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'.