Respect for ignorance
July 31, 2011 by Bill
When I read, or hear, the wimpish clichés that we should always respect others’ religious beliefs, I want to gag. I gag, thinking of the millions (as Thomas Jefferson put it) of human beings who have been mutilated, tortured and butchered in the name of religion, even as is happening today around the world.
H. L. Mencken, one of the most respected scholars and journalists in America, spoke to this issue. It should be on every person’s fridge door: “The most unbelievable social convention of the age in which we live is the one to the effect that all religious opinions should be respected, no matter how ignorant.”
People fail to recognize that it was humans who created God, not the other way around.
The insidious and seductive cliché that seems to saturate some minds is that you should not be critical of another person’s religious opinions and beliefs. They all deserve respect no matter how ignorant, how bigoted… how ugly… how false… how cruel… how superstitious… they all deserve “respect.”
This pathology of “respect” for ignorance in our society even motivated nationally syndicated conservative columnist George Will to write: “The principle of which all intellectual freedom depends is this: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH OFFENDING SOMEONE IN THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH.” It reaches the absurd point where a person cannot even write a scholarly critique on a religious belief without being labeled and attacked. Distinguished scholars such as Joseph Campbell or Dr. James Bennett Pritchard, who was biblical advisor to National Geographic magazine and Time-Life books, write about the myth of the Hebrew patriarchs and they are immediately attacked as being anti-semitic. An illustration from my own life: Some years ago I wrote a book review on “Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel.” Only a book review, mind you. A book that had excellent reviews in the New York Times. Letters to the editor came in calling me anti-semitic for reviewing the book.
We are so pathologically afraid of stepping on other people’s toes that truth is unknown. Tolerance and “respect” for ignorance and bigotry should have no place in our lives.
From our own American Indians to Brazil, the bashing of other cultures by the orthodox, “true believer” Christian is one of the great crimes of human history. If you want to have your heart wrenched, read “The Missionaries” by Norman Lewis. It is a documentation of how Christian missionaries destroyed the Panare of Brazil, one of the most beautiful native cultures in the world. Let us not forget the “bashing” of children’s minds by the “true believer” ignorant Christian teachers who tell a grade school child that she killed Jesus.
And yet, we are asked by this kind of mentality to respect the ignorance and cruelty of these “true believers.”
Robert Hutchins was the Dean of Yale law school and Chancellor of the University of Chicago at age 32… obviously brilliant. His father was a professor of Philosophy at Oberlin College. Hutchins said a lesson he never forgot was this: He went to his father one day to give him his “opinion” about some subject when he was a Senior in high school. After about 3 or 4 minutes, his father stopped him with these words: “Son, before you continue… let me remind you that you do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.”
What a blessing it would be if every Tom, Dick and Harry… Ruth, Jane and Betty going around blabbering about the bible and Jesus and religion and evolution and abortion and God and myth and other religious doctrines, would remember that story… memorize that story, and before they start mouthing off their ignorance, realize that they do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.
But you see, what we do more often than not is to excuse ignorance and bigotry by saying that stupid cliché: “oh well… they are sincere.” To be “sincere” is supposed to excuse almost every ignorant belief. George Bernard Shaw tells us that “the devil praises sincerity.” Hitler sincerely desired to get rid of the Jews. A devout cannibal sincerely believes in eating people. Robespierre was most sincere, crying at the sight of blood while sending people to the guillotine in perfect sincerity. Who is more dangerous than a sincere fanatic? Who is more pathetic than a sincere fool?
In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Salman Rushdie presented one of the great truths of our time. He said this:
“Special interest groups, claiming the moral high ground, now demand the protection of the censor. The Christian Right say we must ‘respect’ their beliefs and agenda. Criticism, they say, is off limits as being disrespectful. Citizens of free societies, democracies, do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens’ opinions. Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked. And it is the skepticism of journalists, their unwillingness to be impressed that is their most important contribution to the freedom of the free world. It is the disrespect of journalists for power, for orthodoxy, for party lines, for ideologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly or pretension, for corruption and for stupidity, that I would like to celebrate, and that I urge you all, in the name of freedom, to preserve…”
It has never been better said.