What is meant by "Respect"?

by Alan Rogers

The Welsh Government is committed, during the Fifth Assembly, to the revision of the school curriculum using the Donaldson Report “Successful Futures” as a guide for this work. I am interested in the treatment of religion in the proposed Humanities subject area proposed by Donaldson.

“Successful Futures” contains the word “respect” in its comment on Religious Education in the 21st Century. The paragraph on Page 46 of the report is given below:-

Despite the positive ways in which RE can contribute to the education of learners in the twenty-first century its position on the curriculum has been fragile[32]. Its role can be misunderstood as being about the promotion of a particular faith or belief system rather than developing respect and understanding of different forms of religion over time and in different societies.

What is meant by “Respect”?

The word ” respect” may be applied to a person, I think, without problem. A declaration of respect for an individual is the statement of an opinion about that person’s character and qualities – which may of course be in error. Jimmy Savile was, after all, awarded a Papal Knighthood by the Catholic Church for his quality of character and good worksi. Even the Vatican can make mistakes.

A civilised way to behave is to accord such respect to others unless one has clear and indisputable evidence of inadequacies in character and offensive qualities of the person under consideration.

Maintaining respect until it is clearly inappropriate maintains dialogue between persons allowing differences to be explored and, perhaps, an accommodation achieved.

Respect for abstract ideas and belief systems is more problematic. This difference is concealed by some persons insisting that their beliefs must/should be “respected”. Such an individual self-identifies with their belief, consequently criticism of these beliefs is interpreted as criticism of the holder of that belief. The convention that “ad hominem” attacks are inappropriate in a discussion of scientific or philosophical issues is an expression of the importance of this distinction. Sadly, this convention is often neglected in political discussion.

If philosophy, science and religion are to be discussed and debated, individuals must separate themselves emotionally from their beliefs. Quite simply they must be prepared to consider what they believe dispassionately. They must also accept analysis and criticisms of their beliefs by others as legitimate and not regard them and ad hominem attacks. Without this effort of will, no effective consideration of ideas is possible.

If the student in school begins with few strongly held beliefs it may be easy to consider alternatives but as conviction about these alternatives develops the objectivity fades. Contrary evidence may be ignored or forgotten, lapses in logical consistency may go unnoticed. If this analytical process is to be conducted, considerable effort must be maintained to remain objective. It is common for the leaders and adherents of religion to demand “respect” for their religion. This is incompatible with rigorous analysis of belief systems.

If the Humanities curriculum achieves just one thing it must be to impart skill in the dispassionate analysis of ideas.

The scientific method is a system which has been responsible for the most astounding advances in human understanding during the past four hundred years. It is the only reliable method we have for approaching truth about the world. I use the term “world” in the sense used by philosophers. It means everything in the universe outside of the mind which is thinking about the universe.

Nothing is excluded – the behaviour of others, the way they interact with the universe, the behaviour, structure and origins of the universe. Religion can only escape this analysis by hypothesising a “reality” which lies outside the universe. Gods, spirits (both good and evil) , miracles and messages from this external “reality” (revelation).

Now the creation of this external “reality” can be a work of the human imagination.

The issue is: Is it only a work of the human imagination?

It clearly can be a work of the human imagination since such overt works exist and are claimed by their authors to be works of the author’s imagination. The world of Harry Potter or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are typical of this. Some will argue “but Jesus was a real person”, well, probably but then Alice Liddell was a real person but the Adventures were imagined by Charles Dodgson.

Scientology is a good candidate for this attribution. It was the work of a single author, one Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard was a published author of fiction and the descriptions of the creed of Scientology strongly suggest a link with Hubbard’s fictional output. Nevertheless the adherents of Scientology seem to set this creed in the real universe. The UK Supreme Court has accepted Scientology as a religionii or perhaps a quasi-religion for the purpose of marriage. Should one “respect” Scientology? In so far as it claims to represent the nature of the universe I think this is quite impossible. Perhaps one might respect it as a work of fiction which was highly successful in creating wealth for the author… that depends upon one’s criteria for “respect”.

Is , say, Roman Catholicism any different in a fundamental way from Scientology? It is older and carries the patina of age which can provide an aura of respectability. Many generations have been indoctrinated from childhood in one version of Christianity or another. It has been the basis of Western Civilisation since the late Fourth Century when it became the official creed of the Roman Empire. Its claim to represent the real world depends largely upon historical analysis of documents. It turns out that very few (some would argue none) of these documents are first-hand accounts.

The canon of the Christian faith, the New Testament, is a selection of sources put together in the Third and Fourth centuries to support the dominant sect of Christianity which was to be adopted by the now decaying Roman Empire. Only four gospels were included. The gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Phillip and Thomas were deliberately excluded. If it is God’s word then it was severely censored by man.

The bulk of this historical “evidence” is, as Thomas Paine argues, “hearsay” iii which would be inadmissible in a law court.

Many events reported in this body of literary evidence are contrary to experience in the real world (reincarnation, parthenogenesis, etc) Indeed it is these “miraculous” events which, if believed, make Christianity a religion rather than a philosophy. Many details in these accounts are contradictory and the excluded documents are contradictory enough to be regarded in the Fourth Century as heretical.

Now this is not an argument that because religion is probably a work of the human imagination it is therefore not important. The human imagination may well be the most important thing about us as a species. Albert Einstein had to imagine riding on a beam of light to begin thinking in a new way about the physics of space and time in order to accommodate the experimental factiv that the speed of light was constant irrespective of the motion of the observer. He was guilty of a failure of imagination when he failed to imagine that the universe might not be eternally constant (really a religious belief although he was not a religious person) so he added a “cosmological constant” to the equations of the General Theory of Relativity to make them fit this assumption of an unchanging universe. Edwin Hubble v made the observations of the expansion of the universe a little while later and Einstein had to admit that the cosmological constant was his greatest mistake (or rather failure of imagination).

The argument I am putting is that religion is a creation of the human imagination but only if its priesthood can convince people that it is not a creation of the human imagination can religion survive and multiply the number its adherents. If a religion has components which imaginatively illustrate and promote socially good behaviour (for example some Christian parables) there is no reason why these should not be used in teaching – but this is not an example of servile “respect” it is the sensible use of the resources of human imaginative creativity to enrich the education of children.

The entirely predictable reaction of leaders of religion (whose life purpose is to maintain and, if possible, increase the number of adherents of their religion) is to oppose any challenge to the claim that religion deals with the real rather than the imaginary by declaring that such a challenge is “disrespectful”.

I am concerned that this part of school education should develop the student’s critical and analytical capabilities, which will be much needed by both the student and the society in which the student lives, than to pander to religious sensibilities and allow the leaders of religion to pass off works of the imagination as factual and indisputable truths which must be “respected”.


i  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20108980

ii  https://www.supremecourt.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0030_PressSummary.pdf

iii  Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3743/3743-h/3743-h.htm

iv  http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/physics/Michelson-MorleyExperiment.html

v  http://hubblesite.org/the_telescope/hubble_essentials/edwin_hubble.php


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