors, and others whom I respect and (mostly) like, but whose opinions on Deep Questions are a matter of guesswork. On an interpersonal level, belief is a negligible driver of respect or its absence: I can name names of people I respect but whose beliefs I don't even know; whom I don't respect and whose beliefs I don't know; and whom I respect but whose beliefs are anathema to me.

But going beyond the interpersonal, things get tricky precisely because it becomes harder to separate belief from believer. There are people whose religious, philosophical and political beliefs are their defining feature, and in some cases the only salient feature of which I am aware -- this category includes the Pope, "the new atheists," assorted bloggers, tee-vee preachers, people rioting over cartoons in news reports, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, countless politicians, authors and thinkers (alive and dead), etc.

For many of the six readers of this blog, I am precisely such an 'entity' -- I am using scare quotes to suggest it begs the question to say 'person': I am, to you six, a flow of opinions and wacky insights attached to a name and a URL. Mom would be so proud of what I've become!

I feel the voice of Andrew Keen poking in and demanding that I trace this morass to the evils of web-based anonymity, and while I take the point, I also note its rather severe limits. I have gobs of personal detail on many of the parties listed above -- I know, for example, what their voices sound like, know something of their marital status, age, educational background, even possess a wide range of intimate-sounding details, e.g., bin Laden has kidney problems, George W. Bush is retarded, Christopher Hitchens drinks a lot, Sam Harris has been working on finishing his PhD for the last several years, Larry Craig enjoys making friends at airports, Shakespeare knew something of glove-making, on and on.

When I read them or hear them, I can attach it to an identifiable flesh-and-blood human, but one well removed from any sense of 'familiar.' I only know what I see and hear, and I can't know how truly indicative it is or what additional qualities go unrepresented. They aren't necessarily more human to me than a thoroughly-drawn literary character.

I leave this on a question because I have no easy answers. In what sense do we, or should we, respect believers whom we know principally or exclusively through their publicly-stated beliefs? In the abstract, it's easy to say we respect them but not necessarily their beliefs. The abstract is easy.

Other responses to Blackburn's paper I've come across:

Regardant Les Nuages


Crooked Timber

Mixing Memory


Laura said...

You're not an entity. You seem to forget, we've seen your leg...or have we? Maybe you're not the 'person' we think you are, Dale--if, in fact, that is your name.

Yesterday I was plagued by the phrase "this vigorous anonymity" from a song, but couldn't figure out which one until this morning. I was thinking of it in terms of blogging, (the song is not about that, but I thought it an apt phrase)and how much easier it is to express one's beliefs, ideas, and opinions on a blog for the very reason that we have 'this vigorous anonymity' if we choose it.

As for respecting people whom we know principally or exclusively through their publicly-stated beliefs, I respect them to the degree to which they respect others. It does none of us any good to deride the beliefs of others. When we do it puts people on the defensive, distracting them from seeking the truth.

And I can say that anonymously. Or can I?

mikesdak said...

I have to fall back on the inadequate answer "it depends". I have known a number of people for whom I have a high regard despite some large differences in beliefs. It is possible to respect a person for his abilities, general judgement, high skill level of some type, and other traits.

Dale said...

Laura, Leg? Oh I just found that image somewhere on the internets.

I'm a C++ program designed to complain into a blog.

Mike, it does depend. Maybe what's poking me about this is that 'respect' comes down to what people do rather than merely think or say. So I don't know how far a set of beliefs, whatever set of beliefs it might be, can get me toward respecting someone or disrespecting them. A little? Not much?

I can admire/respect a person for the manner in which or the effectiveness with which they promote a belief I favor, and likewise I can lose respect for someone who spreads beliefs I don't favor.

Maybe this is all just overthinking.