by Emrys Westacott
You have been called for jury service. The trial is complex and much hangs on the relative credibility of different witnesses, particularly those offering expert testimony regarding whether a certain medicine is likely to produce aggressive behavior as one of its side effects. A professional psychiatrist called by the defense testifies that in his opinion this effect is very likely. During cross examination, however, the wily prosecuting counsel manages to unearth a surprising, seemingly irrelevant, but nonetheless startling fact about this “expert”: he believes that aliens from space landed in the Nevada desert around 1965 and now effectively control all branches of government using advanced mind-control technology. The “expert” has in fact published several articles arguing for his views in the journal Alien Watch, and is a founding member of MASA (Mankind Against Space Aliens).
When the jury eventually retire to deliberate, it is not long before these beliefs become the focus of attention. One juror refers to the expert as “that nutcase who believes in UFOs.” Another calls him a “crank.” A third describes him as “cuckoo.” Inevitably, his beliefs about aliens damage the credibility of his other testimony in the eyes of some jurors, even though he undoubtedly has the requisite qualifications to be considered a legitimate expert on the side effects of certain medicines.
One juror, however, playing the role of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, resists this wave of skepticism. “Did anyone notice,” she says, “that the expert called by the prosecution wore a crucifix around her neck? This ‘expert' may well believe that a man called Jesus walked on top of the sea, changed water into wine, came back to life after being executed, and ascended to heaven on a cloud. I hate to be awkward, but to my way of thinking these beliefs are even more incredible than the idea that space invaders landed in the desert. After all, the belief about aliens—unlike orthodox Christianity–doesn't assume anything supernatural or contrary to the scientific view of nature.”
Listening to the debate, you feel yourself pulled in two directions. On the one hand, you can't help agreeing with those inclined to question the judgment of someone who believes the government is controlled by aliens from outer space. On the other hand, supposing for the sake of the argument that your general outlook on the world is thoroughly secular, you sympathize with the view that many orthodox religious beliefs are just as implausible. So you find yourself astride a paradox.
You consider both sets of beliefs equally incredible, yet you only think of one as giving grounds for impugning the wisdom of the believer.
This little scenario raises many questions.
• Is it reasonable to allow what a person believes in one field to affect how we receive their opinions on other matters?
• Are religious beliefs that posit miracles on a par with other beliefs that run counter to mainstream, scientifically informed opinion?
• What makes a belief rational?
• Should how long a belief has been held or how many other people share it make it more acceptable?
These are intriguing issues, but I wish to focus here on the notion of respecting another person's beliefs. In particular,
• What does it mean to respect someone's beliefs?
• When and why should such respect be given?
• When and why might it be withheld?
The default position for most of us in a modern, pluralist, liberal democracy is that we should respect other people's beliefs. Respectfulness is a virtue, and it is associated with tolerance, which everyone agrees is generally a good thing. To not respect someone's beliefs can be hurtful or alienating and evinces a closed mind. But this common response is too simple. Not all beliefs are worthy of respect, and withholding respect is sometimes in order. There are different kinds of respect, and a belief may deserve some of these but not others.
Already, alarm bells may be ringing in some readers' minds, since it is often assumed that respect for a person's beliefs is inseparable from respect for them as a person; so to deny the former is to withhold the latter. But I believe this view is mistaken.
Being willing to withhold respect from certain beliefs is a corollary of thinking critically—a quintessential modern virtue. This is why it is an attitude that many of the pioneering minds responsible for shaping the modern era were willing to express, and express boldly. Most often, they did so with reference to the orthodox dogmas of established religions.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Elsewhere he described the final book of the New Testament as “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”
Respect for persons
The term “respect,” when used to describe an attitude, has three main senses.
a) esteem, as when I say that I respect your guitar playing.
b) deference, as when we speak of respecting someone's rights.
c) acceptance of something on its own terms; we might say, for instance, that we respect some other culture's traditions, indicating thereby that we will refrain from imposing our own value judgments on them.
This last sense, although the hardest to explicate precisely, is closest to the word's etymological root. Our word “respect” is derived from the Latin respicere, which means to look back at, or to look at again. This suggests considering or examining something carefully, paying it proper attention, which in turn implies trying to set aside one's prejudices and see the thing as it is in itself. Conversely, to not show respect is to be dismissive, deciding quickly and in light of one's own preconceptions, desires, or interests that something is of little value.
Many things can be objects of respect: laws, rights, skills, virtues, opinions, offices, traditions, institutions, environments—the list is endless. But the kind of respect that is most commonly expected, demanded, and discussed is respect for persons, and this takes two main forms:
a) the sort of respect we think every human being is entitled to in virtue of their humanity;
b) the sort of respect that individuals may enjoy–or even claim–in virtue of their particular qualities, experiences, achievements, or position.
It is a basic tenet of most modern moral and political philosophies that every human being is entitled to the first kind of respect, usually on account of our capacity for rational autonomy. Respect for persons in virtue of their humanity is expressed through the way we treat them. It is not just a matter of having a certain view of them or a certain attitude toward them; it is expressed through our behavior. It means granting them specific rights, addressing them in a certain way, avoiding treating them the way we treat non-human entities, and so on.
The other sort of respect we accord to people is more a matter simply of viewing specific attributes positively: for instance, their skill at basketball, their knowledge of cars, their medical qualifications, their courage, their years of experience in a field, their political activism, or their supervisory position. This sort of respect can be won or lost. It can also vary in degree. Most importantly, it is quite independent of the first sort of respect discussed above. We may judge certain people to be in most respects a waste of space, with few admirable qualities or praiseworthy achievements, but we will still acknowledge their right to be treated as a human being rather than as a thing.
Respect for the right to believe
What we have referred to as a basic respect for a person's humanity is usually taken to include, or imply, respect for their right to believe what they please. Freedom of thought is, after all, an essential part of autonomy. But respecting a person's right to believe something is not the same as respecting the belief itself. This is another distinction we need to clarify before focusing in on what the latter kind of respect involves.
Pinning down exactly what respecting a person's right to believe something involves is not, in fact, as easy as one might think. Presumably it includes not making any beliefs either required by law or illegal. It must also rule out trying to force people to hold or deny a belief by methods that undermine their autonomy such as hypnosis, drugs, or surgical interference with their brains. And it would also seem to exclude threatening to harm them in some way—physically, materially, or socially—unless they conform to some approved way of thinking. It makes little sense, after all, to tell me I have the right to think what I want, but that you'll bust my kneecaps if you discover me entertaining beliefs you disapprove of.
Yet this “right to believe what you want” is still a slippery fish. On the one hand, sanctions against beliefs seem to be not just wrong but silly since we cannot verify with any certainty what a person believes. Our beliefs—as opposed to our utterances and behavior—are invisible to others, at least until neuroscience develops more sophisticated forms of brain monitoring. So even though our right to hold a belief could be violated by a law prohibiting “thought crime,” the application of any such law would have to be triggered by some sort of behavior such as professing the belief, participating in a ceremony, or supporting some cause.
Respect for a belief
So far we have separated out several different kinds of respect. These are:
(1) respect for a person in virtue of what they share with all humanity
(2) respect for a person in virtue of their specific qualities, achievements, or experiences
(3) respect for a person's right to hold a belief
(4) respect for a particular belief
A lot of people assume that both (1) and (3) entail (4); so they worry that to withhold (4) implies that one is withholding at least (1) and (3). This is perhaps what underlies much ready talk about respecting beliefs. The worry is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that withholding (4) may well involve a diminishment of (2). If I tell you that I believe my goldfish is a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, you will assume I'm joking. If I manage to convince you that I'm serious, you will probably conclude that I'm one slice short of a loaf. In other words, learning that I hold certain beliefs is likely to affect your respect for my intellect. But this reduced respect for a particular quality (2) need not affect the other kinds of respect. And the assumption that withholding (4) entails withholding (1) or (3) is mistaken, as we will see.
First, we again need to make a distinction between respect as an attitude and respect expressed through behavior. One way of failing to respect a belief is to declare it false. Another way is to make fun of it. Another way is to insult it, describing it as “baloney,” “tommyrot,” “balderdash,” “twaddle,” “hogwash,” “hooey,” “blather,” “bunk,” “bullshit,” “claptrap,” “drivel,” “hokum,” “horse feathers,” or “poppycock.” Each of these responses involves some sort of behavior that risks giving offence to those who hold the belief in question, especially when the belief is central to a person's life and identity as, say, religious beliefs often are. To respect a belief, conversely, could be understood as refraining from doing these things.
But the idea that we have an obligation not to criticize a person's beliefs is foreign to a contemporary liberal outlook. There may be specific occasions when criticizing a belief someone cherishes would be tactless, rude, or hurtful; so we can allow that there may be times when silence is the morally preferable option. But in the context of any kind of public forum where ideas are up for discussion, no one can reasonably demand that their beliefs be protected from dissent.
More plausible is the principle that people's beliefs be treated with respect in the sense that they should not be ridiculed, scorned or insulted. Here the constraint is only on the manner in which they are criticized. But although the principle sounds reasonable, it is surprisingly difficult to defend as a general rule. To be sure, we may agree that we should not cause anyone unnecessary pain; and insulting someone's cherished beliefs may do this. But sometimes the pain caused is not gratuitous but an unavoidable consequence of something that really needs to be said. Besides, we also cherish freedom of expression and the benefits it brings. The fact that some people may be offended by what is said hardly seems a strong enough reason to curtail free speech. Moreover, rhetorical freedom is an important aspect of the right to free speech. Very often, the critique of a belief is more powerful and more persuasive because of the way ridicule, irony, sarcasm, and wit are employed. Think of the contributions to important debates made by the likes of Swift, Voltaire, Hume, Paine, Nietzsche, or Mencken.
Those who think that when their beliefs are scorned their rights are being violated, seem to view holding a belief as like owning a piece of property. On this view, to disrespect a person's beliefs is analogous to trespassing on or defacing their property. But the analogy does not hold. Beliefs, unlike items I own, are in the public domain. I have no more right to seeing them treated with respect than I have a right to not hearing people sing silly songs about the moon.
This is not to say that insulting a person's beliefs is never wrong. If it is done for no good reason, or if the pain caused is not offset by benefits promoted, then there are good utilitarian grounds for criticizing the action. In the public discussion of ideas, though, the critic, even the vituperative critic, is usually presumed to be motivated by a concern to move people's thinking away from falsehood and toward truth, and this gives the action its justification.
So much for respect expressed through overt behavior. We can also conceive of respect for beliefs (or the withholding of such respect) as an intellectual stance or attitude. This is the kind of respect being referred to when I say something like, “I respect your faith.” It is useful to approach this more subtle notion of respect by calling to mind cases where many of us would, in fact, withhold respect. Consider the following statements:
• Homosexuals will burn in hell for eternity.
• Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
• The earth is less than ten thousand years old.
• The holocaust never happened.
• White people are by nature morally superior to black people.
• Men should have the right to beat their wives.
• Moses' wooden rod turned into a snake.
• Barack Obama is the Antichrist.
Each of these statements is held to be true by some people. Yet a common response—certainly my response—to assertions like these is fairly captured by the expression, “hard to take seriously.” This does not apply to all, or even most claims that one believes to be false. Take, for instance, statements such as, “Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays,” or “Global warming is a myth.” I may be convinced that these statements are false, but I will still think it worthwhile to argue against them. They are not beyond the pale. The claims listed above, however, are in a different category. Here I find I just cannot take seriously the possibility that they might be true. And this dismissive attitude seems incompatible with the notion that even while thinking the beliefs false I nevertheless have respect for them. Respect, as we noted earlier, suggests an open-minded attitude, setting aside prejudices, not making one's mind up too quickly but being willing to consider a claim on its own terms. Yet which of us would want to spend any time arguing with someone who claims that Barack Obama is the Antichrist or that the holocaust is a fiction?
Different reasons for respecting beliefs
If lack of respect for a claim means being closed to the possibility of it being true, then respect for a claim, logically, must mean being open to this possibility. And this seems a reasonable first explication of what it means to respect a belief. Immediately, though, we encounter difficulties. Can I not respect the tenets of someone else's religion even though I don't share the metaphysical framework to which they belong? Don't contemporary scientists respect the ideas of earlier pioneers like Aristotle and Ptolemy without actually entertaining them as possible truths? Isn't a degree of respect a necessary part of the empathy that enables us to understand and appreciate ancient mythologies, historical epochs, and alien cultures?
These questions indicate that being open to the possibility that a belief is true is one kind of respect, but it is not the only kind. In fact, there are several possible reasons for respecting a belief, or more precisely, several possible kinds of respect one might accord to a belief. For instance
• Epistemic respect: you think it is true or might be true
• Intellectual respect: it is part of a belief system you admire for its intellectual achievement (e.g. Ptolemy's astronomy)
• Moral respect: it is part of a belief system you consider morally admirable or inspiring (e.g. a religious mythology that implies we are all equal)
• Historical respect: it belongs to a belief system that was historically important (e.g. belief in transubstantiation)
• Aesthetic respect: it belongs to a larger complex of beliefs you find beautiful (e.g. Greek mythology)
• Pragmatic respect: you recognize that it is genuinely useful to some people, even though you can't accept it (e.g. belief in an afterlife)
There may be other forms of respect that we show towards beliefs than the ones identified here, but I suspect these are the most important. Distinguishing between them, and especially isolating epistemic respect from the others, helps us better understand ambivalences within our attitudes to certain kinds of belief. Minimal epistemic respect for a belief means being open to the possibility that it is true. And just as I can withhold respect from a certain belief without this implying lack of respect for the believer, or for their right to believe whatever they please, so I can deny epistemic respect to a belief without thereby denying it every other kind of respect. The legends about the Olympian gods, the reports of miracles performed by biblical figures, and accounts of fairies and witches, are no more credible than stories about talking donkeys or Father Christmas. But this does not mean they cannot be esteemed for their beauty or their historical significance or their moral value.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Vol.2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p. 595. It should be noted that in this same letter Jefferson argues in defense of the idea that the world is the product of intelligent design.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 16 (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association,190 ), pp. 100-1.
 This criticism of the principle that people are entitled to have their beliefs respected is made by Peter Jones. (See Peter Jones, “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science,” Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct. 1990), pp. 415-437.)
 This essay is a revised version of part of Chapter Five of The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton University Press).