Respect – a personal view

The recent death of Aretha Franklin has meant that the song called Respect, which she made famous, has received a lot of attention.

Respect is a concept that, rightly or wrongly, is generally held in high esteem, but it is sometimes used as a weapon to discredit people who are deemed to show ‘insufficient respect’ over some matter or another, even though respect being deserved or not depends on your viewpoint.

There are words I have a natural liking for, others that I don’t. For example, even among people who have no religious belief, the word ‘spiritual’ often receives a high degree of respect. Personally it has always seemed to me a rag-bag of a word that covers a wide range of practices, many of which might best be described as ‘ill-defined’. As a word, I dislike it, but I am fairly neutral about respect.

It’s uncontroversial to respect people’s right to their opinions, their religion, their political party, and any number of other things. I respect that. But when it comes to religion it seems to me that the idea of respect is often used by believers in an attempt to facilitate the status quo, or help validate assertions that have little or no meaning. Believers in gods of one kind or another demand respect for their beliefs in almost direct proportion to their inability to provide credible proof that the god they claim they come from actually exists. When challenged, they frequently fall back on the notion that people are being offensive, not showing sufficient respect.

You may find this surprising, but I was reading the bible the other day. In my defence it was in the spirit of the atheist comedian W. C. Fields, who when discovered reading the bible on his death bed declared he was ‘looking for the loophole’. Actually, that sounds to me as if he might have been hedging his bets in the manner of Pascal’s wager. In which case, I don’t respect it. What I was looking for, was what the bible said about belief and faith, and I came across this in St Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews 11:1:

‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’.

I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing out what is wrong with this biblical tomfoolery, this egregious, boss-eyed nonsense. It is in line with some believers’ tendencies to screw their intellectual eyes up so that everything is a blur, and say ‘Ah yes, I see everything clearly now’. It is drivel of the kind I see no reason to respect, and I can’t, and won’t, spare believers’ feelings by saying otherwise out of so-called respect for their adherence to a belief. Far too much respect is paid to idiocy like this.

But I find no difficulty whatsoever in saying, for example, that many Christians put their beliefs into practice diligently and with sincerity, in a way that benefits the entire human community. I respect that.

I can’t, however, accept that all their beliefs and actions are for the universal good. When it comes, say, in the form of prejudice against groups like the LBGT community. That I don’t respect.

Many of my discussions with believers have ended with them taking refuge from reasoning by saying the existence of god is something they ‘feel’ to be the truth. I ask them what this means, and have from time to time suggested that using feelings as the basis for believing in something sounds to me like using a screwdriver to tighten a nut, or a spanner on a screw. How anybody can ask for respect for using this method to validate a belief is beyond my comprehension, and I show it no respect.

Then there are things like the abuse that has been carried out by priests, and occasionally by more senior members of the clergy. I don’t always blame the various churches concerned for the wrong that has been done – paedophiles are devious and manipulative, and skilled at covering their traces – but, as with politics, it is the cover up that is always unacceptable, and that is made easier by the exaggerated respect given to religion and the clergy. This shows the other side of respect, the dangers of being respectful to people because of their status or their belief.

The Catholic church, in particular, requires obedience, and respect for the clergy, and that provides significant opportunities for harm. The Pope during his recent visit to Ireland offered only hollow words, not concrete proposals to effect change in the future. He stood in front of the believers effectively naked. He demonstrated no respect for the victims of abuse, respect in this case demanded action that never came.

I do not offer respect without thought as to whether it is truly deserved. Without thought it has no meaning. Disrespect, where it is needed, does have real value and purpose. Let’s value disrespect as much as respect.

You may have noticed that I don’t capitalise the word god, but to me that would granting an invisible being far too much respect.

Paul Surman 6/9/18