Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the “rapture letters”. Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.
It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.
In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.
Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don’t explicitly and openly declare it.
Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.
I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?
All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.
Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.
While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.
POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)
UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.
I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25′s Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.
The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.