My previous post, in which I addressed the common appeal to “the sacred” that is often made either in defense of blasphemy laws, or as a means to dismiss criticism of religion, was not addressed to those who might employ this argument as a cover for their own machinations, but rather to the well meaning liberal, who confuses tolerance of people with tolerance of ideas or beliefs.
In our culture we are often admonished to respect the beliefs of others, but rarely do we reflect upon what this “respect” actually entails. Is it at all productive or defensible, either ethically or intellectually, to respect false beliefs, especially if these beliefs are dangerous? Isn’t the ethical imperative quite the opposite? Are we not morally bound to attempt to disabuse the believer of his falsehood, particularly if it consists of a violent delusion? I believe that our commitment to respect needs to be reformulated. We are in no way bound to respect anyone’s beliefs, especially if they are not attended with evidence. Rather we are only bound to respect the believer’s right to believe. Intelligent design, Holocaust denial, and the theories found on “Ancient Aliens” are completely undeserving of our respect, and we are normally unashamed to say so. In fact, our utter disrespect for this nonsense usually extends beyond the claims themselves to whoever is making them. A confrontation with this species of crackpot requires neither courage nor much thought. We are all experts when it comes to rejecting ill conceived theories when they exist safely outside of the mainstream or when their proponents are ostensibly vile racists and fascists. We are not so courageous, I’m afraid, when we face implausible claims that are held by completely sane (at least by most definitions) people in large numbers – the kind of people, we are told, that we are bound to respect.
Upon closer examination, we can see that the criteria that determines which beliefs are deserving of “respect” and which are not often rely upon the prejudices of custom and broad acceptance, the foundations of what we call “mainstream” , rather than reason. I will provide an example to illustrate my point.
Stimulate a group of generally “respectful” liberal intellectuals on the subject of Mormonism and suddenly you will find yourself in whirlwind of well-founded disrespect. They will remind you of the implausibility of the occurrence of a revelation in upstate New York, Joseph’s Smith charlatanism, the supposed existence of the Garden of Eden somewhere in Missouri held to be fact by the faithful, and so on. Amongst themselves at least, most liberals are pretty honest about what Mormonism is – a documented fraud – and they won’t hesitate to have a laugh at it.
If you find yourself laughing it up at the expense of the Mormons with your liberal friends, you might consider performing the following experiment. Remind your mirthful liberals that there is no logical or scientific reason why a divine revelation is any more likely in ancient Palestine or the Arabian peninsula than it is upstate New York. After all it is only through the legacy of the Abrahamic religions, and the contingencies of history that put them at the for front of the collective conscience of a huge portion of the human race, that we consider the Middle East to be the “land of the great faiths.” You could remind your friends that, as the miraculous claims made by the Bible and the Koran, such as resurrection and human flight (without the assistance of helicopter, airplane, or any other flying machine) require a complete suspension of the laws of nature, the claims made by the world’s “great faith’s” aren’t all that more plausible than the ravings of Joseph Smith. And you might remind them that the fact that Smith’s assertions were largely greeted with incredulity in the 19th century, a time of relative literacy and skepticism, should encourage us to look back upon those miracles and divinely inspired events that occurred during the superstitious stupor of antiquity with a greater sense of doubt.
Watch as the laughing stops.
You will likely be told in response (probably rather dismissively) that the two situations are not analogous. After all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been around for thousands of years, billions of people around the world adhere to them, and as global religions they encompass numerous longstanding cultures and traditions. Take notice of the rhetorical move that has just been made. The emphasis has been reoriented away from the assertions about the world that these particular faiths put forth, such as exclusive claims to truth, the existence of miracles and divine revelation (all of which, if you remember, served as the justification for subjecting Mormonism to such ridicule) to facts about the Abrahamic religions that are utterly irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the assertions being made. Clearly, to hold greater regard for a belief because it is believed by billions of people rather than a few million is a species of the argumentum ad populum (a fallacy that appeals to popular belief rather than evidence), to respect it due its longevity is to affirm the prejudice of custom, to appeal to the intellectual or artistic tradition associated with a particular belief is to confuse a judgement of the understanding (our judgement concerning an external, knowable reality) with an aesthetic judgement.
As far as their truth or falsity are concerned, the claims of the Abrahamic faiths do little better than Mormonism. Are we not justified, then, in proportioning our “respect” for these beliefs in relation to their plausibility? But this undertaking requires something that is in short supply. Courage. In a culture that consistently evokes the confusion that it is beliefs, rather than human beings, who are deserving of respect, intellectual honesty not only entails bringing the self-righteous disdain of the “mainstream,” but also transforming friends into enemies, potentially alienating not only the most venial, but also the genuinely sincere and goodhearted. Afterall, since these beliefs are widely held, you’re likely to hurt the sentiments of some good people along the way. It means that your enemies will feel justified in imputing all manner of views and positions unto you, political or otherwise. In the case of Sam Harris, it even means being labeled a “racist.”
The courage to think is the courage to be hated.