Respecting Each Others' Beliefs

I adapted this from a message I posted to a local discussion list following a sometimes heated discussion on alternative medicine (alt.med), in which accusations of aggression and attacking, and demands for respect for each others' beliefs were bandied about, which got me thinking...

Firstly what do we mean by 'respect'? It can mean 'admire' or it can mean 'tolerate'.

And what do we mean by 'beliefs'? We use the term rather loosely. There's the rhetorical:

Belief in god is of course the biggie. Me: I'm an atheist: I'm as sure there's not a god as I'm sure that that day will follow night. I could give you all sorts of evidence and arguments to justify my belief. But my parents were atheists too, and I probably got it from them, just as most of us get our religious beliefs from our parents, friends, schools, community, the culture around us: that's why there tend to be swathes of Christians in one part of the world, Muslims in another, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists etc elsewhere. To be sure, a few people buck the trend (both my parents came from religious backgrounds) but I don't think we consciously choose whether to believe in god - or which god - any more than we choose to be straight or gay. So if my parents had believed in god I probably would too, and I'm sure I'd be able to give you just as good an argument for my belief as I can for my atheism.

If you believe in a god I respect – as in "tolerate" rather than "admire" – that just as much as I respect your sexuality, gender, skin colour or anything else you have no choice over. It's fine with me.

If you believe in god you probably believe you should behave in certain ways depending on your religious culture: go to church, chapel, mosque or temple; pray, chant, meditate or whatever; and maybe that you shouldn't eat on certain days, should cover your head or your whole face or even your whole body. OK, I respect-as-in-tolerate that too.

However if your belief extends to what I or others should or shouldn't do – whether it's that I should go to your church on a Sunday, or that my sisters should wear a veil in public – then No Way! I don't think you have any right to dictate what I can or can't do just because of your own beliefs. And that includes dictating whether I can burn a book, make a cartoon of someone, put on a play portraying someone as homosexual, or whatever. If you feel offended by these things then that's tough! Sticks and stones ...

Opinions, rather than beliefs, are much more straightforward: I think it's going to rain; you don't. No big deal: we've both been wrong about it in the past and we might be wrong this time. Or who's going to win a sports match: we could argue about the strengths and weaknesses of the players but until the match is played we don't know how it will actually turn out. And science is like that: you might predict that something should happen, I might predict something else; we can argue about it, but until we do an experiment to find out we won't be sure. In these instances we can respect – as in admire – each other's theories, knowledge of the subject and ability to think about the matter and express one's opinions, even though we may disagree on the opinions themselves.

Where it all seems to go pear-shaped, with one person feeling attacked by the other and maybe even storming out and slamming the door, is where one person has a religious/faith-type belief in something that another person has scientific-type opinions about.

There are people who bandy about terms like "healing energy". When I ask them what this is they may say something like "it's the psychic energy channelled by karmic crystals" which doesn't satisfy me because I want to be able to relate this "healing energy" to other forms of energy I know about (potential energy, kinetic energy, chemical energy, the energy embodied in radiation of various frequencies - that sort of thing). So I go on asking ("what is this psychic energy") and getting frustrated because I never get an answer that makes sense to me, and the healing-energy person feels that I'm interrogating them.

So what's happening from their point of view? I think that to them "healing energy" is a matter of faith rather than opinion, a bit like like God: they don't question its existence, or what it has for breakfast or where it goes to the toilet – it Just Is.

Now, as I say, if someone believes in god I respect-as-in-tolerate that and don't hassle them for evidence to prove their god's existence because I know that it's basically ingrained. We could argue about it, and we'd probably end up getting angry with each other, but we wouldn't change each other's beliefs.

But with the "healing energy" person I'm under the impression that we're talking about opinions and trying to discuss it in that way, but for them it's a faith-type belief and all they experience is me "attacking" it – and them – almost as if I were challenging their belief in god.

So in effect I'm not respecting their beliefs. My bad. I guess I need to recognise when someone is coming from a position of faith-belief rather than empirical, evidence-based, scientific opinion; and to find a way of politely disengaging from fruitless argument.

By the way I'm not saying a belief in alt.med is at the same level as belief in a god. Going from believing to not believing in god is likely to be a much more dramatic and profound event in someone's life than going from believing to not believing in alt.med. But I am suggesting that they are the same kinds of thing: faith-based beliefs rather than evidence-based opinions.

I think what sometimes happens, if one doesn't have a scientific background and sceptical attitude – perhaps you're more a humanities type or a "people person" than a things person – is that one hears someone talking about something ("healing energy" or whatever) – maybe using sciencey-sounding words like "vibrational energy", "energy fields", "magnetic", "electromagnetic", "quantum", "science" and "scientific" – and they sound as if they know what they're on about, and you get a good feeling from their confident, congruent manner that you can trust them and you even get a feeling that you're understanding the sciencey-sounding stuff, even though you find you can't convincingly explain it to someone else afterwards.

For example here is someone talking in a confident, congruent, sciencey-sounding way – that hundreds of people in the audience and probably thousands more viewers on YouTube probably found absolutely convincing – about something which is, scientifically speaking, utter nonsense; a sciencey word soup worthy of Dodgson, guaranteed to reduce anyone with the most basic understanding of science to carpet-chewing apoplexy!

I have a suggestion to offer the alt.med-type folks: if you're offended by people challenging your beliefs then don't present them as being science. Be aware that if you use sciencey-sounding words and present your ideas as if you understand how they work then some scientific/sceptical type is likely to challenge you to explain them. Ideally, leave out the science vocabulary, or at least make it clear that when you use such words they don't have their usual scientific meaning; they mean just what you choose them to mean, "neither more nor less"!

Or, if you're passing on an idea you got from someone else who sounded as if they knew what they were talking about, then say so. Don't say that "healing energy is psychic energy channelled by karmic crystals", say that Dr Canard of the University of Charles La Ton says "healing energy is ..." etc. Then if I say that Dr Canard is a cretin you won't feel as insulted as if I had called you a cretin! ;-).

And if you get upset when a sciencey person questions your beliefs, please realise that they aren't necessarily setting out to upset you. We tend to really, truly love exploring and challenging other people's ideas – and exploring our own ideas when others challenge us to – and genuinely can't understand people not engaging in and enjoying challenging thinking. (Someone once said "arguing with an engineer is like wrestling with a pig: after a while you realise you're covered in mud and the pig is enjoying it"!)

Also please realise that if you claim that something like "healing energy" has an objective, observable, scientific reality but demand that we take it on trust – faith – rather than testable evidence, then you are attacking our (sciencey people's) beliefs: for us it is axiomatic that the world – including medicine and health – can, in principle, be understood scientifically. So if you demand that we accept your belief without evidence then you are not respecting our belief!

Comments? This isn't a 'proper' blog so you'll have to email them to me. Though that's not much different from blogs where comments have to be approved by the blog owner, and at least you don't have to faff around typing in indecipherable CAPTCHA characters!


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