Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Some Atheists Should Be Respected for Their Atheism

Contrary to what Simon Blackburn tries to argue in his Religion and Respect essay (PDF). I've noticed that this has been going around recently. See the following blogs for discussion of the topic:

Regardant les nuages
Crooked Timber
Mixing Memory
A brood comb
Gene Expression
Greg Sanders
Minds and Brains
Philosophy, et cetera
Mormon Metaphysics

I already discussed Blackburn's argument in 2005. I wouldn't focus on quite the same things today, and the reasoning is more clumsy and roundabout than I would hope to express now. The point about Blackburn's absurd conflation of falsehood and irrationality -- much of his argument depends on the assumption that false beliefs are irrational -- still stands. Consider:

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.

Note the 'or even just', the natural implicature of which is that falsehood is worse than irrationality.

The more general problem with Blackburn's argument, as I noted then, is that it makes impossible the following: (a) respect for the belief in light of the reasons why they hold it; (b) respect for the content of what is believed, even if false, as beautiful, ingenious, or such; and (c) derivative respect for the belief due to respect for the person. For instance, it requires us to say that, if we are physicists who think that such-and-such scientific theory is false "we cannot respect in any thicker sense" than mere toleration "those who hold" the belief that it is true, to the extent that they hold it, even if they have pretty decent reasons (all things considered) for holding it; it requires us to say that a non-pacifist cannot respect, rather than merely tolerate, the views of the pacifist even for the pacifist's idealistic commitment to peace and the attractiveness of his view; and it requires us to say that a non-Muslim cannot extend a little more respect than mere toleration to the Muslim view of the Quran than he otherwise might, because he has come to admire his good friend Ahmed, who firmly believes it. All of these eliminations are seriously problematic. If I take a belief I'm pretty sure is false -- atheism, for instance -- I should nonetheless, in my attitude toward the belief, take into account the atheist who holds it (if he or she is admirable in some way relevant to it), consider the attractions of this or that form of atheism plainly and seriously (respecting them for what they are, and not pretending that the belief doesn't have such attractions merely because it is false), and consider seriously their reasons for holding it, taking those into account. None of this will in the least reduce my certainty that atheism is false. But I owe it to myself, to God, and to my fellow human beings not to treat the human mind and its actions as lightly as Blackburn's position would require me to treat them.

(If I were re-writing my 2005 post today, I think I would take the trouble to show what is worthy of respect in Blackburn's conclusion. For it is fairly obviously false; but there are, indeed, aspects of it that make it worthy of a certain amount of respect. One can see this if one compares it to less sophisticated and more vulgar versions of this same general belief than Blackburn holds; unfortunately, it doesn't take much to dig such versions up. But Blackburn's is rationally supported, even though problematically; it clearly is motivated by an honest desire to value truth as it should be valued, even though unsuccessful; and Blackburn himself deserves that we treat his claim with a little more respect than mere toleration, even though the claim is clearly false.)

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