British philosopher Simon Blackburn has a draft article up on issues of religion and respect from a puzzled atheist perspective. Some thoughtful comments by Chris of Mixing Memory here.
Blackburn starts off with recounting a dinner party where he was asked to join into some kind of religious observance, and refused. I sympathize to some extent with Blackburn here - he was right to refuse to take part in some kind of ceremony signifying something he doesn't believe in.
The rest of the article suffers, I think, from a much too stark dichotomy between what Blackburn calls "onto-theology" - religious beliefs thought as referring to something real, some kind of more or less detailed transcendent reality, and "expressive theology", which draws attention to the symbolic, the metaphorical, without necessarily referring to any transcendent reality. The problem of course is that assenting to some or more of the claims of "onto-theology" does not entail any rejection of the attention to religious practice as involving symbolism, myth, etc. in "expressive theology". And I think a lot of theologists are somewhere in between the two extremes that Blackburn sketches.
But the key quote, as mentioned by Chris at Mixing Memory, is this:
We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it--not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds. Or, if it is to our advantage that they have false beliefs, as in a game of poker, and we am poised to profit from them, we may be wickedly pleased that they are taken in. But that is not a symptom of special substantial respect, but quite the reverse. It is one up to us, and one down to them.
I think this is mistaken on a number of levels. First of all, the issue of "true" and "false" beliefs is problematic when dealing with religion - without this in any way entailing epistemic relativism. Elsewhere Blackburn writes that "In the
days of onto-theology, we knew what went on when someone claimed that ‘God exists’,
and we knew how to argue that there is not the slightest reason to believe it.". But I kind of doubt that. Because at least with Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, the existence of God becomes quite a different kind of existence than the existence of me or my table or my CD collection (Dawkins has expended great effort on avoiding to understand this). The notion of a necessarily existing being depends on a lot of philosophical framing which may be true of false but cannot surely known to be so (merely shown to be coherent, self-consistent or incoherent; useful and productive or the counterpart, etc.). The same goes for the, overt or hidden, metaphysical presuppositions on which the atheist seeks to challenge theism.
Then there is the notion that we cannot respect beliefs we hold to be false, but rather would seek to convince the holder of such beliefs to abandon them. That's highly doubtful. Much as I believe in certain religious propositions, I am aware and will always remain aware (in this life at least) that I may be mistaken. I believe theism is rationally defensible. So is atheism. And that's as far as it will go. The fallibilistic notion that whatever I believe to be true may eventually turn out to be mistaken for me entails the desire that if I turn out to be mistaken, someone will set me right, which of course necessitates that person holding different beliefs. No intellectual progress can be made without difference of opinion, and thus, with people holding false beliefs. Blackburn's notion that We would prefer them to change their minds illustrates that one should be careful what one should wish for.
That of course raises the question what it should take for a false belief to be respectable. Some kind of fallibilism, probably. Chris at Mixing Memory mentions the pragmatic consequences of the beliefs in question as well as intellectual integrity (as in actually studying the position one polemizes against - a good and venerable practice unfortunately frowned upon in Militant Atheist circles).
It is true that calls for blanket respect for this and that position can quickly turn into some kind of patronizing support of communalism, in which the validity of a position no longer matters. But there is a counterpart - a kind of descent into mindless jeering, without actually dealing in any way with the opposite position - which is just as bad and in a way just the other side of the coin. Some of the more extreme sides of the Militant Atheist spectrum occasionally descend into that (see Rational Response Squad and suchlike outfits). But I was thinking more about the non-approach to islamic minorities in Western Europe. In both cases - blanket respect and ill-informed attacks - actually facing the other position is studiously avoided.