On Monday, Simon Blackburn presented his paper, “Religion and Respect,” to the Law and Philosophy Workshop. This paper explores the nature of respect and its boundaries, particularly when one is confronted with false beliefs or other beliefs that one does not share. Blackburn does not get into the political implications of his theory in this paper, but it should surprise no one that his views on the subject are that religion should not have a special place in the political sphere.
Blackburn, an avowed atheist, begins with an anecdote from a time in his life when his feelings on religion were close to those of Richard Dawkins. As will be mentioned below, he has since admitted some admiration and respect for certain human achievements that have religious origins, though his respect for them is not based on this feature of their etiologies. Blackburn was invited to dine at the home of a Jewish colleague on a Friday night. This colleague had never made it clear to Blackburn that he was observant, or that this dinner would have a religious element. When asked to participate in the ceremonial aspects of this Shabbat celebration, “put on a hat, or some such,” he felt uncomfortable. He did not want participate in the religious ceremony because he did not want to express beliefs or feelings that he did not himself possess. These include beliefs about the existence of God and what He requires as well as special feelings of community based on these beliefs being shared. He was told that the only significance of his participation would be a showing of respect for his host’s beliefs. His reply was that this too was unacceptable and he could not participate.
This event made Blackburn question what exactly is meant when people say that we should respect other people’s beliefs even if we do not share them or find them to be bizarre. His analysis begins with a description of what he calls “respect creep.” There are many different ways of treating a person that might be called “respect.” Sometimes when we talk about respect we really just mean toleration, but other times we mean something closer to admiration and deference. Respect creep trades on this ambiguity. A person or group will request respect in the thin, toleration sense and this will eventually turn into a demand for deference and reverence.
For Blackburn, we can tolerate people who hold false beliefs and we can tolerate the fact that they hold them, in this sense we respect them. However, we cannot respect these false beliefs in any broader sense and if we respect those who hold them, it is despite their beliefs, not in virtue of them. Blackburn asserts both that it is not the case that any belief is as good as any other belief and that those who claim this do not really mean it. He points out that in going about our lives we clearly do not feel this way. “If high tide is at midday, the tide-table that says that it is at midday is better than the one that says it is six o’clock, and thereby puts you on the rocks.” One might argue that religious beliefs are nothing like beliefs about the tide, that they do not have truth values in the same way. However, this is not the view of religion that he is addressing at this point in the paper. Here, he is talking about beliefs in the ordinary sense, as possessing truth values, though we might not have a good test of their truth or falsity. In this way, beliefs about the existence of God are much like beliefs about the state of mind of a particular person, long dead, at a particular point in time. There is a fact of the matter, but we do not have a test for determining it.
An objection anticipated by Blackburn is that people might respect the sincerity with which religious beliefs are held, without respecting the beliefs themselves. His example here is Tony Blair, who has been commended by some for his steadfast belief in the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Blackburn holds that this type of obstinacy in the face of overwhelming evidence is not admirable, but in fact dangerous. Additionally, he states that there is evidence to think that this is not sincerity at all, but actually masked doubt. Or, more pessimistically, this behavior can be seen as a “dereliction of cognitive duty, or a crime against the ethics of belief, and hence, eventually, a crime against humanity.” More on this view can be found in W.K. Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief.” Blackburn did say in the workshop that sincerity is preferable to insincerity, that there is something really disgusting about a parade of affected religiosity, but this is not the same as having respect for sincerity itself.
Blackburn’s next move is to attack the concepts of “equal concern and respect.” He argues that we throw these concepts around, but at the same time, we do not really mean them. There are certain qualities, the possessors of which are more worthy of respect. He specifically mentions skill, ability, judgment and experience. When we recognize these qualities in another we are more likely to respect her. Additionally, our responses to those who hold false beliefs are not equal. When we see that someone has made an understandable mistake our response is not as negative as when we see that someone has made a grave one. One example of this is the contagion of belief. Blackburn’s response to a member of a majority or established religion is not the same as his response to a cult member. It is excusable to believe in something that one has been told since childhood or something that the majority of accessible people assert to be the truth, but it is not excusable, as he wrote, “to acquiesce in your own deception.” Blackburn clarified in the workshop that he does not think there are any beliefs that are so ridiculous that those who hold them are unworthy of respect simply because they hold them. It has more to do with how a person came to his beliefs than their actual content.
A lot of workshop participants had questions about how much work the falsity of religious beliefs were doing for Blackburn. One question was related to whether a false belief could be respected if it was recognized as the best belief to have in a given situation, such as a delusion that one’s unfaithful spouse was actually faithful when acceptance of reality would have numerous bad effects on the believer and others. Blackburn responded that this would elicit pity, more than respect. Additionally, in his view, infidelity to truth is a bad habit and one should not be allowed to cultivate it. He was also questioned about a situation where one observing the expression of certain beliefs loses respect for those expressing them when he is indifferent as to their truth or falsity. In the context of a PTA meeting to discuss a sexual education curriculum, someone might lose respect for a parent who feels compelled to point out that the Bible says that it is wrong to be gay. We might lose respect for this person even though we do not care at all what the Bible says on this subject. Blackburn’s response was that this is a case of someone trying to present inadmissible evidence. It is a problem itself, but he feels that it would be somehow worse if this person was making false claims about the content of the Bible.
The next part of Blackburn’s paper takes a different approach to the problem. He notes a distinction between religion and “onto-religion.” Onto-religion describes an ultimate reality and asserts its existence. Fundamentalist believers see their entire religious texts this way, but they are not the only ones who hold onto-religious beliefs. Claims about the existence of God, or gods, and what He, or they, require from us are onto-religious to the extent that they are taken literally. Religion, as opposed to onto-religion, does not make claims of this kind. “Religion is not to be taken to describe other worlds, nor even past and future events in this world, but only to orientate us towards this world.” This view, put forth by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value, is referred to as expressive theology. There are many ways that it can be applied. One can say that claims made by religious people about the existence of another world should be taken metaphorically, that this is how they mean them. This, however, is implausible. These people use onto-religious claims as causal explanations and sources of expectation of real phenomena. Another view is that religious people are confused. They think that they are representing the existence of something when they should see themselves as expressing stances towards this world.
Blackburn asserts that whatever form of expressive theology one follows, it makes it harder to be an atheist. It may be easy for an atheist to reject the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent God who lives somewhere in the sky; however, it is much harder, and less desirable, to reject the emotions and values expressed by a religious text. “Perhaps, ‘God exists’ is to be seen as an expression of love or delight—and who wants to be put down as against love and delight?” However, these might not be the only things expressed by the statement “God exists.” Blackburn worries when these statements are used as authority; this is related to his point about respect creep. Claims that certain things are demanded and others are prohibited by God serve to amplify claims about the desirability or undesirability of certain behavior. It is one thing to say, “Don’t do that,” and quite another to say “God commands that you do not do that.” This is worrisome for Blackburn because he notes that this amplificatory power seems to be used for evil much of the time, for example, to justify the subordination of women. At the workshop it was mentioned that the amplificatory effect has been used for good as well, like in the case of religion’s role in the abolition of slavery. Blackburn accepted this, but he responded that the question of whether religion ultimately maximizes utility is one to which we will never have an answer because we cannot examine the closest world to ours where religion does not exist.
This amplificatory effect, however, does not really make sense without onto-religion. This is why Blackburn argues that expressive theology does not capture the nature of the beliefs of a lot of people. If the claim that it is sinful to be gay is nothing more than a metaphorical expression of a general distaste for homosexuality, as opposed to a claim that gays will be punished in the afterlife, it is hard to see why people would be so vehement in their views on the subject. This is equally true with respect to claims to land. Blackburn mentioned a recent violent dispute in Jerusalem between Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy about the use of the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which they share. People are less likely to compromise when they believe that God is on their side.
Blackburn has shown that expressive theology cannot be completely right; however, he thinks that it does have value. To the extent that religion is onto-religion, Blackburn does not think that an atheist should, or even can, respect it; but there is another part to the story. As much as it makes little sense, for Blackburn, to talk about respecting beliefs that one doesn’t share, it is still possible and desirable to respect emotions that one doesn’t share or even understand; we might even admire their expression. This admiration can take the form of allowing a private space for grief, or some other action for a different emotion. Some of the expressions described by expressive theology are more like emotions than they are like actual beliefs, which are cognitive states that have content and truth values.
But Blackburn does not reduce all religion to emotion; some religious stances are attitudes. And attitudes are like beliefs to the extent that it is not possible to have different attitudes without disagreement. This disagreement entails a lack of respect. Not all religious attitudes take this form, but many certainly do. Blackburn states that we cannot and should not respect the attitude expressed by many religions that women are inferior. He also points out that this type of attitude can be held and expressed secularly, but it does not have the same power when expressed this way, most importantly because when held in a secular manner it can be freely questioned (to some extent). It may be dangerous to question the status quo, but it is rarely seen as a “grave sign of villainy” to do so. What he calls the “ontological imaginings” of onto-religion are necessary to make something beyond doubt or unquestionable. This may be the reason, Blackburn asserts, that communes tend to last longer when their members share religious beliefs.
The final section of the paper explains why, for Blackburn, atheism does not entail nihilism. Meaning and value can be found in the here and now. For this reason, it is offensive to atheists that religion has tried to establish a monopoly on the search for meaning in life. Blackburn describes two options for searchers of meaning. The first is the transcendent and ontological option; the meaning of this life can be found in another life, in another reality. The second option is the immanent option. “In the immanent option, the smile of a baby, the grace of a dancer, the sound of voices, the movement of a lover, give meaning to life.” Great religious artwork and music can also be enjoyed in this way, says Blackburn. This is because their force is emotional. Their value lies in the expression of the humanity of their creators and not in their success as religious propaganda or in their statement of some ontological claim.
Next time: 11/24 Stephen Stich, "A Framework for the Psychology of Norms"