Greta Christina has her take on this one, and its one of the few times I completely disagree with her. Now, if she was just talking about atheists having the right to disagree politely, or about having the right to protest religion where it actively harms them or others, it would be a different matter, but she was specifically responding to the idea among progressive, ecumenical and spiritual-but-not-religious people that everyone should be respectful of everyone else’s religious beliefs, just like they should be respectful of orientation, ethnicity and any other aspect of one’s private identity. She thinks that idea is nonsense. I think its common courtesy.
I’ve observed that when atheists converse with others about religion, their focus tends to be on actively disagreeing, saying “I think you’re wrong because of A, B and C,” which is a fine response if both people want to debate. That’s not what religious people typically want to do when they express their beliefs. They want to find points of connection. Its just like describing their family history, or their politics, or their favorite foods. “Do you agree with me? If not, do you disagree in a respectful way, or are you going to make me feel demeaned?” Ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people share their beliefs with a pattern of “I believe X, Y and Z,” “Oh, I see. Personally I think D, E and F.” Neither of them has to say “I disagree with you.” That’s obvious from the fact that neither one said, “yes, I think you’re exactly right.” Its just that the pattern of I-state-my-thoughts-then-you-state-yours helps both people avoid being insulting towards the other. There’s no reason atheists can’t respond in the same fashion. I do it all the time. Someone says, “I believe in destiny. I look at all the little things that brought me to where I am today, and I think there must have been a purpose to it all.” I say, “Personally I think life is what we make of it. I think things happen to us, both good and bad, and we do the best with what we’ve got.” Then we move on to a topic we do agree on, such as how awesome Firefly is.
I can think of at least five reasons why respect is better.
1. Empathy is good. You might not like a particular religious belief, but you aren’t talking to the personification of that belief. You are talking to a person. You know, one with feelings. Respecting those feelings is just part of acknowledging them as a person.
2. Alienating people without good cause is not a good idea. There are plenty of awesome people who are well worth having in your life, who just happen to have religious or spiritual beliefs. In my own life this includes my best friend from when I was a kid, the family I’m staying with while my parents adjust to the trans thing, my favorite teacher, my second favorite teacher, my gender therapist, and several of my classmates. If I wasn’t respectful of their beliefs, they would still be in my life, but it would be a different relationship. They wouldn’t feel as comfortable with me, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable with them and we wouldn’t be as close. That would suck, both in a sentimental sense and a practical “its really good that me and my therapist have a great rapport despite her belief in psychics and my well-beyond-skepticism of them.”
3. Unless someone’s beliefs aren’t directly harming me, or other people I care about, they really aren’t any of my business. Belief is complex. Its influenced by family, ethnicity, personal experiences, what a person genuinely thinks to be plausible, what a person currently needs to believe to get up in the morning, etc, etc. Its private. Its personal. Its not my job to police other people’s minds or decide whether a person would be better off as a progressive Christian or an atheist.
4. I like the person I am when I’m being respectful better than the one I am when I’m not being respectful. I’ve had plenty of the “I’m right and you’re wrong and I get to tell you why you’re wrong” approach from when I was a Christian. In order to be respectful now, I have to suspend judgment and think of things from the point of view of others. I like being that person.
5. Being disrespectful isn’t actually all that conducive to a good exchange of ideas, shockingly enough. Ideas flow much more freely when people feel they won’t be judged for them. There are more ideas that can be found in a discussion on religion than just arguments and counterarguments. There is information about culture, history, ethics, and the individual’s personality, for example. Its also easier for me to share things like why the idea of no god or afterlife doesn’t utterly terrify and depress me. That’s what ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people mean when they talk about religions as a rich tapestry of perspectives. Sure, some of them probably literally think that all religions have some literal truth to them, but that’s just another area where I can state my views, politely. “I think when it comes to statements like the number of gods or the existence of an afterlife, not everyone can be right, but when it comes to ethics and philosophy all religions have something interesting to say.” I like being able to hear those interesting things without insulting the person or agreeing with them.
Its not that atheists should never be allowed to criticize beliefs or explain why they disagree with supernatural explanations of the world. What qualifies as respectful or not does depend on context. In particular, the rules for online and in-person communication are completely different. I have met atheists who don’t seem sensitive of that difference, and criticize people’s beliefs just as harshly at a family gathering as they would on an anonymous forum. Expecting atheists to show some sensitivity to private beliefs of others isn’t some suppression of non-religious viewpoints. Its just asking for basic courtesy.