Religions are entitled to tolerance, but not to respect

In the ongoing row over a film clip denigrating Islam the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union have issued a joint statement that includes:

We … want to send a message today of peace and tolerance. We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. […] While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.

We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion […] The only answer to the darkness of intolerance and ignorance is the light of mutual respect, tolerance and dialogue.

Notice how the wording repeatedly switches between “respect” and “tolerance” as though they were part of the same package and both equally necessary. Yet, the words are quite different, both in meaning and in their status as something that can be legitimately demanded.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary makes this clear:

“Tolerate”: “(1) allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference. (2) endure (someone or something unpleasant) with forbearance”.

Contrast this with:

“Respect”: (1) “feeling of deep admiration for someone (or something) elicited by their qualities or achievements.”

Far from “respect” and “tolerance” being part of the same package, one can only genuinely tolerate something that one does not respect.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was as bad as the EU High Representative, saying:

The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.

Yet merely “denigrating” someone else’s beliefs is entirely compatible with religious tolerance! Indeed the very 1st Amendment that guarantees religious freedom also guarantees the freedom to denigrate the ideas of others. That is what free speech means; in the same way that tolerance is only necessary for things that you disrespect, free-speech protection is only needed for speech that someone dislikes.

To be “intolerant” is to seek to prohibit something by legal sanction, or by violence or threats of violence, or by punishments or threats of punishment. To be “disrespectful” is merely to voice an opinion on something’s worth, and, by the basic principles of free speech, we are all entitled to do that.

And can we also be clear on the difference between respecting your right to hold and practice your religion (which we should) and respecting your religion (which is entirely optional)?

Why are we expected to “respect” religions? We are not expected to respect fascism or communist ideology; we are required to tolerate the BNP standing for election but we are not required to respect them or their ideas. Respect should be earned, it is optional, we can and should decide for ourselves what we respect.

Richard Dawkins is an example of someone who is often accused of “intolerance” when, no, he is merely being disrespectful. I remember arguing with a Christian who burst out, aghast and incredulously: “You surely cannot be claiming that Dawkins is a model of tolerance?”.

But yes I am, Dawkins is indeed a model of how to disagree vehemently and yet be entirely tolerant: he has only ever sought to persuade, he has never called for or participated in violence against the religious, nor sought legal prohibitions against being religious (if you disagree you are likely listening to misrepresentations by Dawkins’s critics, rather than to anything he has actually said).

For example, Councillor Raymond Farrell of the Ulster Unionist Party writes in the Belfast Newsletter, objecting to Dawkins calling Young Earth Creationists “intellectual baboons”:

The intolerance shown to the Christian convictions of many throughout the world is highlighted once again by the like of Professor Dawkins, who belittles those who hold to Biblical convictions.

Yes, calling someone an “intellectual baboon” is belittling and disrespectful, but, no, it is not intolerant.

When the Scottish Football Association sacked Hugh Dallas, its head of referees, for passing on a joke about the Pope, Dawkins was highly critical of the Catholic Church for calling for the sacking.

The head of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, Peter Kearney, responded: “Dawkins demonstrates again that his intolerance knows no bounds”, yet the irony was that Kearney was the only one who was being intolerant, in demanding that Dallas be sacked.

But the meme of Dawkins’s supposed “intolerance” is widespread. In an interview with The Independent newspaper Dawkins was asked: “What is there to distinguish your intolerance from that of a religious fanatic?”. His reply is worth repeating:

It would be intolerant if I advocated the banning of religion, but of course I never have. I merely give robust expression to views about the cosmos and morality with which you happen to disagree. You interpret that as `intolerance’ because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, which expects to get a free ride and not have to defend itself. If I wrote a book called The Socialist Delusion or The Monetarist Delusion, you would never use a word like intolerance. But The God Delusion sounds automatically intolerant. Why? What’s the difference? I have a (you might say fanatical) desire for people to use their own minds and make their own choices, based upon publicly available evidence. Religious fanatics want people to switch off their own minds, ignore the evidence, and blindly follow a holy book based upon private ‘revelation’. There is a huge difference.

So why do the religious so willfully conflate disrespect with intolerance? It is often an attempt to play the victim card, to paint themselves as the victims of intolerance (a legitimate complaint) rather than as victims of disrespect (aw diddums). When an atheist robustly criticises religion they can meet a feign-shocked “But surely you accept our right to hold our views?”, where by asking the question the believer tries to imply that the atheist has called this into question. And yet, no matter how stridently you criticised an opposing political party, you would not be taken as implying that voters had no right to vote for them.

So can we please keep the difference between “tolerance” and “respect” clear? Yes, religious beliefs should be tolerated, and, yes, religious practice should be tolerated (provided only that it complies with the usual civil law), but, no, we are under no obligation to respect religions or religious beliefs.

Indeed, I’d go further. The only way of ensuring that institutions serve society well is by ensuring that they are subject to robust and ongoing criticism. We accept this with politics, where a free and critical media (including a long and honourable tradition of ridicule by satirical cartoons), and ongoing criticism of politicians by the populace, are necessary to ensure that political parties serve our interests. Any institution that is immune from such a process will become corrupt and serve only its own interests.

For example, the widespread abuse of children by the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the systematic coverup of this abuse, could only have occurred in a society where the Catholic Church was so revered as to be beyond criticism. Since religions are powerful and influential in society we have a moral duty to subject them to scrutiny and to vocally disrespect them as and when we feel that is appropriate.

The disrespectful blasphemers (those saying something that a Church, Mosque or Temple does not want them to say) are a necessary and laudable part of a free society. So it is no surprise that some religions want to outlaw disrespect.

h/t: Michael Nugent: Absurd and dangerous: European Union and Islamic States jointly say it is important to respect all religious prophets


5 thoughts on “Religions are entitled to tolerance, but not to respect

  1. Neil Rickert

    Yes, you have made a very important distinction. It’s a pity that some folk miss that distinction.

    I tolerate religion, though at times that can be hard. I have no respect for it.

    I respect the right of people to hold to a religion. I might not respect their choice, but I do respect their right to make that choice. Most important of all, I respect a right to free speech, even when I might despise the actual speech. Public criticism of religion, even blasphemy, should be seen as resulting from acts of free speech.

  2. cabbagesofdoom

    An important distinction worth reminding people about – when laid out so starkly, it is quite shocking that the EU could make such a mistake.

    I wonder how much of the problem actually stems from the complexity of this statement: “Yes, religious beliefs should be tolerated, and, yes, religious practice should be tolerated (provided only that it complies with the usual civil law)…”

    I think that (religious) people often conflate refusal to tolerate certain religious practices with refusal to tolerate religious belief, for they often see them as one and the same. So, the fact that Creationism is not tolerated in a science class is interpreted as a lack of tolerance for the religious belief behind it, whereas really (as you point out) it is the result of a lack of *respect* for that belief.

  3. Pingback: Britain needs to value free speech | coelsblog

  4. John O'Connor

    Using the definition given in the above coelsblog article:

    “To be “intolerant” is to seek to prohibit something by LEGAL SANCTION, or by violence or threats of violence, or by PUNISHMENT OR THREATS OF PUNISHMENT” (emphasis mine).

    The teaching creationism, as a valid alternative to evolutionism, has just been banned in UK schools BY LAW, and with THREATS OF PUNISHMENT. This hardly counts as a mere ‘lack of respect’ for the creationist’ belief. You are therefore completely wrong, cabagesofdoom.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi John,
      Cabbagesofdoom is actually entirely right. What is not tolerated is the teaching of creationism as a valid alternative to science in science classes in UK schools (and quite right to). That is not intolerance of the belief itself, since people are entitled to be creationists if they wish to be.

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