Religious Friends

The other day, I got a question from a friend…

“Did you really say that you ‘respect people too much to respect their beliefs’, or something?”

So here’s how that went (more or less):

“I did, yes. Kind of.” I replied, grinning. “It’s a quote from a guy called Johann Hari actually; ‘I respect you as a person too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs’ is what he said, I think.”

“Isn’t it a bit -”



We both paused. I broke the silence.

“I don’t think so. There’s a distinction, a line between disagreeing with someone and hating them… Put it this way; there’s no reason to unconditionally ‘respect’ a belief that’s, say, overtly homophobic or otherwise wrong.”

‘Wrong’ raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, again, I respect each and every person’s right to hold whatever beliefs they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to respect the content of those beliefs.”

“But… Don’t a person’s beliefs shape who they are?”

“Yes, to a degree”, I admit, “But when a very nice person believes immoral things, I have a problem with it. When they believe something wrong, less so – but I still see no problem criticising it for the sake of discussion. And besides, beliefs can change.”

Which, sadly, is where I remember the conversation ending.

On another occasion, the same friend and I were talking about belief again (although it could well have been before the ‘first’ time above)… Here’s that:

“I think it’s silly for someone to say that ‘all religious people are stupid’, like you say”, I said.

“But you do think they’re wrong, don’t you?”

“Yes. But to say that they’re ‘stupid’ is a whole other matter… If I thought they were stupid, I’d have to admit that people who decide to dismiss their religious upbringings suddenly get smarter, but that doesn’t happen.”

Or, for that matter, that the few who ‘find God’ later in life experience a sudden dip in intelligence – which is equally absurd. 

“So why do you, or others, make fun of religion?”

“I don’t spend all of my time ‘making fun’ of only religion – it just happens to be one of the topics where ‘making fun’ is seen as rude, as some kind of personal attack on each and every believer. It isn’t, by the way. The shame is: even decent religious people are often quick to point to ‘offence’ whenever someone disagrees with them.”

“It’s a sensitive subject. People care a lot about -”

“I know they do. You do, but I know you can take the factual (or even moral) criticism of your religion without demonising the person asking the questions – or the questions themselves – outright. Nothing should ever be exempt from criticism.”

“So… Do you ever worry about ‘offending’ close friends, or not?”

“Well, yes and no. It depends… I wouldn’t want to think I’m ever being unfairly direct, or ‘arrogant’ about it; but then again, I’d hate to think I ever hold back from saying what I think – especially when around friends.”

“I don’t think you’re ‘arrogant’ about it, but some are.”

“Yes, some are. I simply try not to be unless someone begs it of me. Otherwise, insulting someone well-meaning outright detracts from the ‘goal’ of the conversation: reasonable discussion… Saying that though, it’s hard to know what is and what isn’t unfairly ‘insulting’ – everyone has a different measure of it, a different line to not cross which they draw where they feel.”

“So, don’t cross it.”

“No, that’s not the point. I can understand the need to not be an intentional arsehole about a specific person’s beliefs to their face, but those who set their offence ‘line’ so broadly as to include anything from reference to how true or false their religion is (which, by the way, is a wholly scientific claim) to asserting that homosexuality is not wrong, I will openly ridicule.”

And that’s it. Needless to say, the two conversations likely went nothing like that
at all… But hey, it’s the points made which count – namely:

  • Criticising a religious belief is not the same as criticising a religious believer.
  • Friendly discussion goes a long way.
  • Fear of ‘insulting’ and/or ‘offending’ someone, especially a friend, should never win over honesty.

Have a nice weekend people,

Carnun :P

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4 thoughts on “Religious Friends

  1. It’s taken me a few years to come to terms with accepting friends who have faith in their lives. It has caused me much more anxiety and anger than I could describe here. I still detest religion and faith as a general principle. That will never change. However, I can appreciate my friends for who they are, as not just their religious practices. It’s very hard, but you can look beyond the faith element to see the other beautiful things about someone, and if you care enough to be their friend, then you will get there.

    Thanks for writing on this issue – I imagine many of us can relate.

    • You’re welcome. And thank you for leaving a kind reply :)

      I can understand that. I abhor organised religion, yet find myself surrounded by many who subscribe to it.

      They are nice, smart people. But they know that I think it’s in spite of their varying degrees of religiosity, not because of them. They respect that, I respect them.

      Which of course begs the question of whether I’d prefer if they’d ‘go all the way’, intellectually-speaking. I would, but there are so many personal barriers for each and every person to overcome – and while I care very deeply about what is true, I think I can make room for those who believe in, frankly, falsehoods, so long as they are nice, ‘tolerant’ people. Plus, the best way to introduce Atheism to these friends is, I feel, by showing them just how reasonable it is – not teasing them*.

      *Unless they say something exceptionally silly, in which case I reserve the right to make fun (especially because they’re close, and should know better).

  2. Lots of sense here. There are lots of people who I like and respect so much that I’ll point it out (respectfully, obviously) when I think they’re making a mistake. On the other hand, it’s the people who I think are simply idiots who I just won’t engage with. Why bother telling someone their beliefs don’t make sense if your arguments are going to be ignored or misunderstood? I think we’ve probably all had moments like that in conversations online.

    • Thank you :)

      “There are lots of people who I like and respect so much that I’ll point it out (respectfully, obviously) when I think they’re making a mistake. On the other hand, it’s the people who I think are simply idiots who I just won’t engage with” – exactly. I sometimes feel obliged to call people up on things precisely because they’re close, and ‘should know better’ – but when it comes to those who dodge questions/outright refuse to take anything you say as even remotely possibly true, forget it…

      Then again, if it’s done online, then ‘discussions’ with idiots can serve a productive purpose, even if small: showing a few in the ‘audience’ just how ridiculous the other person is, and exposing them to your arguments.

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