Where do you stand on God? The limit of respect for religious beliefs

“My friends, I must ask you an important question today: where do you stand on God?” This is how Gary Wolf begins his lead article at www.wired.com called “The Church of the Nonbelievers”. His basic position is that the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Bennett, are making it almost impossible these days to be a sit-on-the-fence, tolerant, don’t-rock-the-boat, and above all polite agnostic.

It is a highly entertaining read, and one of the most thoughtful pieces on religion that I’ve read by a nonbeliever for some time.

One thing he brought to my attention is that, were Richard Dawkins to come to Melbourne and sprout his stuff here, there is every possibility that he could be prosecuted under Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance laws–not just by Christians, but by every religion in the State. In fact, I think of good case could be mounted for the fact that there are many passages in “The God Delusion” that are pure vilification and incitement to hatred. He would probably get off, however, on the grounds that he is writing “In good faith” and for an academic purpose.

Here is one quote that Wolf pulls out of “the God Delusion” that really got me thinking. Dawkins writes: “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected, simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden, and the suicide bombers.”

Well, try this argument on for size.

Respect for religious beliefs and religious freedom belongs to respect for others in general and to the golden rule of not doing harm to others. This respect is itself based upon the recognition of the dignity of every individual human being. A person’s beliefs form a part of their identity, and therefore should be, under normal circumstances, respected. Some of these beliefs will almost certainly be religious. Therefore, we respect religious beliefs, because we respect others, and do not wish to harm them.

Now some religious beliefs do, as Dawkins delights to point out, inspire some people to do harm to other people. The question is, do such harmful beliefs require respect, simply because they are religious beliefs? The answer is “no” and for this reason:

Respect for religious beliefs is based upon respect for human dignity. To respect religious beliefs that are harmful or destructive of others therefore undermines the very basis of this respect. Such beliefs cannot therefore be respected.

Therefore, to conclude, respect for religious faith cannot extend to respect for the destructive beliefs of Osama Bin Laden (and his ilk).

For that matter, one wonders how much respect one should give Richard Dawkins’ religious beliefs (his “atheism” has, as many reviewers have pointed out, many qualities in common with fundamentalistic faith), since they are, quite obviously aimed at removing the right of individuals to hold any religious belief at all. This would be a serious harm to individual identity and to human dignity and freedom.

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