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June 15, 2008


neil craig

Or as Mencken put it in fewer words:

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."


So are you saying that it is "inherently unreasonable" for any religious group to ask for respect?

Oliver Kamm

Yes, of course. The most, as well as the least, that any religious group is entitled to is freedom of belief, conscience, speech, worship and association, and that there be no religious test for public office. To ask for respect as well is inherently unreasonable.


It is, or course, irrelevant to its veracity how many people believe in an issue, as Galileo observed 400 years ago. Are we now to have, in the manner of "Dancing on Ice", a phone-in vote, or show of hands on Question Time, on whether Darwin of Bishop Ussher is correct about the "creation"? With the weak-kneed defence of Rationality that we are seeing in our media, and principally the BBC, even that would not surprise me.


"I hope it doesn’t sound flippant, but I think the first and perhaps biggest change would be in manners. Honor and manners — treating people according to their legitimate expectations of respect and consideration — have always gone together, and it’s not coincidental that the decline of the one has coincided with the decline of the other. The problem isn’t just that people are so often ill-mannered but that they are ill-mannered on principle — namely the principle of personal and emotional authenticity. They have learned to think that it is hypocrisy to conceal their emotions, even when these are offensive and ugly to those who are forced to witness them. From this principle, all else — including the sexual revolution, the celebrity culture, the self-esteem movement and the random violence and general vulgarization of public life — follows, and therefore the principle should be called into question at every opportunity. And the most important opportunity is when we are raising our children. I don’t think it’s impossible to teach even today’s kids that respect for themselves and others as expressed through courtesies unconnected with and even in defiance of the way they feel is a noble aspiration, while making a parade of their emotions amounts not to genuineness but to contemptible weakness and narcissism. If we could make just that one change in our culture — though it is admittedly not a small one! — we would make a giant step towards the reclamation of honor for our times. Once that step was taken, the next would be to reclaim the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate violence, instead of clinging to our utopian illusion that all violence is equally to be deplored, and male and female privileges, duties and obligations."
(James Bowman interviewed by David Frum)


How can you possibly respect the idea that one fellow rose from the dead and floated up to 'heaven', or that another flew there on a winged horse for an overnight stay (Have you ever seen a winged horse?).
I can accept that these ideas appeal to some folk, but lets not pretend they have any merit. Nobody respects the notion that Zeus makes lighting any more!


There is an important distinction between showing respect for a person and showing respect for their beliefs.

While I agree with Oliver that nobody is entitled to expect that their beliefs will be accorded respect, that is not an excuse for treating disrespectfully those who hold beliefs that are different from ours and which we find unbelievable.

Oliver Kamm

You're misusing the word "disrespectfully" to mean something like "insultingly". I do not consider that attacking someone's deepest beliefs is insulting, though it is certainly disrespectful. There is nothing wrong in treating someone disrespectfully.



I think there is a difference between treating someone disrespectfully and treating someone's beliefs (including their deepest beliefs)disrespectfully.

This does not mean that we should be deferential to others. Nor does it mean that we cannot make robust criticisms of their beliefs and their behaviour. But it does recognize that people are more than the sum of their beliefs.

If you have a problem with my using the word respectful in this context, why not use civil instead. I think that civility towards others is to be commended even as we make determined attacks on their beliefs. Aside from the undoubted benefit that it improves the quality of public debate, it also suggests confidence that (some) people will change their minds when confronted with better arguments.


Mark surely has a point?

When you exchange polite and firm arguments for offence and insults, don't you just push the other person away from seeing your side?
(And maybe you also push him even deeper to his own beliefs?)

Oliver Kamm

Mark, my whole point was that civility is not the same thing as respect. If you're now telling me that you didn't mean respect, but something else, then my point is made.

Putzi, you will be hard pressed to show where I have ever advocated insulting someone. I have no intrinsic objection to offending someone, which is in any case outside my control.

Precision, please.

Martin Kelly

Mr. Kamm,

At the risk of having previous comments of mine thrown back in my face, while I would agree with your remark that for any demonination to ask for respect merely because it is a denomination is unreasonable, I would cavil at your suggestion that there is nothing inherently wrong with treating someone or something disrespectfully.

Civility in the form of respectful behaviour is a quality in decline, and which we could all do with more of in our lives, not least in my own. As far as the Muslims who are the subject of your post are concerned, they might wish their denomination, unusually also an expansionist ideology, to be exempted from critique. This would be in keeping with that denomination's history of seeking to dominate every society into which it has been introduced. The cries of its adherents, and the violent lengths to which some are prepared to go, make it exceptional amongst modern beliefs. Its ideological aspects are thus uniquely deserving of disrespect - but not its spiritual. The ideological aspects must be heavily critiqued at every opportunity, otherwise we risk sleepwalking into dhimmitude - an historical fact which it ill behoves secularists to ignore. On the other hand, the spiritual side should be discussed respectfully, otherwise a risk of alienation is run, as another commentor has quite rightly pointed out. Whether the ideological and spiritual aspects of Islam can ever be fully separated is, of course, another matter altogether, and not condign to this post.

Oliver Kamm

Once more, then.

Civility and respect are not synonyms, nor is respect a necessary part of civility. If the phrase "treating someone respectfully" is merely another way of saying "treating someone with civility" then it is redundant and confusing. If it means anything more than that, then it's certainly not something that's inherently reasonable or desirable. A discussion of spirituality will, in particular, not be conducted respectfully by me.

Martin Kelly

Mr. Kamm,

I'm with you now.


John Gibson

Oliver, I see the overlap of respect and civility thusly:

As far as respect means esteem, regard and deference, the bigot, in an in group-out group encounter, will deliberately withhold civility in order to communicate disrespect. But, insofar as there is transactional transparency, and one is able to emotionally read the person with whom one interacts, civil treatment of the other implies respect where incivility is not employed as a device of personal degradation. Civility is a recognition of our shared humanity, willful, calculated prejudicial incivility is its denial.

My point is that you can say anything you want about anything I think, but as long as you listen to me, think about what I say, and then express your disrespectful opinion of my opinion, I would not consider myself personally disrespected. No matter how stupid or awful you think what I have said is, or how bluntly or cuttingly you say it, you have not disrespected me simply because you were civil, and did not employ uncivil behavior to demean me or deny my status as your social peer.

No idea is above critique, and thus there is no right to having one's belief's respected, or feelings considered in discussion of ideas. Personal respect or disrespect however are earned not by simple agreement or disagreement in the field of ideas or belief, but by behavior which is otherwise reputable or disreputable. Of course, such disreputable behavior may include the willful propagation of destructive and/or harmful false ideas. We are each, however, entitled to a recognition of our shared humanity and, when and as such is the case, shared citizenship from our fellow humans and citizens.

Hilary Wade

Reminds me of that quote from Gaudy Night.

"[My husband is] writing a paper that contradicts all old Lambard’s conclusions, and I’m helping by toning down his adjectives and putting in deprecatory footnotes. I mean, Lambard may be a perverse old idiot, but it’s more dignified not to say so in so many words. A bland and deadly courtesy is more devastating, don’t you think?"



I'm not convinced by the sharp distinction you want to draw betwen the idea of respect and the idea of civility, but I am also not convinced of the value of haggling over definitions and contemporary usage.

My central point, which I don't think you have addressed, is the distinction between the belief and the person who holds the belief. My suggestion is that no belief is automatically entitled to respect; respect would have to be established through discussion and criticism. However the person who holds the belief is entitled to our respect as a person (that is, capable of reason and able to change their beliefs when given good ground so to do) unless by their actions they show themselves unworthy to be respected.

Thus, for a belief, respect must be earned; for a person respect is due, but can be lost.



Mark, perhaps a better distinction for you would be that one should respect a person's right to hold a given belief, but not necessarily the belief, or the person.

Ysabel Howard

Two things:
In order for 'respect' to be shown to nonsense and nonsensical people who think the whole world revolves around them and their beliefs, others must surrender their self-respect, minds of their own, coming from somewhere else - to a non-believer Mohammed was the author of the Qu'ran and so of the verses bombers use to justify bombing of which the cartoon is a graphic representation.
The concept of personal space inhibits marching up to a total stranger and telling him he is wearing a completely disgusting tie or her that her skirt is just so last year. This does not inhibit free and frank discussion in fashion mags.

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