The question that is the title of this post is essentially the nature of this blog (and this blogger’s intentions), particularly because I don’t intellectually respect beliefs (ideas confidently held as truth without proof). Even though I’ve talked about these ideas a lot, I still feel like it takes a lot of courage to say what I just said, which is why addressing this question is important (see all the memes that stem from this question). It’s also particularly relevant today because of a story about a certain billboard that I’ll discuss more below, but first let’s consider the question itself.
Let’s start by defining the words. We’ve dealt with the beliefs in those previous posts, so let’s talk about “disrespectful,” “offensive,” and “challenge.” What does it mean to disrespect? Well, it’s about expectations, right? Usually we think about disrespect as not showing enough respect, and “enough” is determined by the Zeitgeist. It’s just a cultural expectation. It’s entirely subjective and symbolic. “Offense” adds a bit more substance, meaning to irritate, annoy, anger, or hurt. So this whole challenging beliefs thing is not just about improperly respecting; it’s also attacking, threatening, insulting, and a ton of other words that imply the recipient has to go on the defensive.
But let’s be clear about the “challenge.” A challenge is a contest to a claim, an objection to assumed validity, and a demand for explanation and justification. And the most important thing to point out is that it is the beliefs that are challenged, not the believers. A belief is just an idea; a belief doesn’t have feelings, nor could a belief ever be defensive. Every time people have disagreements, ideas are challenged in just this way. Society has determined, though, that beliefs get to be special kinds of ideas. Ideas I have about taxes, for example, are not absolute truths and they are debatable. But if I had a belief about taxes, I would get a free ride, because once something is called a belief, it’s no longer up for debate.
So let’s consider a hypothetical example. One I face often is, “I believe homosexuality is wrong/immoral/whatever.” This belief still wields quite a bit of power and popularity in our society. I would argue this belief is totally invalid, because homosexuality cannot be immoral. Sexual orientations are innate dimensions of identity and a same-sex orientation is no more a choice than an opposite-sex one. Calling homosexuality “immoral” sounds as absurd as calling brown eyes “wrong” or calling the sun “immoral” just for existing. I work really hard to debunk this belief, because it has absolutely no intellectual merit and it is incredibly hurtful to many people.
Debunking any belief is not as simple as making a good argument. What happens when I begin to challenge this belief? Facts can often be irrelevant. The replies I might get are “But this is what I believe!” or “But it says so in The Bible!” To truly address this issue, I have to work through discussions about what a belief is, why a person believes a certain belief, and then present the factual argument that debunks the belief. But merely for trying to challenge this belief, I might be seen as “rude” or “inconsiderate.” This is the very core of religious privilege. Bad ideas persist because social norms allow them to.
Believers come to the defense of their beliefs. They cry “disrespect” and “offense,” though, because there is no valid intellectual argument for their beliefs. They can’t actually defend the merit of the ideas, so they have defend their right to hold them despite this. They are upset because societal etiquette is set up so that they will never have to defend their beliefs. When suddenly “It’s my belief!” doesn’t protect them, then they take the challenge as a personal attack, because they have no other way to respond without letting go of the belief in question. Because they’ve been socialized to value beliefs more than anything, it’s very personal, and by totally shutting down, they cyclically protect beliefs in this way.
The basic principle implied here is that it is more important for people to hold to very personal ideas, even when they’re bad, than to be open to new ones. It’s easy to see how this could have helped a group of early humans survive as a cohesive unit and how narrow understandings of the universe would lead to religious beliefs being incorporated. But if we set all that aside and look just at what we know in 2009, this principle is hindering and destructive. It’s basically an agreement to resist cognitive development, a shield from cognitive dissonance. What value does clinging to personal ideas have in modern society? I would argue very little.
It is this religious privilege that maintains so much disparity in our society. If you look at any major social issue, it is this privilege of beliefs that impedes our progress. Homosexuality is immoral, there are viable alternatives to evolution, “life” starts at conception, climate change is a hoax, President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, and so on. All of these ideas persist because of what evolutionary psychologist Hank Davis calls, “Caveman Logic.” In the introduction of his so-titled book, he writes:
Yes, it’s true that we can fit more songs than ever on an iPod and we regularly expand the boundaries of medical knowledge. But we also show the sophistication of a Neanderthal in evaluating fragmentary evidence and are still prone to reaching conclusions about ghosts, “signs,” and magical powers in the world around us. We can design and repair rocket engines, but most humans are unable to confine that primitive part of their minds to the back burner. Caveman Logic continues to inform the most personal side of our belief systems.
I would argue that it is necessary for believers to feel “disrespected” and “offended” if we are to move forward as a society. Honestly, there is no inherent disrespect or offense in a challenge to beliefs; those are constructions of believers’ reactions. While we might think of such reactions as emotionally painful, we need to see them for what they are: cognitive dissonance. Rather than recoil and try to soothe their feelings, we should persist in helping them find coherence with new ideas. Religion should no longer be an excuse for bad ideas.
All that being said, I think the relevant example today seems that much more silly. None of those controversial issues are on the table. A billboard in New Zealand was vandalized hours after it was put up because people were so upset about this provocative message:
That’s right. People are upset because of a challenge to the virgin birth of Jesus. And what’s even better is that a church put this up (not one of those vicious atheist groups). St Matthew-in-the-City explains its decision:
It is intended to challenge stereotypes about the way that Jesus was conceived and get people talking about the Christmas story.
Hooray for those progressive Christians. They sound more like secular humanists who just use Jesus as a model. But boy are they getting attention, both on Huffington Post and in The Telegraph (and subsequently on Towleroad and Friendly Atheist; hat tips my friends)! And why all the attention? Simply because Christians are upset:
Among leading critics was Lyndsay Freer, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, who said: “This is disrespectful and offensive to all Christians.
“It’s flying in the face of our 2,000-year-old beliefs,” she said.
And guess what, Ms. Freer (anyone else think it funny the Catholic spokesman is a woman)? That’s the point. Now, how can we help you reconcile the fact your 2,000-year-old beliefs are misguided and out-of-touch with reality?