Respect for Superstition?
Last week I posted to Twitter a comment which I thought was rather innocuous and self explanatory, but which received a rather large backlash from strangers. The comment was:
Of the many comments I received over this Tweet, one thing was completely clear. Those who demand respect for their beliefs cannot give you a reason why you should, and if they do, it always boils down to respect of an individual. The Tweet states it clearly that I respect people’s right to worship however and whatever they choose, to believe in whatever they want, but there is no guarantee that I will respect the things people choose to believe. The core of the matter is, as many claim, “You are what you believe.”
This is a belief in itself, but a false one, from any standpoint. Beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, are placed in the minds of people while either young or vulnerable, and they have a tenacious nature which can explain away anything that counters it. When I say “I don’t have to respect your beliefs”, the believer hears it as “I don’t have to respect you.” And of course I don’t have to do that either, I choose to.
Take, for example, a belief-set that states that any person who works on a Sunday should be put to death. There are not many in this day and age who would uphold this belief, and there are even fewer who would single this belief out as a thing to be respected. We have progressed as a society much further than these stone-age doctrines, and as we progress, many of the Old Testament beliefs fall by the wayside as they are deemed to be either unfit for today’s society, silly or just plain barbaric. Beliefs of this kind, like any social phenomenon, change over time as we progress. But beliefs also change within a person over time, as new information comes to light.
Your beliefs and superstitions represent only a small part of who you are. For many, the beliefs are so deeply entrenched in their upbringing that it seems as though it is the core of their make-up. Not so. An example of this may be a religious belief that marriage, as defined by the bible, should only ever take place between a man and a woman. This belief, though coming from deeply held religious beliefs, is nothing more than a reinforcement of a prejudice that a person has been taught, and says nothing of what a person is. Many who believe this, when explained the facts about life and love, will agree that love between two people is a beautiful thing, but will maintain the doctrine because it’s what they believe their god wants. But beneath all this, beneath the tithing and the penance, the asking for forgiveness and the guilt of being human as taught by religions, the person is still human, and still deserves respect, at least from the outset.
Underneath all the layers of belief as imposed by age-old doctrines lies a living breathing human being. Humanism dictates that it is this, and not the person’s beliefs that we should respect. But of course, respect, easily gained from the outset, is just as easily destroyed by the actions of a person.
Religious beliefs and superstitions have much in common. In fact, many religious beliefs are superstitions, wrapped up in a “sacred” label so as to give them weight and moral authority. Superstitions, most would suggest, are simply there to make us feel better about situations, and as ritual triggers to prepare a person for an outcome. A superstition like touching wood when hoping for a good outcome, throwing salt over your shoulder to ward off potential bad situations, or crossing your fingers, are small rituals we use to help us feel like we are in control of a situation, and that by doing this, we give ourselves a better chance at success. In religion, prayer is a superstition that many hold in much higher esteem than the common secular superstitions, and it serves the same purpose, but with one major difference; Instead of making us feel like we can somehow alter our own luck, prayer serves to hand over the responsibility to an imaginary “higher authority”, one that makes our luck for us (only they are called blessings), and punishes us if we ignore that authority.
This is not to say that I am above superstitions, in fact I sometimes find myself knocking on wood, crossing my fingers or throwing salt over my shoulder, but these are mere habits, and no more than a vestige of a once-held belief. For me the superstition is not a belief, but a habit, and I would hazard a guess that for many, any set of religious beliefs fall into the category of habit also.
Why do people get so upset when I tell them I don’t respect their beliefs?
If a person tells you that they believe the world is flat, would you respect that belief? Clearly not, as empirical evidence supports the opposite claim, that the world is in fact an oblique spheroid circumnavigating the sun. What if a person told you that they believe they have been abducted by aliens, and in fact have an alien stored in their garage? Given the unknowns of the situation, it would be better to be cautious of such a claim until evidence can be provided of the existence of this alien, but up to this point it is not something worthy of respect. What if someone tells you that they believe that they speak to Jesus every night, and that he talks back? This belief is often and automatically given a “free pass”, because questioning this kind of belief, if proven false, would cause worlds of embarrassment for billions of people worldwide. As soon as a belief is given the backing of a huge mega-corporation built on the doctrines of superstition, suddenly we have a problem.
Imagine instead that a person tells you that they speak every night to David Beckham via telepathy, and that he answers them. Would you respect that? Doubtful, and yet it is just one step away from the religious claims made by those who pray. The belief is laughable, and to respect that automatically belies the nature of respect. It becomes humouring, and nothing more.
There’s an adage I see thrown around a lot by atheists and humanists: “Respect the believer, not the belief.” This is advice that holds true most of the time, but sometimes rather than being simply tacked onto a person’s identity, beliefs can reveal much more about someone at a deeper level. For instance, the idea that a man must stone his child to death for being raped (a cultural belief backed by religious fervour) shows more about the nature of a person than simply a superstition. It shows a deep seeded disregard for others and an innately selfish nature, which if allowed within the confines of a culture or religion, will flourish. Beliefs of this nature do not deserve any kind of respect and should be treated with a combination of disdain and disgust. In this case, the believer loses respect also, as they have proven unworthy of it.
The nature of religious belief, as opposed to simple superstitious belief, is that it is within the doctrines of religious belief to spread the word of the religion. Unlike personal superstitions, which remain within a person and are enacted often unconsciously, religious beliefs are actively seeking to change the minds of those who don’t believe. This is how religions gain a foothold in societies, as a self-perpetuating belief system.
The crux of the matter is this. Any belief, if held privately, in an nondestructive and passive way is fine with me. In many cases, delusion is sad, but for the most part it is harmless. However, if a belief causes harm to anyone, either actively, as in the case of the man stoning his daughter, or passively, by the votes of right-wing Christians on banning gay marriage, the belief is worthy of condemnation. All beliefs should be held up to this kind of scrutiny, and weighed upon its merits. Respect in this case, is unjustified.
At a humanist level, I stand by what I said. From the outset, I respect you, your rights to your space, and your right to believe whatever it is you want to believe. There is no guarantee however that I will respect your beliefs. If your beliefs are harmful to others, you lose my respect. Don’t mistake my respect for your right to believe as an endorsement of your beliefs.