Do I Need to Respectfully Engage with Another Person’s Beliefs to Understand Them?

I got in an interesting discussion with a religious academic recently.  He argued that to understand another person’s religious beliefs, I need to treat those beliefs with respect — i.e. engage with their beliefs.  To assume that God does not exist when explaining the behavior of the worshiper is to impose my own agenda: it was to push a secular, rejectionist view of the world onto the phenomenon I was trying to understand.  Since science seeks to understand what’s there and not to push an agenda, it seemed to follow that the best science of religion would be in some sense open to, or respectful of, the possibility of religious truth.

He was adverting to Dilthey’s concept of verstehen, or understanding by empathetic identification.

It’s important to distinguish between two senses of engaging with a belief or taking it seriously.  In one sense if I am on an island where they worship the palm tree and kill everyone who touches the palm tree with their feet, to take their belief seriously, to engage with it, means not to touch the palm tree with my feet when they are around.  On this interpretation I had better take their belief seriously if I am to understand them — or they will throw me in a volcano!   If I want to understand the United States invasion of Iraq I need to understand the Christianity of the U.S. people and their leadership, and their sense that their country had a divine mission.  In another sense to engage with these beliefs means I should take it seriously as an existential possibility for my own life that palm trees are sacred — more sacred than oak trees for example – or that in some sense God has a plan for the United States in a way He does not have a plan for China.  These two senses of “engagement with belief” are quite different.

We obviously need the first.  If we want to understand human phenomena, religious or not, we need to understand the religious beliefs of the participants.  This can be quite involved.  So for example if I want to understand why the islanders will kill me if I mistreat the palm tree I may need to get deeply into the concept of tabu.  If I want to understand U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush I probably need to understand evangelical Christianity.

Do we need the second?  Do I need to consider the possibility of damaging my own life by mistreating a palm tree in order to understand?  Do I need to seriously think that God might actually be pro-American and a Republican to grok Bush’s foreign policy escapades?

Here is an argument that I do not.  There are simply too many conflicting religious beliefs.

For example, when I lived in NYC in the late years of the twentieth century it was a cosmopolitan city with a lively marketplace of beliefs, religious and political.  I encountered and talked with:

a)a devotee of transcendental meditation who claimed that if I paid for enough transcendental meditation courses I could learn to fly

b)a Christian who asked me to get down on my knees and pray to Jesus Christ  in order to be saved

c)A Hasid who, hinting heavily that his 18th century Ukrainian teacher was the mesiah, suggested if I ever had a nocturnal emission I should say 10 special psalms which God had revealed to his teacher.

Is it secular rejectionism, or an atheistic ideology, to say to (a), (b), and (c) that their claims are unproven and unlikely?  Call it what you will but in our day and age it is the only option.  The different claims are expensive in terms of time and money.  They conflict.  We need to make a choice and that requires some sort of evaluation.   If Jesus is the messiah then Rabbi Nachman is not, and if either is the messiah then it is idle to try to fly through studying the teachings of the Maharishi.  On the other hand if the Maharishi is correct then it may be foolish to invest in airplane stocks.

Is the tone I am taking insufficiently respectful?  That is, am I falling down on the job as a compassionate human being or objective social scientist if I consider the possibility that some of the above — the ne0-Hindu, the Christian, and the Hasid — may not have my best interests at heart?  That they may be con-men, or self-deceived, or plain crazy, or in the game of promulgating religion for the money or power?

Again call it what you will, but since some people out there promulgating their religions are one or more of the above (self-deceived, power-hungry, con-artists) it cannot be a methodological mistake to consider the possibility.  There is no scientific requirement for respecting everyone when we all know we live in a world where everyone is not worthy of respect.

That said — is there a kernel of truth to the fear about imposing a secular ideology on a religious phenomenon and thereby missing the boat?  I believe there is.  Every commitment is a risk, including foregoing a commitment.  We have limited minutes and we have limited dollars.  If we raise our children as Breslov Hasidism then they are not Christians and vice versa.  If we spend our hard-earned money on a plane ticket from New York to California, we are missing out on the possibility of getting to Los Angeles by means of yogic flight.

When we seek religious truth we are at the same time seeking an answer to the question “How should I live my life?”  It is a heavy question.  My interlocutor, the religious academic was correct that it should not be treated, lightly, with a condescending smirk, or a sense of superiority based in the misplaced confidence that science makes me invulnerable.

We are all vulnerable.  The Hindu, the Christian, the Hasid and the scientist without a creed.  We all have a life and it could, terrifyingly, end any second — and, perhaps more terrifyingly,  it could end many decades from now but be wasted.  However the only way to treat this fact with the seriousness it deserves though is to take a moment when the world runs at us with answers and think and wonder and reflect.  Not because we owe respect to anybody who knocks on the door with a pamphlet about how he and his cult know the one true way, but because we want to how to lead our life ourselves.




16 thoughts on “Do I Need to Respectfully Engage with Another Person’s Beliefs to Understand Them?

  1. Lara/Trace says:

    I think, and do not believe. I think religions are/were created out of fear. There is a Creator who I respect. You are wise to question.

  2. Beautifully expressed! You are absolutely right. My late father (Jewish German refugee) said we had to “respect” people’s religions. I always thought this was a typical refugee thing to say… maybe, if you were nice enough, they wouldn’t hit you on the head!

  3. N.S. Palmer says:

    It depends on what he means by “understand.” To understand something is to place it within an explanatory framework of reasons, consequences, and causes that are related to it. You can do that without assuming that a belief system’s propositions accurately describe anything external to the belief system. You can also understand something imperfectly, but you still understand it.

    On the other hand, if he means “understand” as seeing how the world looks from within the belief system, then you need at least temporarily to adopt the beliefs. Anthropologists have struggled with that problem. Samson Raphael Hirsch claimed it was the only way really to understand Judaism, but it was pretty clear that he meant seeing the world from within it.

    It sounds as if there lurks in the subtext another sense of “treating beliefs with respect,” and that is simply treating the believers with respect. We can do that without agreeing to their beliefs.

    Never heard of Dilthey before. Looked him up. Pretty cool. Thanks.

    As for sacred palm trees, it all goes back to what beliefs actually mean and what they do for people. If someone says he’s Napoleon, my first question is: What does he mean by that? My second question is: What does the belief do for him? I’ll bet if you pressed the transcendental meditator about whether or not he could really fly, he’d end up saying it was a metaphor or a purely spiritual experience. As for praying or reciting psalms, if it makes people feel better and has no significant bad consequences, I’m all for it. If it helps them lead happy, moral, and productive lives, I won’t argue with them about it. Moses Mendelssohn had the same attitude.

    • I don’t believe in belief systems . Have you read “on the very idea of a conceptual scheme” by Donald Davidson? How could SJH know the only way to understand Judaism? Maybe my belief system “from the inside” allows me to understand it perfectly: by his own account he wouldn’t know without occupying my belief system “from the inside”. So nobody knows anything but their own belief system? How could we know that, and why use the spatial metaphor “inside”? The whole way of looking at belief is a quagmire imho.

      • I dunno, I’m pretty sure I’ve played chess the same way as other people play it.

        Though I still don’t understand castling…

      • Castling consists of moving the king two squares towards a rook on the player’s first rank, then moving the rook to the square over which the king crossed.[2] Castling may only be done if the king has never moved, the rook involved has never moved, the squares between the king and the rook involved are unoccupied, the king is not in check, and the king does not cross over or end on a square in which it would be in check

  4. N.S. Palmer says:

    I doubt that we really disagree, but we’re trying to discuss book-length topics in blog-length comments, which involves omitting definitions and truncating explanations. As for Hirsch, I was only reporting his view, not advocating it. I do think there is a sense in which he is right, though it’s almost tautological: the only way to see the world with a certain belief system is to have the belief system.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Yes, I think I do. But that’s because their actions have little to do with Catholicism and everything to do with human nature. They tend to believe in and protect those close to them, in their in-group. That biases their judgment, sometimes with tragic results.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        If covering up sexual abuse were unique to the Catholic church, or at least more prevalent there than elsewhere, the suggestion that Catholicism is a cause would be more plausible. I haven’t studied the question systematically, but based on reading the news, that kind of thing seems to happen with lamentable frequency in all groups. Hence, unless there’s good evidence to the contrary, I’ll stick with the opinion that it’s human nature at fault.


      • This is eliding the difference between two different claims, viz.
        1)sheltering pedophiles has nothing to do with Catholicism
        2)sheltering pedophiles has nothing to do with features of Catholicism that are unique to Catholicism.

        So, by analogy you would not claim I believe that “worshiping Jesus has nothing to do with Catholicism” and give the argument that Episcopalians also worship Jesus.

  5. That’s where I think we may disagree. Protecting the Church has a lot to do with Catholicism. I don’t think we can very clearly or usefully distinguish “religious” from “non-religious” motivations and actions.

  6. That is, am I falling down on the job as a compassionate human being or objective social scientist if I consider the possibility that some of the above — the ne0-Hindu, the Christian, and the Hasid — may not have my best interests at heart? That they may be con-men, or self-deceived, or plain crazy, or in the game of promulgating religion for the money or power?

    I think possibly yes, in that you may be crazy (in some other spectrum of crazy) and are likely crazy but calling yourself sane to their crazy is fairly disrespectful. Or it’s pot calling the kettle black, anyway.

    Why assume oneself is coming from the one true sanity? I mean, all the crazy people think they come from the one true sanity as well. How can one see that over and over and still not learn the lesson?

    And there’s a degree of humility to accepting being sooty like they are. Of course my soot is the one true soot……lol…

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