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Thursday, March 23, 2006



1. To feel or show deferential regard for; esteem.
2. To avoid violation of or interference with: respect the speed limit.

"Respect my beliefs". "We should respect other's beliefs". "You can't say that, you should respect their beliefs".

How many times have we heard something similar to the quotes above? Do we really need to respect everyone's beliefs, no matter how unfounded? Do we really need to respect the racist's views on minorities or the homophobe's views on gay marriage or the sexist's views on woman or the religious person's view on your impending eternal damnation?

Of course not.

"Respect my beliefs" has become a catch phrase for people who don't want to tolerate views other than their own. It is a way of stifling opposing viewpoints by implying that people who hold differing opinions from yourself are somehow discriminating against you.

Now let me clarify, I am not suggesting that we start stoning people in the middle of the town square because we don't respect their beliefs. You see, while I in no way feel obligated to respect your beliefs, I will always "respect your RIGHT TO HAVE your beliefs". Let me clarify. You are free to believe in the supernatural deity of your choosing. And while I am in no way obligated to respect your god, I will protect, defend and support your right to believe as you wish.

So let's take a look at our definition again and apply it to our distinction between "respecting your beliefs" and "respecting your right to have your beliefs".

1. To feel or show deferential regard for; esteem.

As noted above, I have no obligation to defer to, show esteem for or view favorably anybody's beliefs. I have a right to disagree with, poke fun at, object to and find repulsive any beliefs that I feel are wrong, unfounded, discriminatory or illogical. But I do support your right to have your beliefs. See the difference? Beliefs themselves are fair game. Your right to have your beliefs is honored without question.

2. To avoid violation of or interference with: respect the speed limit.

I think this is where most of the confusion comes into play. Just what is interference or violation regarding beliefs? Is it even really possible to interfere with beliefs? I suppose some form of brainwashing can forcibly alter your beliefs, but I think that is an extreme case and not what most people mean by interfering with their beliefs.

I think many people equate having a right to their beliefs with having a right to practice (or express) their beliefs and view any restriction on those rights as interference with their right to believe. While I can certainly understand this viewpoint, we generally find it acceptable to place reasonable restrictions on people's rights to practice their beliefs when warranted, especially when the practice of such beliefs could be harmful to others or violates the law. Unless we are willing to allow that everybody has an unlimited right to practice their beliefs regardless of harm or law, it is impossible not to have some interference with practice of belief. But I don't think the various restrictions placed on people's ability to practice their beliefs demonstrate an intent to interfere with their right to believe merely for the sake of violating that right itself, but rather to comply with the law.

Likewise, dissent is not a violation of belief or interference with the right to believe. As noted earlier, I am free to criticize, expose as fraudulent or offer rational alternatives to any belief I disagree with and in doing so I am in no way infringing on the rights of anyone to have those beliefs. If this wasn't the case, if we had to hold our tongue out of respect, then we would never be able to speak out against injustice because we would always be attacking someone else's belief system.

So let's use an example to illustrate the above points. I know many Christians who feel that homosexuality is a sin. They believe homosexuals will not only be punished by God but should also not be allowed some of the various rights that heterosexuals take for granted (marriage, adoption, etc...). As should be obvious by now, I completely respect their right to have their beliefs, no matter how wrong I think they may be. I would love to be able to change their mind, but I in no way want to take away their right to believe that homosexuality is a sin.

But, I do not respect their beliefs about homosexuality. In fact, I think they are wrong. I might even refer to them as homophobes or bigots. And if they wanted to try and convert my friends, I would actively oppose them. But none of my actions would violate their right to believe that homosexuality is a sin. It may make them uncomfortable. It may make them unpopular. It may cause them to lose some friends. But as an atheist, I have only one thing to say to that: welcome to the club baby.

Likewise, if there is a law which states that you can't discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation and it applies to one of my Christian friends, then forcing them to comply with that law is also not a violation of their right to believe. They are free to continue to believe whatever they like about homosexuals, but they are not free to do harm to others by violating a law that protects people from discrimination.

So the next time someone plays the "respect my beliefs" card, you can safely toss it aside, knowing that you have them on the ropes and they are desperately holding on for the bell. You must respect their right to believe. You should probably conduct yourself in a respectful manner. But you do not have to respect their beliefs.


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