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Respecting Ignorance

William Edelen

When I read, or hear, the wimpish cliches that we should always respect others religious beliefs, I want to gag. I gag, thinking of the millions (as Thomas Jefferson put it) of human beings who have been mutilated, tortured and butchered in the name of religion, even as is happening today around the world.

H.L. Mencken, one of the most respected scholars and journalists in America spoke to this issue. It should be on the fridge door of every person. "The most unbelievable social convention of the age in which we live is the one to the effect that all religious opinions should be respected, no matter how ignorant."

The insidious and seductive cliche that seems to saturate the wimpish mind is that you should not be critical of another person's religious beliefs. They all deserve respect, no matter how superstitious.....they all deserve "respect".

This pathology of "respect" for ignorance in our society even motivated nationally syndicated, conservative columnist George Will to write:' "The principle of which all intellectual freedom depends is this: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH OFFENDING SOMEONE IN THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH." It reaches the absurd point where a person cannot even write a scholarly critique on a religious belief without being labeled and attacked. Distinguished scholars such as Joseph Campbell, or Dr. James Bennett Pritchard who was the biblical advisor to National Geographic magazine and Time-Life books write about the myth of the Hebrew patriarchs and the monumental exaggeration of Old Testament events and they are immediately attacked as being anti-semitic. An illustration from my own life. About a year ago I wrote a book review on "Biblical Archaeology and The Myth of Israel."' Only a book review, mind you. A book that received excellent reviews in the New York Times. Letters to the Editor came in calling me "anti-semitic" for reviewing the book.

We are so pathologically afraid of stepping on other people's toes that truth is unknown.

"Tolerance" and "respect" for ignorance and bigotry should have no place in our lives.

Robert Hutchins was the Dean of the Law School at Yale University at 28 years of age. He became the Chancellor of the University of Chicago at age 32.' He was obviously brilliant. His father was a professor of Philosophy at Oberlin College, one of the finest in America.' Hutchins tells the story of an event that changed his life. When he was a senior in hi school, he went to his father one day and started telling him his 'opinion' about a subject. After about 2 or 3 minutes his father stopped him with these words:' "Son... before you continue...let me remind you that you do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion."

What a blessing it would be if every Tom, Dick and Harry....Ruth, Jane and Betty....going around blabbering about the bible and Jesus and religion and evolution and the founders of this nation and myth and other great religions...would remember that story....memorize that story.... and before they start mouthing ignorance....realize that they do not know enough about the subject to even have an opinion.

But, you see, what we do more often than not is excuse ignorance and bigotry by saying .."well..they are sincere".;' We have this ludicrous belief that if a person is "sincere" it excuses everything.' George Bernard Shaw tells us that "the devil praises sincerity."' Hitler sincerely desired to get rid of the Jews. A devout cannibal sincerely believes in eating people. Robespiere was most sincere, even crying at the sight of blood, while sending people to the perfect sincerity. Who is more dangerous than a sincere fanatic? Who is more pathetic than a sincere fool?

In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Salman Rushdie presented one of the great truths of our time. He said this:

"Special interest groups, claiming the moral high ground, now demand the protection of the censor. The fundamentalist Christian Right say we must "respect" their beliefs and agenda. Criticism, they say, is off limits as being disrespectful. Citizens of free societies, democracies, do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens opinions. Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked.' And it is the skepticism of journalists, their unwillingness to be impressed, that is their most important contribution to the freedom of the free world....It is the disrespect of journalists for power....for orthodoxy...for party lines.. ..for ideologies.....for vanity.....for arrogance....for folly....for pretension....for corruption...and for stupidity... that I would like to celebrate...and that I urge you the name of preserve..."

"Respecting Ignorance" is copyright © 2001 by William Edelen.
The electronic version is copyright © 2001 Internet Infidels with the written permission of William Edelen.



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