Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Blackburn, religion and respect

I have mentioned Louise M. Antony's Philosophers without Gods before. But I have only just discovered that perhaps the best of the essays in the book -- though it is a close run thing: the collection is consistently good -- is available in draft form here. It is Simon Blackburn's piece 'Religion and Respect', which is simply terrific. Here he is, for example, writing about the way that a proper human respect for emotions can be hijacked by those urging that we should respect religious beliefs:

I have said that holding a false belief does not give anyone a title to respect. Insofar as I cannot share your belief, I have no reason to respect you for holding it -- quite the reverse, in fact. But the same is not true of emotions. If I happen upon the funeral of a stranger, I cannot feel the same grief as the close relatives and mourners. But I don’t think they are making any kind of mistake, or displaying any kind of fault or flaw or vice. On the contrary, we admire them for giving public expression to their grief, and if they did not show this kind of feeling they would be alien to us, and objects of suspicion. It is fair to say that we ought to respect their grief, and in practice we do. We may withdraw from the scene. Or, we may inconvenience ourselves to let them go ahead (we turn down our radio). Or, we may waive demands that would otherwise be made (we give them time off work). Similarly a birth or wedding is a happy occasion, and it is bad form to intrude on them with trouble and grief (let alone prophesies of such, as in many fairy stories). ... Peoples’ emotions are important, and whether or not we can empathize with them, we do accord them time and space and a kind of shelter.

Unfortunately, it is a gross simplification to bring the essence of religion down to emotion. The stances involved are far more often ones of attitude. And it is a fraud to take the space and shelter we rightly offer to emotional difference, and use it to demand respect for any old divergence of attitude. The relevant attitudes are often ones where difference implies disagreement, and then, like belief, we cannot combine any kind of disagreement with substantial respect. Attitudes are public.

Suppose, for example, the journey up the mountain brought back the words that a woman is worth only a fraction of a man, as is held in Islam. This is not directly an expression of an emotion. It is the expression of a practical stance or attitude, that may come out in all sorts of ways. It is not an attitude that commends itself in the egalitarian West. So should we ‘respect’ it? Not at all. ... I think it is a dreadful attitude and it is a blot on the face of humanity that there are people who hold it and laws and customs that express it.

The whole essay is shot through with the same straight-talking humane good sense. Read it! Even better, buy the book.

1 comment:

Karim Zahidi said...

I can only seond Peter Smith's comments on this book. It is indeed a very fine collection of wonderfull essays. I bought it a few months ago, and have since then delved into the essays quite regularly.
Super blog by the way Peter!!