In civilised parts of the world, where societies and state institutions are secular, we now respect people’s right to hold any religious belief, or none at all, as long as they do no harm to others. In some places, this has been a recent and insecure improvement.


But respecting someone’s right to hold a belief does not entail respecting the belief itself, or the judgement of the believer.


For example, some people believe the universe and all life on earth were created over six days around six thousand years ago. The rest of us respect their right to believe any nonsense they choose. But we have no respect for the belief itself, because there is overwhelming evidence that it is false. And no one deserves respect for being irrational.


As part of their mission to save the rest of us, religious people have been encouraged to hate the sin but love the sinner. As part of our mission to save them, I suggest we hate the delusion and help the deluded.


And we can do this by explaining their delusion patiently until they understand. Indulging them by respecting their irrational beliefs is patronising. Some beliefs are delusions, and with mentally healthy adults it does no good to pretend they are not.


Far from disrespecting me, someone who refutes a factual assertion I hold to be true is respecting my intelligence and doing me a favour. I may not enjoy the experience, but it would be immature and insecure to take offence.


But if people told me from childhood, and continued to let me believe, that my hero really spoke to a god in a burning bush, or was alive two days after his execution, or flew to heaven on a small winged horse, they would be showing me no respect whatsoever. They would be condemning me to superstitious ignorance.


We must be free to live our lives in superstitious ignorance if we choose. But we cannot expect others to respect our superstitions, or us for our ignorance.


Peter Holmes

31 January 2017