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Respecting Ignorance

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 ignorant…how bigoted…how ugly…how
false….how cruel….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
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 guillotine…in 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 all….in the name of freedom….to preserve…”

“Respecting Ignorance” is copyright © 2001 by William Edelen.

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