No, Atheists Don't Have to Show "Respect" for Religion
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"Can't we all just get along?"
Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people's religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview... to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else's religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.
And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.
Don't atheists want a world where everyone's right to their own religious views -- including no religious views -- is universally acknowledged? Don't we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don't we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?
Oh, let's see. Where shall I begin?
Well, for starters: It's bullshit.
Progressive and moderate religious believers absolutely have objections to religious beliefs that are different from theirs. Serious, passionate objections. They object to the Religious Right; they object to Al Qaeda. They object to right-wing fundamentalists preaching homophobic hatred, to Muslim extremists executing women for adultery, to the Catholic Church trying to stop condom distribution in AIDS-riddled Africa, to religious extremists all over the Middle East trying to bomb each other back to the Stone Age. Etc., etc., etc. Even when they share the same nominal faith as these believers, they are clearly appalled at the connection: they fervently reject being seen as having anything in common with them, and often go to great lengths to distance themselves from them.
And they should. I'm not saying they shouldn't. In fact, one of my main critiques of progressive believers is that their opposition to hateful religious extremists isn't vehement enough.
But it's disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive... and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don't get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ's message wrong (or Mohammad's, or Moses', or Buddha's, or whoever) -- and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you're the one getting it wrong. That's just not playing fair.
And, of course, it's ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse -- as so many progressive ecumenical believers do -- and then expect religion to get a free pass. It's absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc... and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.
However, if ecumenicalism were just hypocritical bullshit, I probably wouldn't care very much. Hypocritical bullshit is all over the human race like a cheap suit. I'm not going to get worked up into a lather every time I see another example of it. So why does this bug me so much?
Well, it also bugs me because -- in an irony that would be hilarious if it weren't so screwed-up -- a commitment to ecumenicalism all too often leads to intolerance and hostility toward atheists.