January 20, 2006

Religion and respect

Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the "rapture letters". Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.

It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.

In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.

Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don't explicitly and openly declare it.

Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.

I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?

All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.

Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.

While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.

POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)

UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.

The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.


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I think it's also worth noting, though, that even if these religious traditions all consider themselves universally special, some religious people do not consider their religion to be universally special, but only special to them, while other people may be better suited to other beliefs and practices, and that uniformity of religion is not necessarily what their god wants.

Posted by Paul Jarc on January 20, 2006 01:04 PM

Give 'em hell, Mano. Er, or whatever you were planning to do. Can't wait to see it.


Posted by catherine on January 20, 2006 01:19 PM

There are also religions that, while they set up a framework for how the supernatural world works (ie karma in Hinduism), they do not believe that their practitioners are superior. Everyone operates under the same rules. If Hindus have an advantage, it is only in knowing what the rules are (though in practice very few have taken the time to study them).

Posted by Shruti on January 20, 2006 05:22 PM

Shruti makes an important point about a crucial difference between Hinduism (and I am guessing Buddhism as well) and religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, with their concepts of being somehow a "chosen" people.

In my earlier series of postings on the four stages of life as described by Hinduism, it seemed to me that the philosophy underlying Hinduism had a refreshing broadness of view that did not seem to worry too much about whether you were a professed Hindu or not, although Hindu religious fanatics (like all religious fanatics) do care.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 20, 2006 05:36 PM


I was waiting on the phone to ask a blog question when you were on NPR with George N. unfortunately we all ran out of time. But I was so interested in what you were saying that I did not mind being on hold at all.

I will definitely put aside my study tonight to watch you I think it is worth it.

As far as religion is concern I agree with your comments. I have always found the conceipt of The Chosen people objectional. I was raised Catholic and listen to much indoctrination regarding how much better we were than all the other Christian and non-Christian religions, that it created a real doubt in my young mind as to the integrity of these dogmas. I gave up on organized religion when I was 11 years old, and although I believe in my own God, it is a very private matter and as such, he and I are not members of any congregation and not quite ready to join one soon.

Posted by Daniella on January 20, 2006 07:18 PM

"I contend we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours" — Stephen Roberts

Posted by Colin Slater on January 21, 2006 02:35 PM

Another thought on why people might be offended about people using their religious symbols for non-intended purposes. I do feel offended when I see this sort of thing with my religious symbols. I see people with an "Om" tattooed on their arms at the gym and wonder if they have any idea what it is that they put there, or if it's just a cool pattern to them. I would guess the latter, although in this case I could very well be wrong. I can't really put my finger on why it annoys me ... I don't feel threatened, exactly ... but I think most people would be annoyed if someone took a symbol that was important to them and used it casually in some unrelated way without (apparently) even bothering to understand why it is important. Maybe it's just the dissonance of seeing a symbol like that in the wrong context?

Posted by Shruti on January 23, 2006 12:53 PM


I think that such things give us all (religious or not) pause because we are used to treating such symbols as sacred and to be treated with veneration. But when some people seemingly desecrate them, all it means is that they are seeking to make a point or are ignorant that their actions are giving unease to others. It shouldn't change your relationship to the symbol.

But however upsetting it might be, the only rational response to such seemingly inappropriate use of symbols is to ignore it. Otherwise one starts getting into battles over symbols, like the flag burning issue, and eventually into restrictions on speech.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 23, 2006 02:04 PM

Good observation that all religions are disrespectful of other ones. There is a Jesus in the bible I read, who I find to be radically different than the one I hear about from what I call "churchianity". This Jesus is on one hand forgiving and loving, but on the other hand very intolerant, narrow minded, and politically incorrect. He says the only way into heaven is through Him. Think about it for a minute though, for a God who really is GOD, is a statement like that so hard to believe? A God who is all knowing, all powerful and present everywhere at all times can and should make some pretty bold statements that reflect that, well, he's God.....cheers~D

Posted by Dave on January 23, 2006 04:22 PM