I respect people, not beliefs.

One of the things that gets under my skin is how comfortable some people are blurting out their assumptions about me when they hear I'm an atheist, but get really upset when I disagree with their most deeply held beliefs, even if done so politely. I won't pretend to know why people who supposedly hold such firm beliefs can get so unbelievably upset when someone else disagrees with them. You would think that such strong belief and devotion wouldn't be so easily offended by simple disagreement, but you'd be surprised at some of the conversations I've had after revealing that I don't believe in any gods.

People have a strangely easy time accepting people of other religious denominations, but can't seem to get over the fact that I simply don't believe, at all. I'm continually surprised how many people just can't fathom that someone might genuinely not believe what they do. They act so bewildered that they even accuse me of knowing "the truth" and just pretending I don't believe so I can sin; an extremely rude accusation to say the least. I've tried many different conversational tactics to help them realize that I truly do not believe what they do. Most people get very offended when I compare their god to something like Santa Claus. One of my friends got pretty upset with me when I called his god "magical" in casual conversation. I didn't even think twice about it. In fact, I still don't understand why that is offensive considering that an all powerful god is supposed to be able to do anything and know everything, but I digress.

Because they themselves don't believe in Santa, but do believe in their almighty creator, they immediately take extreme offense to the comparison. It's hard to make them see that I don't mean to offend them, but am simply trying to help them understand how I honestly regard their deity. I'm not being mean when I say their god is no different than Santa Claus to me. I'm speaking the truth, and the analogy is absolutely perfect because I regard both characters as entirely fictional. Yet for some reason, that fact makes many people so unbelievably uncomfortable that they get defensive and lash out.

There is this strange notion among many people that others should have to "respect their beliefs". I don't know where this idea comes from. I guess on the surface if you don't actually think about it, it sounds like common sense. However, I see absolutely no reason why I should respect any beliefs unless I genuinely think the belief is rational and deserving of respect. Why would I respect someone's belief that homosexuality is a sin when I vehemently disagree? The notion that I should respect someone's beliefs by default is a strange one that makes very little sense to me.

I have gotten into many arguments on this subject, but I always insist that I respect people, not beliefs. Upon meeting someone for the first time I will afford that person a default amount of respect. After all, I have no idea who they are so I have no choice but to reserve judgement until I get to know them better. After that, respect is either lost or gained based on their actions and values. If I find out that they have an issue with marriage equality then I'd be lying if I said that doesn't knock them down a couple notches on the respect spectrum. It doesn't necessarily mean I dislike them or despise them, but it is one of many factors that are considered when deciding how I will regard that individual.

Just because I respect you, doesn't mean I respect (or should respect) your beliefs. I love and respect my mom, but I do not agree with nor respect her belief that the moon landing might have been a hoax. I love and respect my dad, but I do not respect his belief that we are all connected by some magical invisible energy that we can manipulate with our thoughts. I love and respect my in-laws, but I do not respect their belief that evolution is a lie and that we are all descendent from Adam & Eve. I could go on forever.

This is not to say that I'm going to go out of my way to show disrespect toward their beliefs, but I'm definitely not going to walk on eggshells around them because of it. I've said before how important I think it is to always be myself. If another person wants to judge me and cut off most or all contact with me because of it, so be it. The way I see it, any interactions we would have had otherwise would have just been phony interactions anyway. I can't stand pretending to be nice to someone while secretly knowing how much they dislike me. I would much rather be who I want to be and let others judge me how they see fit.

I think part of this drama stems from a misunderstanding of "disbelief". Many theists (and even some atheists) have a hard time understanding the difference between "lack of belief" and an active belief that they are wrong. The best analogy is the court room analogy. Lacking belief in the defendant's guilt is not the same as actively believing the defendant is innocent. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor to convince me, the juror, of the defendant's guilt. The defendant is not guilty just because I can't prove he's innocent, rather the guilt must be proved and lack of belief in guilt is the default position. Hence, innocent until proven guilty.

Let's try an even simpler example. Let's say you come to me and you claim that you have an odd number of blades of grass in your yard. Should I believe you? Until you furnish some kind of evidence that you actually managed to count every blade of grass in your yard then I have no reason to believe you. However, my lack of belief in your claim does not mean that I actively believe there is an even number of grass blades in your yard. It simply means that I don't know whether it's even or odd, and I don't believe that you know either; I reserve judgement until I have more information.

My grandpa would call that "fence sitting" with the implication that it's somehow bad to be a "fence sitter". He would say that since it is a fact of reality that there is either an even or odd number of grass blades, that you must believe they are either even or odd. To me, that is a really silly dichotomy. Why would I believe something without evidence? If I don't know how many blades of grass there are then why would I pretend to? "I don't yet know." is a perfectly acceptable answer, whether people like my grandfather agree or not.

Had you come to me with detailed data showing the process and steps you took to accurately count the blades of grass in your yard, suddenly your claim has more merit and perhaps I will take it more seriously. The burden of proof would be on you. You would need to prove to me that your claim is true. Simply claiming you have an odd number of grass blades in your yard and then asking me to prove you wrong would be an entirely pointless venture. If my default position was to believe every claim I hear unless I can disprove it, then I'd probably be in my basement wrapped in tinfoil and bubble wrap.

I think many people must take my atheism as an active affront to their own beliefs (which is strange considering they don't usually think that when they encounter a Muslim or a Jew). All the atheist label represents is my position with regard to the claim that a god exists. That's it. I have no compelling reason to believe that the bible was divinely inspired or that a god exists. The most people have put forth in an attempt to convince me is emotional appeals and anecdotal evidence. Feelings and stories might be enough to convince someone else, but it is certainly not enough to convince me. I value standards of evidence. I don't believe things just because I want to or because it makes me feel good. The truth matters. Pretending to have all the answers simply closes the door to finding real ones.

If you respect me for who I am, chances are good that I will respect you back. Just don't assume that because I respect you that I also respect what you believe. I've done a lot of introspection in order to arrive at the point where I can respect others even when they disagree with my core values, so long as they reciprocate that respect. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that I won't speak my mind if you decide to volunteer something and act as though my disagreeing with you is disrespectful. If I disagree, I will let you know. I don't intend to be offensive when I do this, but others need to realize that they don't get to just make claims or state their opinions unless I also get to speak my opinion when you're done. I'm not afraid of a little debate, but if you think a little debate about your deepest beliefs is offensive, then by all means, don't bring it up :)