Sunday, February 25, 2007

Respect - Beyond Platitudes

In my writing here, I often find myself discussing the differences in perspective between believers and non-believers. As one who has seen both sides, I can attest to how stark the differences in outlook can be. Our religious convictions are perhaps our most strongly held beliefs, and these ideals hold great sway over how we interpret and relate to almost everything which we experience.

And, it is virtually impossible to divorce these strong feelings for our own beliefs from equally strong negative feelings about those who believe the opposite. The words which we use to describe religious disagreements are heavily charged with negative connotations – ‘heresy’, ‘apostasy’, ‘k’firah’, ‘apikorsus’. And non-believers also have a lexicon of pejoratives which describe religious believers.

Theists tend to think that non-believers (or those who believe differently) are failing to fulfill God’s will. And this failure not only damns them to suffer whatever personal consequences may befall them, but it also harms mankind by spreading morals and ideals which are contrary to God’s design. At best, they can claim ignorance – being a “tinoke shenishbah”, never having been taught the true path. At worst, they are immoral hedonists, too caught up in their selfish pleasures to acknowledge the word of God.

Atheists, for their part, feel that believers are naively clinging to their ancient mythology. At best, they are harming only themselves – suffering their privations and practicing their ancient bigotry only within their group. At worst, they are endangering the safety and security of the world, forcing their beliefs on others, and persecuting those who their arcane ideologies have identified as enemies.

Sometimes we use platitudes which disguise the extent of our feelings in these differences. We may say that we ‘respectfully disagree’, we may emphasize our recognition of each other’s right to their own opinions, and we may make statements endorsing religious tolerance. But it is difficult to fill these statements with any real meaning.

So what is tolerance? What is the process of truly respecting fundamental differences in belief?

And ‘respect’ is an interesting word. I have heard, in many contexts, people state that they respect the religious beliefs of others. This sometimes puzzles me.

Do the ideas themselves merit respect? Do we respect the belief of Scientologists, who believe that Xanu, the evil warlord, massacred 13 billion people on earth 75 million years ago? Do we respect the belief that God gave Joseph Smith the Golden Tablets which constitute the Book of Mormon?

Certainly, we may respect certain things which are practiced or taught within a particular religion. We can easily respect the priority which many religions place on charity and altruism. But what of the elements which we do not think are positive? Do we respect those beliefs? Do we respect the idea of Jihad? Do we respect the role to which many religions relegate women, or the manner in which they treat Gays? Do we respect the shunning of excomunicatees in the Mennonite Church? Or the Hindu concept of Pariah?

So, what do we do with this disagreement? Where do we place it in our worldview? How do we all get along if we hold such diametrically opposing ideas? How do we truly treat each others with tolerance and respect? Just paying lip service to our respect for others is not a solution – it does not address what is really going on within us.

We all live in a world where, regardless of what we believe, the majority of other humans disagree with us. Do we just go through our lives believing that these others are unworthy of our respect?

At least for me, respect is about having empathy and regard for people, not necessarily for the ideas in which they believe. There is no fundamental reason that an idea must demand respect, but people do merit respect – inherently – regardless of what they believe.

And what does that respect mean? What constitutes respect?

A good start, and a necessary element is the recognition of a right. Each individual has the right to choose which beliefs they wish to hold. And no one has the right to force them to change their beliefs. As with other human rights, there is a reciprocal logic in this recognition – we can not expect to have our own rights respected unless we are willing to respect the rights of others.

This level of respect is important, but it doesn’t really give us a handle on our negative feelings. We may acknowledge someone’s right to believe something which we think is absurd or harmful, but we still may not feel very highly of them.

We can achieve a much deeper level of respect if we can have a clearer view of the importance of belief, and can recognize that our beliefs are a fundamental aspect of our happiness.

Pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain – long term or short term – is a primary motivator in our lives. We may be seeking the momentary happiness which comes from a pleasurable experience. We may be striving to achieve the happiness which comes with the accomplishment of a task, or the overcoming of a challenge. We may be looking for the feelings of love, connection and acceptance which come from the sharing of beliefs with our family, friends and community. We may be achieving the satisfaction of helping mankind. And, we may be avoiding the fear of death by earning an eternal afterlife. In the end, everyone seeks happiness – whether it is Tibetan Monk living in great privation and austerity or the secularist who enjoys all of the available comforts.

This world is not perfect, and all of us have our share of difficulty. We all have the right to seek a path which leads us to a happier time on this earth. And, beliefs play an enormous role in defining what this path is.

Feeling an empathy for each other’s right to pursue their own path for happiness, and to adopt the beliefs which can take them there is a powerful key to truly accepting and respecting each others differences. It is not difficult to look around at the other people of this world and wish for them to be happier. A happier humanity makes this planet a better place for all of us. And it is easy, when viewed through this lens, to feel positive about those who believe differently.

As with many things, our own right for happiness is not elevated above that of others. So it does not excuse or mitigate behaviors which are hurtful - even if these behaviors are considered important to a religious dogma. A practice or teaching may be good or may be bad, and I reserve the right to have respect for practices which are beneficial, and to not accept or respect those practices which are detrimental.

But I will limit my critical judgments for those actions which diminish mankind. And, I will preserve my respect and my empathy for the people of this earth – and I will wish for their happiness.