Respect for Respect’s Sake

I’ve been in a number of debates in person and online where emotions flared and the conversation eventually boiled down to a variant of the following:

Why can’t you just respect a person’s beliefs?

Here’s the problem with that: not all beliefs are created equal and not all are worthy of respect.  The person saying the above is usually emotionally invested in the beliefs I’ve questioned and is usually unable to present any rational reason for a person holding those beliefs in the first place.  What they’re really saying is, “Since I can’t defend my untenable beliefs I really wish you would leave them alone so I don’t feel like I have to!”

Another problem with this mentality is that the person claiming that beliefs ought to be respected invariably doesn’t respect beliefs other than his/her own.  I’m not saying that they purposely disrespect other people’s beliefs, I’m just saying that they wouldn’t have a problem calling someone else out on their bullshit while expecting everyone else to just swallow theirs.  What they’re really saying is, “Why can’t you just respect MY beliefs?”

Let’s think about this for a moment.  We’ll examine three people with three different (but not so different) beliefs.

Tim TebowPerson A believes that he has an invisible friend who is inconceivably powerful and helps him accomplish all of his tasks — even the really unimportant ones like playing games.  When he’s sick he goes to a doctor but thanks his invisible friend for making him better.  Nobody else can see his invisible friend but he insists that everyone should know that his friend is there, simply because his friend says he created everything in the world.  He wants everyone in the whole world to have as close a relationship with his invisible friend as he does and feels bad for people who have different invisible friends because his invisible friend is going to fry them in a lake of fire for eternity.

Jim SparksPerson B believes that he was abducted by aliens multiple times over several years.  He says that their advanced technology makes them able to mask themselves from view, implant or erase memories, control thought, and bend space and time.  He believes that the aliens have a special interest in him and he has a special message for humanity that the aliens, for some unknown reason, cannot personally deliver.

Conspiracy TheoristPerson C believes that gnomes have invaded his house and are living in his walls.  He says they try to read his thoughts so they can plant traps to kill him.  The only way he can stop them from whispering all night is to bake a cake and frost it with mayonnaise colored with his own blood.  When he wakes in the morning to find the cake still there it doesn’t affect his beliefs; the gnomes only eat the inside of the cake and fill the cavity with poisonous gas so he just throws away the leftovers while holding his breath.  If he wears tinfoil on his head, it thwarts the gnomes’ psychic powers.

How are these people different?  They’re not.  They all believe in something without any really good reason to believe it in the first place.  The fact that one set of beliefs might seem less crazy than others doesn’t make them any more worthy of respect.  After all, less crazy is still crazy.  All three of them have settled on their beliefs as good enough to describe the world around them and have therefore given up on any real, intelligent examination of the occurrences in their lives that led them to begin believing these things.

They all think the other two people are crazy and/or wrong and don’t have a problem voicing that opinion.  Yet when someone challenges them on their beliefs they take it personally and claim that they’re being persecuted.  They will all tell you that if you don’t believe as they do, something bad will happen to you either in this life or in some presumed afterlife.  They all want everyone else on the planet to believe them.  Not a single one of them has any actual, tangible, shared experience to back up their beliefs except for personal anecdote and possibly some literature upon which they base their claims.

If Person A cries, “Why can’t you just respect people’s beliefs?” while casting funny looks at Person C and Person C cries, “Why can’t you just respect people’s beliefs?” while calling Person B dumb, why would I be inclined to respect any of them for believing what they do without good reason?  How could any of them expect me to respect their beliefs when they have just as little (or less) evidence as the other two?  Am I supposed to respect that their beliefs are at least not as insane as some other people’s?  I’ve found that it’s more likely the fact that the person just doesn’t want their own beliefs subjected to scrutiny — even though they continue to put those beliefs on display in various ways — and they’re using generalized language so as not to seem too defensive.

Let me clue you in: if you openly believe crazy things, your beliefs will be openly criticized.  If you don’t want to defend them, don’t ever voice them and most importantly don’t force-feed them to children and gullible people.

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