Respecting religion

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Having in the first section of the chapter established that his target is supernatural religion, Dawkins’ second section explains that he does not believe that the religious views he will be examining should be handled with kid gloves: they can and should be examined and criticised as thoroughly and with as hard a head as one would use to examine any other kind of claim. He denies that

religious faith … should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.

I’m broadly in agreement, here. Paradoxically, I think that the kid-glove approach to religion is actually part of its marginalisation in modernity. Religion has largely been relegated from the sphere of public argument to an inviolable private sphere, and even when it reemerges into public still smells of the sanctuary of the private.

However, I do have three comments.

The first is simply that ordinary human respect suggests to me that I should tread more carefully when criticising ideas that are more closely bound up with some person or community’s sense of identity than I should when criticising things that are, for them, peripheral. That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t criticise those ideas, if there is pressing reason to do so – if, for instance, I think those ideas are doing harm. But it would be sensible to recognise that in discussing these ideas I can’t avoid discussing the people who hold them.

The second is that this is going to be even more sensitive when I am discussing ideas central to the identity of some group that perceives itself to be marginalised, under threat, attacked on all sides. There will be no way that what I say about the ideas will not also be taken to be a comment on the group’s right to exist as a distinctive group with a particular cultural identity and heritage. So if, say, I discuss the nature of Islam in Britain today, I will tread particularly carefully – not because there is some mystic curtain of ‘respect’ that I dare not penetrate, but because I hope I’m not stupid enough to think that my words are uttered in a vacuum. Incidentally, I’m not saying that I’ll keep quiet because of some perceived threat of violent reaction. I’m saying that my words about ideas cannot avoid being political words: they cannot avoid being commentary on the contested rights, relationships, and identities of groups in my society – and I should therefore make sure that I tread as carefully as I would if I were making direct political statements.

The third is that our society has developed contexts, procedures and ‘etiquette’ for handling some forms of political disagreement. We know, on the whole, what can and cannot be said; we have arenas for conversation and argument. That we have such things is by no means automatic: it has taken time (and trouble) to evolve. For various reasons (the privatisation of religion is one of them) we have not evolved similar contexts for discussion of religious ideas. Dawkins is right to identify this as a problem, and like him, I do not want religion to hide behind an impenetrable wall that makes discussion impossible. Neverthereless, when we do debate religion in public, and when we do realise that what we are saying cannot avoid being political contentious in a broad sense, we will also have to recognise that building a context in which all this can be discussed productively is going to take a long time, and a lot of patient labour.

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