Why I Do Not Respect Beliefs

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As a result of my post on Friday regarding gay exorcism, I have come under personal attacks for being disrespectful to believers and for being intolerant of diversity.

I wish to put, in simple terms, why it is that I “do not respect” beliefs, and what exactly that means.

It is a BOLD claim.  It is much harder to say than “I am gay,” or “I am an atheist.”  I do not respect beliefs.  Please allow me to clarify.

(1) I am referring specifically to supernatural beliefs held as truth.  Please see my post about the word “believe.” I am not referring to values, but actual beliefs, truths without evidence, faith.

(2) This does not mean that I do not respect believers.  This is an important distinction.  My lack of respect is only for those ideas called beliefs, not the people who hold them.

(3) This also does not mean I do not respect the right to believe.  Indeed, freedom of thought is at the core of my argument.  People are not only welcome, but entitled and encouraged to have any ideas they want.  The question I pose is whether all of those ideas deserve the same respect.

(4) My intent is an intellectual challenge.  My argument is that a belief is an idea just like any other idea.  It should be held to the same intellectual scrutiny.  It must be able to demonstrate the same evidence and support as any other idea one might consider and is entitled to no extra protection or respect.  Being shared by a majority of the population does not add to the merit of the claim.

(5) My resistance is a system of privilege that protects beliefs.  This system entitles an individual to say, “These are my beliefs and you must respect them,” and to feel personally attacked if that demand is not heeded.  This privilege is quite strong and largely unchallenged in our society, which is why I take such a risk in saying what I say.

(6) My goal is to promote critical thinking.  This can only be done by challenging the privilege that protects beliefs from critical thought.  When faced with arguments against a belief, an individual might respond, “Well, I still believe.”  This is a rejection of critical thought.  Beliefs are ideas that should be considered with the same scrutiny as other ideas and rejected just as easily.

(7) Respectable ideas demand proof.  The burden of proof is upon the person who makes the claim.  Thus, “There is a God,” is not a justifiable claim merely because it can not be disproven.  That would be the opposite of critical thinking.  Otherwise, “There is a Flying Spaghetti Monster,” or “Pigs can fly,” would be just claims just as valid.

(8) “I do not respect beliefs,” may sound like a pretty sweeping generalization.  Please consider the rhetoric.  A belief, by definition, is “truth of something without proof.”  My challenge is that all ideas worth warranting demand proof.  Thus, any “belief” that could be proven would no longer be a belief; it would be a fact.  Thus, I can fairly say, “I do not respect beliefs,” without overgeneralizing, because my words are true to the scope I intend.

(9) I would further argue that there is no way to distinguish between the merit of different beliefs without using secular moral reasoning.  A belief against blood transfusions might seem harmful to most, but it has no more and no less substance than a simple belief in God.  The choice most believers might make against such a belief is a humanistic recognition that refusing blood transfusions could be dangerous.  While believing in God is not inherently physically risky, it is still deserving of the same scrutiny as refusing blood transfusions.

(10) If we are using such humanistic criteria for what we believe, why do we have beliefs at all?  I would argue that it is the humanistic, secular moral values that already guide us and the beliefs that get in our way.

(11) There are many social problems in our society that we need to address.  While many see progress in changing beliefs, my point of view takes ten steps back from that.  If we did not respect beliefs, then there would be no need to change what others believe.  I see it as a question of the intellectual standard of society.  Do we entertain truths without evidence? I say that we should not.  We should hold all ideas, however personal or widely-held, to the same level of scrutiny.

(12) Lastly, I am still developing my own worldview.  Considering it is already controversial and not widely-shared, I expect to make mistakes and to continue to make changes to it.  As of June 21, 2009, I stand by what I have written here today.  I expect to be challenged, and I am very open to new ideas (provided, of course, they can be substantiated).  I recognize that many might not like what I have shared today, as it offers a direct personal challenge to their core beliefs.  I ask that whoever reads this consider my argument critically, but recognize how emotional reactions might affect the way it is perceived.

I want to promote a higher level of human understanding and a greater peace among the world.  Many might argue that refuting beliefs, because it is considered disrespectful, runs against that goal.  I argue that it is that perception of disrespect that very much prevents us from being a more peaceful planet.  I am putting myself on the line in many ways by making this broader point, and I hope that we can discuss these ideas in a respectful way.

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There are 14 Comments to "Why I Do Not Respect Beliefs"

  • hazma says:

    You might be interested in cofeq.com – “to organised religion what anti-matter is to matter”.

  • Jason P says:

    Interesting article! A few questions/comments with respect and no emotion (hello!, agnostic here).

    1) Would you say there is a difference between the belief of an idea and the idea itself? Example: Some people believe in God (a god, several gods, etc). I can easily understand your reasoning for not respecting beliefs by the arguements you have presented; however, what would you say about understanding the concept behind the belief? I am agnostic because I can see the possibility of a god (mainly as you said, because it cannot be disproven). Do I believe in God? No… Do I believe there is no God? No… but I see the possibility in both. Would it be considered the same, even though I do not have a firm belief on the matter? (What if there were several gods who all happened to be kitchen utensils?) I still see the possibility. 😛 This leads me to:

    2) (I’m purely asking from all sides and this is in no way a jab or an emotional shot at you)… Would you say a disbelief in something is the same thing? Take for example, athiesm: would you say a belief that God/gods DON’T exist is deserving of the same scrutiny as a belief that God DOES exist? Both sides have an equal claim to make, a.k.a. if it’s not white, how is it black?

    3) What is your opinion on moral “standard” (albeit it’s different for everyone), or I should say, belief in what’s right and wrong. Not really any specific question, just curious.

    I only ask these things out of courtesy and for a chance to have open dialogue with someone who won’t get mad and storm off.

  • ZackFord says:

    Hey Jason! Thanks for your questions!

    To answer your first two questions, I encourage you to view my recent post about “contratheism” (here: http://is.gd/18DDJ). To be Agnostic, you must believe that the probability of God is 50/50. If you believe it’s more probable, then you’re a believer, and if you doubt there is equal probability, then you are leaning towards atheism.

    I do not say “there is a God” or “there is not a God.” I say, “there is likely not a God,” the claim I think best supported by evidence and reason. So, by that token, I would not say a belief in God is wrong, just highly implausible so as to be not worth considering. Hopefully the other post helps make this a bit more clear for you. If not, I anticipate your follow-up questiosn!

    As for right and wrong… how we determine our moral values is completely independent of our beliefs. There are many morals that society as a whole agrees on, despite variations among beliefs. This concept is known as the Zeitgeist. Think of it as an ever-shifting paradigm for determining values over time and generations. Right now, the Zeitgeist is shifting towards greater tolerance and respect for the LGBT community, even though the laws of the nation don’t yet reflect this.

    This moral “standard” for the society transcends religious institutions, governmental laws, and even the kind of public opinion you might see in polls. As a phenomenon, the Zeitgeist is easier to understand in history. Think “this is how things were in the 50s.” When you say “Times have changed,” you’re referring to the Zeitgeist shifting. It represents the way our society is better understanding human nature and the society in which we live.

    Moral values can and do stand without religious foundations. The golden rule is an evolved understanding of how to promote the most inclusive society. Valuing life is a survival instinct. We have become such a civilized species because of our ability to protect and support one another, and we do not need supernatural beliefs to continue developing those understandings.

    Consider my example with blood transfusions. The thinking used to contrast refusing blood transfusions to God existing is completely secular. The preference against an unhealthy belief is NOT informed by another belief, but by evolved survival reasoning skills. Believers are atheists who make exceptions for what they will believe; atheists make no exceptions. We’re all equipped with the same moral reasoning skills, and it’s my opinion and observation that beliefs that defy reason are exactly what inhibit the full exercise of those moral reasoning skills.

    Does that make sense? What are your thoughts, Jason?

  • Elissa Fazio says:

    Just a quick note to let you know that I am in complete agreement with your premise about respecting people but not respecting beliefs (your proposed definition for this article.) I cannot understand why people think that this proposal is in any way a personal attack – it is anything but that. I have spoken the same view and can predict, usually within moments, that the reply will be along the lines of “you can’t disrespect people this way,” “how dare you deny my belief system,” “how can you expect people to converse with you, when you are attacking them,” etc., etc. I just don’t get what people don’t get. Keep up the good fight…

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks Elissa! I very much appreciate your support!

  • nimbu says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks.

    I will pile on:

    I think that any theory should be accompanied by relevant evidence. The problem that most “believers” have is that they don’t require any evidence. They get away with it because of history. We’ve been dealing with religion for so many years, it’s become a part of us. That’s why it’s “our” responsibility as skeptics to disprove God (god).

    But I agree with your stance – you come from a scientific background. You’re a skeptic, leaning towards atheism, but you’re open minded. That’s good. Every scientist that is confronted with anything other than certain proof will remain open minded.

    I do believe there are shades of grey; between certain belief or disbelief in a god. I also believe that you can be 95% sure there’s no god. It doesn’t make you an atheist – but you’re pretty close. This is the same as trying to disprove the existence of a flying spaghetti monster (or some magical tea pot – if you read Dawkins). There’s no way to disprove that. There will always be skeptics on both sides of this “issue”.

    Thanks. Awesome blog.


  • nimbu says:

    Sorry for grammatical, or spelling errors.

    It’s late and I’ve had a lot of wine!


  • vjack says:

    I have always operated from the starting point that no belief automatically deserves anyone’s respect. Once the belief has been tested and shown to be accurate, it can be considered worthwhile. Religious beliefs have yet to meet that simple test.

  • J. Allen says:

    great post. there seems to be a nonchallenged ‘religion is good for some people so just let it be’ social meme that probably exists to diffuse conflict. Avoiding conflict can be great, we don’t want anyone to get hurt, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of intellectual honesty.

    Bill Maher said something about how stupid the ‘coexist’ bumper stickers were, because each faith’s core beliefs are in direct contradictions to the others, so they are built to not coexist, but too disagree and be ‘offended’ by each other.

    I know a lot of great liberal Christians, but I also know that they same book they revere about teaching peace and love is the same book that others use to teach hate and war.

  • Mark Holsing says:

    Just a thought on the article. I think that belief deserves the same questioning as anything else. It is possible however to question faith and be respectful of the person, as you mentioned in your post. I think there are instances where people do not respect the person nor the belief. I think that belief in itself does not deserve respect but the person who believes does. In any discussion I’ve had with you Zack, I have not come out feeling “personally attacked”. Mentally exhausted? Sure. Frustrated? More often than not, but not personally attacked. Other people I have gotten into debates with HAVE left me feeling personally attacked. I think being able to debate, question, and disagree without personally offending or personally attacking someone is a very unique and important quality that both sides of the divide (Religious vs Atheists) need to be able to use. If you offend or attack someone, no matter WHAT your logic is or how sound it is the other person will not heed it and I think many people should keep that in mind when entering a debate on anything, not just religion. Honey attracts more bees than vinegar.

    Having said that, Christians as a group tend to be easily offended. So the other side of it is that people need to be able to debate and discuss without feeling personally attacked. Again something that both sides of the divide should keep in mind.

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks for everyone’s feedback and support. Offering new ideas to the world is challenging, and it means a lot to know that my message means something to other folks out there in the world! It’s challenging intellectual dialogue that I want to encourage, and I wouldn’t pursue it if I did not have a deep respect for people and their experiences.

  • Aaron says:

    Not sure where to put this comment, but I will stick it here:

    No doubt this is not a statement against Christianity any more than it is against any other set of beliefs. I am curious about your experience with your rhetoric among different faith communities. Do Christians react differently?

  • ZackFord says:

    Well, my focus is American culture, and so the issue is that within American culture, Christians have privilege over other believers. Christianity’s prevalence and permeation throughout society makes Christians feel more comfortable that “Christianity = normal.” So, when challenging Christians, I’m challenging both the privilege of their beliefs AND the privilege of their Christianity.

    Given that their identity has intertwined so much with not only their families and communities but also their nation and sense of patriotism, it is only natural that Christians respond even more defensively and even aggressively than others.

    I can’t say as I’ve had many Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu readers that I know of, so I can’t be sure. My thoughts definitely apply to all believers, but on this blog they mostly get addressed through a Christian lens for the reasons stated above.

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