Do ideas deserve respect?

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post in which I criticized atheists who show disrespect to Christians and Muslims. Some people may have misunderstood what I was trying to say.

It’s a widely held belief that we should treat other people’s beliefs with respect. I don’t subscribe to that. Here’s why.

Nazis and white supremacists believed that one kind of person is superior to another. Is that a belief that deserves respect?

My own ancestors, the Celts, believed that human sacrifice was a virtue. That is an obnoxious belief.

An alarming number of people believe that the Queen of England is an alien reptile from another planet. That is an absurd belief. It deserves ridicule, not respect.

I believe that people deserve respect, not beliefs.

If you stand up in a public place and declare that the Pope is a banana and no one says anything, are people respecting your belief or are they disrespecting you by treating you like an idiot?

Beliefs are abstract things. They are not us. They are not part of us.

We can believe in ideas if we want to, but we should keep them at a distance, question their validity and hold them to account. That’s how we refine and improve our beliefs and make them better. It’s the very foundation of all critical and progressive thinking.

Beliefs are tools. We are their masters. But false beliefs can enslave us. They are like a disease that spreads from one person to another. The cure is discussion and debate.

We must always respect others, and if we truly respect people we will have the courage to challenge them and question their beliefs.


25 responses to “Do ideas deserve respect?

  1. “I believe that people deserve respect, not beliefs.” Nice distinction. Mandela and Gandhi back that up (I think you’ve seen my quotes to that effect in
    ). But I don’t want to lose sight of your first post. There’s a nice way and a rude way to challenge someone’s beliefs. Usually, the nice way will suffice.

    • The nice way is also the only effective way. Insults get people nowhere fast.

      • Yes. This is what I’ve tried to convey to the asshole atheist in my life. He doesn’t get it. But he doesn’t get it, generally. Since he is smarter than almost everyone, he doesn’t seem to think anyone deserves his unreserved respect.

  2. Agreed. The problem with the confrontational approach is that you rarely win someone over by leading with “hey, asshole.” On the other hand, I live in the deep south of the USA, and occasionally you meet someone, e.g., so overtly racist that you really do have to open with “hey, asshole” (i.e., you can’t convert them so you settle for vigorously disarming them, ideologically speaking).

  3. I generally don’t label people as “assholes” because of their beliefs. I may believe that their beliefs are asinine, or I may believe that they are behaving like asses. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are assholes. They could be, though, as Daedalus Lex just noted.

  4. Fan of Dickens

    Well put. If challenges had not been made against values leading to abuse, we would still have foot binding, apartheid and widespread slavery. We can respect a nation but not condone particular practises such as child labour and female circumcision, and remember that not all members of countries involved in such practises condone them. As for individuals, whilst I know it is the right thing to condemn vicious behaviour, not the person committing it, sometimes it is terribly hard not to see someone as anything other than a nasty git.

  5. I definitely appreciate some good old fashioned philosophical food for thought. I think you are very reasonable in your assertions from a moral standpoint, though I am kind of a believer in the fact that essentially who we are is composed widely on what we believe in. Then again I’m kind of a jerk in that I don’t believe every person deserves respect either.
    Nicely done, I am looking forward to reading the comments on this post too because you opened up for some nice discussion.

  6. Very well put. Opinions and beliefs should always be well thought out and occasionally challenged. Nobody should blindly repeat the beliefs of another unless they’ve held up to thoughtful reasoning.

  7. I’ve never thought of the idea vs. person. I guess it’s like “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Thought-provoking piece. I’m visiting here from the yeah write weekly writing challenge (

  8. I have trouble differentiating between thinker and thought. When someone disrespects me on account of my gender–especially when this is led by religious bias–I generally think they ARE assholes. Thought leads to belief leads to behaviour. You are the sum of your parts. That’s not to say the condition is permanent. But you are, in that moment of disrespect, an asshole.

    • I totally get that. But anyone can change. We can change our beliefs and we can change our behaviour. Of all the creatures in the world, humans have the greatest capacity for change. But first we need a reason.

  9. What a wonderful distinction that it is PEOPLE and not beliefs that deserve respect. I think that society has gotten out of hand with the belief that if some disagrees with their beliefs or religion that they are personally not respected. It is far from the truth. I was raised Roman Catholic, but that is not who I AM. I think people have become too attached to labels and have stopped looking beyond them and that we are all individuals and persons with hearts and feelings behind the labels. Great post Steve.

    • Yes, I think that attaching labels to people is the root cause of many of the world’s problems. We need to see that we are all people, and that ideas and beliefs are like personal preferences for food or music – they don’t define what we are.

  10. Beliefs are abstract things. They are not us. They are not part of us.

    This statement really resonated with me. For a dogmatic person, beliefs become part of their identity.. and just the step of rejecting or changing that notion becomes really difficult. S/he is basically changing who they think they are, and they will resist that process.

    When someone can disconnect their sense of identity from their beliefs, only then can they participate in discussions receptively.

    • Yes, it is easy to become ensnared by beliefs. Part of the problem is a kind of pride. If I say something and you tell me it is wrong, I might take it as a personal attack. I might feel I need to defend a belief because to admit it is wrong is to say that “I” am wrong, rather than the belief is wrong.

      If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to help them to see the truth themselves. This is not easy. Sometimes people cannot change because they have too much invested in a belief.

  11. Fan of Dickens

    PS Just finished your book and really enjoyed it. There is so much I would like to comment on, but I don’t want to post spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet!

  12. But the truth about the banana pope must be heard!

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