Diss Belief Dept.


What with two major religious holidays in this country falling on top of each other this weekend, I hearkened back to something from a couple of years back (2007) about one avowed atheist's position:

Oliver Kamm: Religious tests and public office

I was mildly interested that the new Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, professed his own unbelief this week in answer to a direct question. But I was incredulous that he appended it with the pragmatic observation that he had "enormous respect for people who have religious faith". I haven't. Why should a personal belief about first and last things merit any respect at all? The task of democratic politics is to defend freedom of thought on religious matters, not to take a stand on the content of that thought.

Emphasis mine. Kamm is not shy about his atheism, and doubly unshy about insisting that one of the consequences of that atheism is not automatically granting any expression of faith a pass just because it happens to be an expression of faith. This has inspired a good deal of incoherent and illiterate hate mail aimed at him, but the more I think about the issue, the more I realize how easy it is to misconstrue this particular teapot's tempest.

When most people say "respect", I think the proper term they are fishing for (and missing) is tolerance, which is not at all the same thing. Respect for a position implies that you give it credence and deference, and it's manifestly impossible to do that for all the different varieties of religious experience at the same time.

I suppose if people do think this possible, they only do so in the generic sense that all of these things are attempts on the part of individuals to know the ineffable in their life, and that such a thing deserves a tip of the hat. Not at all a controversial point of view, but again, one orthogonal to the main idea. Equal protection under the law for religious expression (as long as the swing of your fist doesn't meet my nose) is all that ought to matter in civil society.

Tolerance is what that is all about. It means you let someone else worship, or not, in their own way, provided they don't get in the way of your doing the same (or not doing same). The fact that they do it is not by itself praiseworthy; in fact, it's irrelevant.

I know this swings both ways, and I'm fine with it. I don't expect everyone to fall down at my feet with fumbling obeisance if I tell them about my interest in Zen Buddhism. If they think I'm wasting my time sitting and staring at a wall for half an hour a day, let them. Nowhere am I commanded to satisfy anyone with this except myself, which is really how it ought to be anyway, since it means my interest in such things is driven by my own directives, and not by the need to win accolades.

I suspect if you dig far enough into this with most people, you get some expression of the fly-blown idea that it's rare for people today to commit themselves strongly to an ideal, and how that's a good thing, or something of that nature. This argument gets no less lame every time I hear. it. Feeling strongly about something isn't reason alone to be congratulated for having that feeling. And again, as Kamm pointed out, the depth of the feeling doesn't mean what they believe is worthy of respect as opposed to tolerance.

Let me add that none of this should be construed as an argument in favor of the Richard Dawkins school of atheism, where the daily expressions of other people's beliefs are a target for outspoken contempt. That's a waste of energy, the sort of thing executed for no other reason than to garner succor from one's like-minded cronies, and downright childish besides. But I'm with Kamm in that I don't automatically consider the presence of faith in a person to be worthy of accolades, and I'd further add that most of the furor over taking such a stance seems silly in the year 2015. It's fine if someone has it as long as they aren't using it as a club to beat me; it's also fine if their urge to do good in the world is informed by such belief.

Let me also add that because the presence of faith isn't automatically praiseworthy, it should also not automatically be worthy of insult or derision. Many of my friends celebrated both Passover and Easter this weekend, and I wish all of them well, and am grateful they are by and large free to observe as they do, elbow to elbow, without violence visited on them.


Tags: atheism belief Oliver Kamm philosophy religion




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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Uncategorized / General, published on April 5, 2015 12:11 PM.

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