Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Respect and Religious Belief

There's been some recent blog chatter (Brandon offers links) on the question whether to "respect" religious beliefs (in a sense that goes beyond mere tolerance to incorporate some form of esteem). Everyone agrees, of course, that a religious person may be respected on other grounds, despite the odd nutty belief (don't we all have some of those?). And it also seems uncontroversial that false beliefs may be reasonably - and thus respectably - held. So I take it the real question is whether irrational beliefs can be inherently respectable. (Or maybe the question is whether religious belief is generally irrational. I can never quite tell.)

My basic view is that a belief is respectable precisely insofar as the agent is reasonable in believing it. I suspect that most religious beliefs are irrationally held. So I don't respect that. I think most people would do better (qua epistemic agent) to become atheists instead.

Two points bear noting, however: (1) This is not a guaranteed improvement. Better to be a reasonably mistaken deist than an atheist whose views stem from scientism, say. (2) There's nothing particularly unique about religion here. Most people have all sorts of unreasonable beliefs on philosophical matters (relativism, egoism, etc.). So, in principle, there's plenty of disrespect to go around. I guess religious belief is just a peculiarly salient example.

To respond to others' points:

* I'm intrigued by Brandon's suggestion that false belief contents may warrant respect "as beautiful, ingenious, or such". Such aesthetic values might ground respect for a fictional story or a mental state like imagining, which does not aim at truth. But belief aims at truth. So I do not think that these values can make the contents in question respectable as beliefs.

(Aside: some religious people may merely see themselves as engaging in a cultural/"spiritual" practice with no genuine epistemic component at all. They mouth the words of the hymn, as part of their practice, but they do not really believe the content in any ordinary, literal sense. This strikes me as entirely unobjectionable. But it's not what I'm talking about here.)

* Many people seem to think that others' beliefs should not be rationally challenged. It's "nasty" to be critical, or some such. On the contrary, I think that our public culture is deplorably uncritical.

Having said that, I'm more sympathetic to Bad Jim's comment that respect is "something we owe to the boundaries of social intercourse". In our personal lives, some disagreements may be better left unaired. It would be obnoxious to constantly disrupt one's social interactions by bringing up irrelevant disagreements. But that's quite consistent with thinking that there is an appropriate time and place for hashing out such disagreements.

* I instantly lose respect for anyone who confuses this criticality with 'militancy'.

11 comments:

  1. Can't one be critical and respectful at the same time?

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  2. Sure, at least I'd agree that one should generally treat interlocutors with a modicum of respect. But you can do that (avoiding being gratuitously demeaning, etc.) without having any respect for their beliefs as such. And, insofar as you hold someone to be irrational, that seems to entail at least some form of local disrespect or disapprobation, which I think is entirely appropriate. A belief in astrology or Young Earth Creationism, for example, just doesn't warrant the slightest respect -- by which I mean that I hold such believers to be, in this respect, beyond the (epistemic) pale. It calls for a higher degree of criticality in comparison to cases of reasonable disagreement.

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  3. But you seem to be creating a situation where one respects the person but not the belief. While I think one can make that move in abstract can one in the particulars? Certainly my beliefs arise in the context of the life I am living. Can they be judged independent of that?

    To put it an other way I may go back and read the history of the 18th and 19th century and relative to my own stance completely disrespect their ideas. But certainly relative to the stances of the individuals I have to be far more charitable.

    Put simply can we isolate respect from context?

    It seems to me that in effect the move you are making is to say respect for others thinking is always relative to my own understanding. Which seems wrong somehow...

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  4. To add, once we move from the question of respect towards abstract ideas we face the more practical situation. How do I react to other groups.

    Even if I disrespect some idea in the abstract (or, as I suggest, transported to your own context) does that justify certain kinds of attacks or criticisms towards others? (This is the point I think Chris was getting at over at Mixing Memory) When we attack the beliefs of the religious believer we usually aren't doing it in abstract. Rather we are attacking the beliefs as they hold them.

    So even if we can make the move of separating person and belief the problem is that far too many try to have their cake and eat it too. That is they want to say they respect the person and not the belief but in their rhetoric this is but lip service.

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  5. I agree that something that would be unreasonable for me to believe could be more reasonable for someone else (with different evidence, background beliefs, etc.). So it is important to assess the beliefs "as they hold them." It may be that a more careful look will reveal to me that they are more respectable epistemic agents than I had previously realized. Or it may not. If you're suggesting that a proper appreciation of their epistemic flaws, in such a case, is incompatible with respecting the whole person (in some sense), then that seems to suggest that epistemic disrespectability implies personal disrespectability (in that sense).

    It's a bit difficult to discuss at this level of abstraction, however, since I don't know what you have in mind by "certain kinds of attacks or criticisms". I take it as given that rationally warranted criticisms are inherently legitimate, and worry that calls for 'respect' or 'sensitivity' are too often used in bad faith to silence such criticism. But, I grant, it's also possible for attacks to be over-the-top and simply unwarranted (on rational grounds, and not merely "feel good" ones).

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  6. I think that issue of context is all I'm really getting at.

    That is I don't think many people (here thinking of many comments over the months at ScienceBlogs) manage to pull that off. That is they have a hard time thinking of ideas in terms of the reasoning abilities, evidence, and background of the people holding them.

    I may completely disagree with the ideas. But I think how we approach the issue ought be carful.

    Certainly 'sensitivity' can be used in bad faith so as to cut off inquiry. I'd just suggest that there is a difference between what one might call academic fist-o-cuffs which most of us are comfortable with from discussions with folks not quite as familiar with the academic method. Put an other way someone like me who can take it as folks dish it out is quite different from say some Evangelical who isn't academic who might have strong feelings about God.

    Beyond that issue (which we appear to agree upon) is simply the issue of evidences, grounds and values which change how we look at the evidence. For instance in my theistic beliefs I believe I'm very critical and rational and (dare I say it) skeptical. Yet also clearly you and I will probably not agree simply because much of what makes my stance rational for me is unavailable for you. That is it isn't sharable in the same way that say a lab experiment is. Therefore, I'd suggest, the way discourse proceeds has to be done in a careful way. That's because there is a massive 'gap' between our epistemic backgrounds that renders a certain amount of communication impossible. I don't think this can be characterized as 'epistemic flaws.'

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  7. I am inclined to think that everyones position is entirely a product of their situation - that means everyone is 100% understandable and in a weird sense 100% rational. While pretty much any belief is irrational (in as far as you have to take a sort of leap of faith to say anything intelligible).

    What matters in practice is the potential for you to change their mind - effectively to get the maximum positive results from your own actions.

    So for example I could talk to two creationists with identical positions - but a hint of give in his position and thus take a much more aggressive stand against that person - or possibly a more debate orientated stand.

    If I was lazy that might translate into 'those that seem close to my position get intelligent debate' and 'those far away get "you are just stupid"'.

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  8. Genius, I'm not sure I can buy going that far otherwise we water down the meaning of reason so much that it becomes useless. I think that sometimes it appears that economists with their rational actor theory do this. (i.e. if someone acts in an odd way we just have to find out why it is rational for them) Also if we make reasoning equivalent to mere cognitive functioning we water down the term too much.

    I think that one big block to reasoning and inquiry is fear of the unknown as well as a kind of repression of what we fear. Thus a person may have tons of evidence that their wife is cheating on them but they don't want it to be true so they live in a kind of denial. I think we want to say that is irrational in most cases.

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  9. When Genius says, "What matters in practice is the potential for you to change their mind - effectively to get the maximum positive results from your own actions," he is on target: he understands the nature of philosophical inquiry. Philosophers should criticize "concepts", not "subjects": to do otherwise is simply counterproductive in the process. Persuasion is of utmost importance in philosophical dialogue, not "criticism" of "subjects" (as opposed to concepts) that others seem to be discussing.

    But there is something very wrong about saying what Genius said, "Everyone is 100% understandable and in a weird sense 100% rational. While pretty much any belief is irrational (in as far as you have to take a sort of leap of faith to say anything intelligible)." Belief is not irrational because knowledge is not irrational: knowledge is something like "true, justified belief." Our knowledge of math and logic demonstrates this. However, for things like religious belief, one should choose beliefs that would most likely lead to knowledge, that is, select the belief that is most likely to be true and the belief that is most justified.

    Genius states that everything requires some "leap of faith." Faith is most nearly belief without a lot of evidence. To say that all belief requires faith is quite wrong: some beliefs have more evidence than others. Some are more justified than others. The rules of math and of gravity are much more likely to be true than the theology of, say, Christian Scientology. Remember, when we talk of knowledge or belief, we do not talk of certainties, for there are very few certainties in philosophy. We talk about probabilities.

    With that said, most beliefs have some rational basis. That is where Genius is correct. Church goers who just go through the motions at a service are not entertaining an irrational belief, but rather are performing an irrational action. Why do it? Now, belief in religion is also reasonable: if a God exists, we would not want to piss him off (Pascal's wonderful wager). But just because the belief is reasonable, as in my example of avoiding punishment by God in the afterlife, does not mean that such a belief is justified.

    I hope I clarified the matter somewhat.

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  10. prepare for a bit of a ramble...

    Part of my argument is rooted in my attitude towards crime. I see one side excusing criminals for their actions because something made them do it (e.g. a bad environment or a mental illness) on the other hand I see people trying to blame them for everything.

    It seems like one side wants to hate the criminal - so they ascribe 'blame' to them. In the same way as we might try to ascribe blame to a irrational person. and the other side wants to excuse them like how we ascribe rationality to a person. neither side manages to actually engage the other.

    The problem is that there is nothing fundamentally different between a named and an unnamed mental illness - except that the former makes for a legal defense and the latter probably doesn't. In the same way there is no diference between discovered rationality and undiscovered rationality except in any word problem the former will probably result in less blame being attributed.

    And the degree to which a rational is discovered or undiscovered is one of perspective - in fact from a certain perspective one could, and almost certainly would, impose a potential rationality to judge you by that you never had access to, or ability to comprehend etc.

    > Genius, I'm not sure I can buy going that far otherwise we water down the meaning of reason so much that it becomes useless.

    I am not sure we should modify words to achieve usefulness in that context - because usefulness is subjective and that opens us up to a sort of 'word abuse'. But regardless of that I am not actually trying to be defeatist - I accept that we do indeed make assumptions and some appear to be better answers than others - i have to follow that sort of principle in my own life in order to be a functioning person.

    I'm not so sure being judgemental helps. For example I believe that one should argue against a position that is wrong - and yet not 'blame' the person that has it.

    > Thus a person may have tons of evidence that their wife is cheating on them but they don't want it to be true so they live in a kind of denial. I think we want to say that is irrational in most cases.

    Maybe we would put that on the side of 'irrationality' - but surely we should match what we want to say to the judgment of the facts not our judgment of the facts to what we want to say. My concern again is that we allow 'desire to blame' to drive the debate.

    Brian,

    I agree with a lot of what you say - its all about probabilities in terms of assessing truth, and that was indeed part of my point - however this debate is more about 'rationality' which is somewhat different.

    I think this non sequitor emphasises another point

    "To say that all belief requires faith is quite wrong: some beliefs have more evidence than others."

    that some require less of a leap than others still implies all require faith unless one happens to have 100% evidence.

    The other issue at hand here is that we talk as if there is one perspective- actually there are billions of perspectives held by billions of people. To say no person could possibly have more evidence for an alternative perspective than the one you have evidence for seems like a very strong claim.

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  11. Genius,

    You said, "Maybe we would put that on the side of 'irrationality' - but surely we should match what we want to say to the judgment of the facts not our judgment of the facts to what we want to say. My concern again is that we allow 'desire to blame' to drive the debate."

    That is right on, as far as I can see. In respect to our discussion on faith, rationality, and especially mental disease, I think you are using a more or less "continental" method (or a "postmodern" lexicon) to describe the situation, whereas I like to think of it in analytic terms. I think we're both digging from opposite sides of the mountain, and I think we'll ultimately end up at the same spot in the middle.

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