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Atheist Meme of the Day: Disagreements Is Not Disrespect

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It is not disrespectful to say that you disagree with someone’s beliefs. And that includes religious beliefs. Taking someone’s belief seriously enough to argue against it is often a sign of respect: respect for their intellectual ability, their strength of character, their ability to change their minds and listen to upsetting ideas. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Comments

  1. Jack Rawlinson says

    Taking someone’s belief seriously enough to argue against it is often a sign of respect

    True. Which is why I rarely bother to argue with believers these days – because I honestly do not respect them. I used to pretend that I did, because that is what people rather mindlessly expect, but I no longer care about that sort of mutually accepted delusion. Life’s too short. Especially at my age.

  2. Kevin Nightingale says

    Right on Jack. I totally agree with Greta but your point hits the nail on the head. I did the same thing I pretended that I respected their beliefs, but if I am honest with myself I cannot respect people who let the man in the sky run their lives.

  3. Kevin Nightingale says

    One other point, is it possible in argument to change the mind of a believer? I have my doubts.

  4. says

    One other point, is it possible in argument to change the mind of a believer?

    Let me put it this way: I’ve had several people tell me that my blog and my writings helped change their minds and helped them de-convert. And my own mind was changed away from religion, in large part, by ideas and arguments from non-believers.
    So yes — it is possible in argument to change the mind of a believer. Probably not in just one conversation — religious beliefs are too deeply ingrained for that, and people are too attached to them. But the cumulative effect of many atheist writings and conversations can have an effect. I mean — rates of non-belief are going up all over the country and all over the world. What else do you think is making that happen, if not for atheistic ideas becoming more widespread, and more people becoming familiar with them?
    If you don’t have the time or energy or disposition for it, that’s fine. But don’t make that decision on the assumption that it never works. Sometimes it does.
    And I have to say, I have a serious problem with an automatic, reflexive disrespect for believers, and the assumption that they’re “mindless.” We can disrespect the beliefs, and still treat the people who hold them as human beings who deserve to be treated with respect.

  5. says

    It is certainly possible to do so. In fact, when I was still religious, my playing more or less devil’s advocate apparently damaged the faith of multiple people. At least one of them later became an out atheist. Oddly, arguing with religious people seems to have less impact now. I suspect that they are more willing to listen to such arguments when they are coming from a religious individual.

  6. Dan M. says

    As hard as she fights them, I think Greta has fallen into one of believers’ traps here. She has conflated respect for the believers as persons and respect for the content of their beliefs.
    Each believer should be given respect until they have lost it individually, but most religions have already earned great contempt.

  7. says

    Dan, I’m not sure where Greta conflated respect for believers and respect for their beliefs. She specifically said that atheists can treat believers with respect even if they don’t respect the beliefs held.
    Furthermore, as a believer, I’m far more likely to listen to what Greta has to say than I am someone who holds no respect for me simply because I hold spiritual beliefs. When you attack believers, we stop listening to you. When you only attack beliefs, you might be able to get us to listen. It certainly gets my attention when I see science invalidating a belief I hold. It means it’s time again to do some reevaluating of my beliefs, something I spend a lot of time doing.

  8. Maria says

    “When you attack believers, we stop listening to you. When you only attack beliefs, you might be able to get us to listen.”
    This is often very hard though, since many belivers are the ones who do not separate these things, and any criticism or questioning of their beliefs IS considered an attack on them. As these people see it Atheists can only show them personal respect by showing respect to their beliefs.

  9. Kevin Nightingale says

    I didn’t actually mean to say that I did not have any respect for believers, just no respect for their belief.

  10. Kevin Nightingale says

    I also have no want to try to make a believer a non-believer. I do not like people trying to make be believe in their god either. No debates or arguments for me, they usually end badly.

  11. Keith says

    I read your follow-up piece on Alternet today and you made many good points. I also value the lack of dissonance in my head (and it shocks me that many intelligent people sustain dissonance in their own heads).
    I’m an older guy, and in my experience religious people get very frightened when death approaches. They’re so worried about what’s going to happen once they die. I can’t understand this. Death seems so natural. And I didn’t mind not existing before I was born, so why would I mind it afterward?
    I do find comfort as an atheist as I consider death. Plus, life could all be a digital game we’re playing from another level of reality. There’s always that!

  12. says

    This is often very hard though, since many belivers are the ones who do not separate these things, and any criticism or questioning of their beliefs IS considered an attack on them. As these people see it Atheists can only show them personal respect by showing respect to their beliefs.

    That’s true. Believers often don’t make the distinction between criticism of beliefs and insulting the people who believe them. But we can still be good about making that distinction — and when we’re accused of doing the latter, we can make it clear that we’re making that distinction. It may not sink in right away — most believers aren’t used to thinking if their beliefs as a hypothesis — but it does sometimes sink in eventually. And in any case, we’ll know that we’re doing the right thing. Virtue is its own reward, and all that.

  13. Maria says

    But we can still be good about making that distinction — and when we’re accused of doing the latter, we can make it clear that we’re making that distinction.
    You’re right, Greta, and I’ve been trying to get better at this. I admit that I sometimes get impatient, and more harsh and blunt than what is probably necessary.

  14. Dan M. says

    Taking someone’s belief seriously enough to argue against it is often a sign of respect: respect for their [character].
    This is the part I felt conflated the belief and the believer. I’m happy to consider that a misreading on my part.
    But as written, it sounds like existing respect for the person holding a belief rubs off onto the belief they currently hold, and I think that’s a mistake.
    I think there’s a third factor that can deserve respect or disrespect, and that’s holding of the belief.
    If you meet, for example, somebody young who’s never escaped a fundamentalist upbringing, and that person shows empathy and interest in exploring other beliefs, but has been lied to enough that they honestly believe, or instance, that science is a matter of faith, you can respect the person, and you can respect that they had no way out of the beliefs that they’re a victim of, without having and respect at all for the content of the beliefs.
    And again, some particular beliefs have earned a great deal of contempt already. If a good Catholic tells you that atheists can’t be moral persons without the outside influence of the Christianity that pervades society, you can respect them for caring about the moral status of the atheist, and you can pity them for having been lied to about religion’s effect on personal morals, but you really should just spit in contempt of the idea that the Christian religion is what makes society capable of morals.
    (And yes, I’ve been told exactly this by a Catholic. I won’t even get into how messed up his personal ethics were.)

  15. Paul says

    Taking someone’s belief seriously enough to argue against it is often a sign of respect: respect for their [character].
    You’re not accurate with [character]. I’ll finish off the quotation: their intellectual ability, their strength of character, their ability to change their minds and listen to upsetting ideas.
    The point Greta is making is that arguing against someone is, by its very nature, showing that you respect their intellectual ability to argue in good faith, their strength of character to possibly change their opinions in the face of contrary evidence, and their capacity to listen to things contrary to what they currently believe. There’s nothing in there about respecting the belief currently being held, and I think you’re just projecting your pet peeve onto Greta’s post (even if it’s not intentional, your creative summation of the statement you quoted might have been a mental shortcut on an unconscious level I suppose).

  16. Dan M. says

    Hm, I meant to use ‘character’ simply as a shorthand for the larger quote and I don’t disagree at all with your restatement of it.
    Really, the important part of my quote was just “Taking someone’s belief seriously”. That word “belief” is critical, because English has no short way to distinguish (1) “belief” in the sense of an instance of doing the action believing and (2) “belief” in the sense of the content of what is believed.
    I’m not disagreeing with Greta’s point, but I think she’s making a mistake is using “belief” in this part of her comment to mean (1), which is I’m sure what she means, because a reader can instead take it to mean (2).
    If she meant (2), it would contradict her point. That’s why I assume she means (1), but it substantially weakens her rhetoric, even if it doesn’t change a good-faith reading.
    (As for the suggestion that I’m projecting, that seems to be the wrong description. I’m applying my experience to inform my opinion. Isn’t that a good thing?)

  17. Paul says

    As for the suggestion that I’m projecting, that seems to be the wrong description. I’m applying my experience to inform my opinion. Isn’t that a good thing?

    Those aren’t wholly contradictory states of mind. The idea I was playing with is that your experience is with people conflating respect for a person with respect for their belief, and thus when coming across someone discussing the issue you might use the view encountered in past history as a default, projecting that history into the argument when it is not necessarily what the person is trying to say. I don’t mean to go overboard psychoanalyzing or anything, but it is something I have noted myself doing in the past.
    I actually don’t get why you say that (2) contradicts her point. In order to properly argue against something (rather than simply satirize, mock, or parody it) one must take it seriously. If you are arguing against someone’s belief, you are taking it seriously. And taking it seriously in that manner shows respect for the person (or that you have too much time on your hands, but it’s definitely not disrespect), but not the belief.
    I think the difference between us is you are conflating “taking their belief seriously” and “respecting their character”, finding it an admonition to “respect their belief”. But while taking their belief seriously does imply respecting their character (insofar as you’re assuming they were reasoned into the position, or not arguing in bad faith), it does not work the other way around. Respecting their character does not mean you take the content of their belief seriously, nor even their action of believing.
    Sorry for breaking the comment thread with an unclosed tag!

  18. Paul says

    The end of my last paragraph was a bit sloppy and incoherent. I think I should probably bow out at this point, too many other things occupying my attention!
    I meant to point out that respecting their character is not respecting their belief (definition 1 or 2).

  19. Dan M. says

    Paul,
    I’m not sure we’re not talking past each other. I don’t think I disagree with you at all.
    All I’m saying is that Greta’s original wording could be misinterpreted, if read ungenerously. And given the expected audience, it’d be better to avoid that.

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