The Inconsistency Between ‘Respect’ and Religion

It was the beginning of April in 2013, a month away from my graduation thesis show. I plopped on the floor of my small but recently cleared out art studio at school as I stared at the large Gordon Paper I had tacked onto one of the walls. I got up, took a pen, and wrote ‘Respect’ in the middle of the intimidating brown space. I stared at it, sat back down, and stared some more.

Earlier that year I had recently completed Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and could not be stopped from bringing it up in mundane conversation. While I’m sure I annoyed many, religion became, and has been, paramount in my life. Not my adherence to a religion but my own removal from one.

It wasn’t that I had been taught something foreign to me and became fascinated. It was that every question and every doubt I had about the role of religion in my life and environment, became validated by a single piece of literature. I had to get it out.

In speaking of my newly found passion with friends and family, I came to realize that the conversation on religion always ended with one similar sentiment by those I spoke with: “You just need to respect others beliefs.”

But what was I saying that had anything to do with respect?

Frustrated by the way those conversations ended, I couldn’t stop wondering what people meant. Respect? Respect what exactly? What does that mean? Is it an action? An emotional stance?

While to many the answers to those questions may seem obvious,  I’d like to challenge that notion.

I couldn’t shake that word: Respect. I wanted a conversation about the role of religion in the social world, not advice on how I should personally deal with it.

Many of us, if not all, were taught that ‘respect’ is a sort of “live and let live” mantra which to live by. “You do you and I do me”. Therefore, on the superficial level, I was being told to “you need to……” What?!

I need to do what?! I need to hold esteem or regard for those beliefs? That is, after all, the definition of ‘respect’. To admire, hold regard, or esteem for someone or something. That’s when it hit me! Once you attempt to interchange the word ‘respect’ for one of its available synonyms, its imagined meaning completely changes. Here are some examples:

Therefore, when being told to ‘respect’ religious faiths, I was expected to have a sort of positive attitude towards those beliefs in spite of my own. And while I understand what is being said, it, in its entirety, dismisses and disregards what religion is.

I could go through the sociological approach towards outlining how, by its very premise, religion is not based on a “you and me” social relationship. Rather, it is an “us and them” situation. Religion, for much that one could look to argue for its spiritual value, is organized. There are places of worship, doctrines, hierarchies, and conflicting ideologies and interpretations. But there is enough literature out there by intellectuals to complete the task.

But because of horrific events occurring world wide with the rise of Islamic terrorism, I believe there is no better time to put into perspective what ‘respect’ means when we attempt to unwrap religion. Therefore, I will use Islam in my approach but will further expand with the Christian-Catholic faith.

The Orlando shooting last weekend, once more, stirred up the political conversation as to the role of Islam in the world. Whether or not it was the shooters motivator, it became part of the conversation.

On one side, there are the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic. On the other, there are those that do not equate Islamic terrorism to Islam. Those that adhere to ISIS or Al Qaeda are a tiny, insignificant portion of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.

Because the former attitude has gained mainstream status, the latter has come out in an attempt to point out that a small portion of something, does not make it everything. And while this is true, it does not make the latter all the better.

The liberal media and moderate Muslims in the West have come out in defense of their religion with fervor and passion. The phrase “It is a religion of peace” is often espoused by Muslims and liberals that speak out against those that look to demonize the religion. These are, more than not, Muslims that have become somewhat westernized and liberals who seem to want to pacify the debate on religion. And while they should do this, there is discrepancy between the used defense and the actual practice of Islam in Islamic based nations.

By basing the debate of the nature of Islam on terrorism, the conversation completely disregards the social and political practices of Islam. And while we should all be vocally against terrorism, we not need to agree with the religion itself in order to do so. As moderate Muslims put it, Islam is not about terrorism. But, I along with others say, Islam does not coincide with liberal, or even secular, thought either.

Now, this is not about demonizing Islam or feeding the Islamophobic, anti-immigration, xenophobic rhetoric. It is about accepting that there are absolute contradicting values between Islamic nations and their traditions, and the practice of separation of church and state in Europe and the United States, for example. The latter, isn’t even necessarily a liberal practice. It is a basic secular practice to ensure democracy within a State. A democratic principle that allows Muslims to practice their faith with the liberty to decide how to do so. A democratic principle which many Muslims around the world are afforded, BUT not most.

There are only a few outspoken Muslim activists who make this distinction, and even they suffer for it.

The problem with ‘democracy’ as understood by the West, is that it cannot be translated to many eastern countries. The world learned its lesson when the United States “wanted to bring democracy” to Afghanistan by the way of invasion only causing more social and political destabilization. When has imperialism ever brought about peace?

The Pew Research Center has found that most Muslims, in nations where Islam is the dominating religion, in fact want Sharia Law to be enacted. That means the law of the land should be based on the religious doctrine of Islam; the divine law within the Quran. That means that both private and public life should be guided and led by the faith.

Some of these nations and their support for sharia law are:  Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (91%), Niger (86%), Malaysia (86%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Bangladesh (82%), Egypt (74%), Indonesia (72%), Jordan (71%), Uganda (66%), Ethiopia (65%), Mali (63%), Ghana (58%), and Tunisia (56%).

While the practice of Sharia law varies within each nation, most Muslim countries make use of it in one way or another and their people are in favour of it.

Afghanistan, for example, legally enacts capital punishment for apostasy, purdah (segregation) on women, and imprisonment for homosexuality.

What does this mean? That the Pew Research Center uncovered how most Muslims in these nations approve of the state of affairs within their own countries.

In circling back to my concern with ‘respect’ and religion, do I really have to ask?

When I’m told that I must respect ones faith, I am not being told to respect a type of spirituality. I am being told that I need to respect social values and practices that go along with it. That I should respect values and practices which go against those that have been afforded to me. That I should respect values and practices of which I am not just opposed to, but which I’ve been both socially and intellectually taught to view as negative. Values and practices which have been statistically and scientifically proven to be detrimental to society as a whole.

BUT because these are religiously based, I am not allowed to say so.

Which takes me to my general point: Because I can understand a religion, does not mean I have to respect it.

Just to emphasize that I am not being bias, I have the same problem with the religion I myself grew up with; the christian-catholic faith.

While it has been found that Mexican Catholics are in a high opposition with the church, they are still morally and socially molded by their interpretation of the faith. With 81% of Mexicans identifying as catholic, women’s sexual health, including abortion, remains a heated debate nation wide, very much like, if not more so, the United States.

Unfortunately, Mexico City is the only place which fully grants women the right to abortions (under 12 weeks only) without being subject to a penalty. All while, in another 18 states, they could be subject to penalization. In the worst of cases, up to 30 years of imprisonment.

With epidemic-like rates of teen pregnancy and domestic abuse in poverty stricken communities, along the incompetence to provide proper sexual education and resources by the public education system, I cannot respect the faith based belief that women should not have access to an abortion clinic. Let alone, be punished for it. The social and economic impact of high rates of teen pregnancy in poverty, when they have not even concluded their secondary level education, is not only detrimental to them, but society as a whole.

Not only are women affected by the Catholic faith, but homosexuals are still viewed as morally corrupt by 55% of Mexicans.

It is one thing to ‘respect’ or “let live” another’s beliefs when they do not infringe on the basic rights and freedoms of others. When they do not intend to endanger one specific demographic. When they do not look to put one citizen or believer above another based on their adherence to the doctrine. If as an adult you still believe in Santa, that’s your prerogative. I’ll think your nuts and won’t respect it but, unless you harm someone for it, I don’t see the problem. I haven’t even touched the miracle/mystical side of religion.

But it is another thing entirely to ask me to respect beliefs that do those things.

I cannot respect a faith which does not respect those that leave it, but rather kills them for it. I cannot respect a faith that does not respect a women’s body, but rather asks her to cover it as a sign of ‘modesty’. I cannot respect a faith which does not respect women’s ability to control their health and ability to choose their future, but rather forces them to a life defined by one sperm and one egg. I cannot respect a faith  which does not respect an entire community’s nature, but rather asks for the restriction of their civil rights. I cannot respect a faith that would limit my own ability to have control over the direction of my life.


“So with all due respect”, I cannot, nor will I, respect that as it is in my absolute freedom to do so.


*For those curious as to my resulting artwork: my endevour to challenge the word ‘respect’ resulted in an installation where I represented in list significant events from the 20th and 21st Centuries in where literature had been burned for ideological or political reasons. From Harry Potter to the Christian Bible, I documented the process in which I recreated the act, cataloged the book covers, and jarred and planted the ashes in potted Hydrangea.






Making a Case for the Open Critique of Religion

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When I enter conversations about religion with friends, I often find myself leaving them with unshakable labels set upon me. Labels which I find both offensive and incorrect. Some of them include: closed minded, judgmental, stubborn, and somehow elitist. I am not going to attempt to make a case for my opinions on religion. But I will attempt to illustrate the problem with labeling me as such when I do make such attempt.

What I have found in my endeavor for open religious discourse is that the attempt itself appears futile. But here is my overall point; it shouldn’t be. Setting aside the religious versus non-believer arguments, the simple premise that religion should be an avoided topic, un-debatable, or even a sacred one, is mistaken. Here’s why: regardless of what you believe, you cannot deny that the world we live in is a social one. Everything that revolves our everyday is a product of ourselves. Science, government, economies, education, the family, gender roles, etc. If religious, you may argue that all of these are the result of an almighty god, what he (or she) set forth for us to endure. But we must break this down to the fact that these institutions and concepts of being and living are comprised of people. People make them what they are. The term ‘social construct’ is a social scientific one which accepts that everything beyond the natural sciences is a product of us.

Again, some of you may disagree with this because you believe that somehow everything was designed. But even if that were true, a fact remains: everything is open for critique. Politics, family life, government, economies, education, gender roles, etc. The role of media, the role of social interaction, the role democracy, the role of social movements; have all been to remodel and reshape how these institutions go from politics to truth, and vice versa. What begins as a conversation leads to a wider opinion of masses. This is how the social world works. Now, the problem with the labels set upon me when I talk about religion is that they stop that from happening. Yes, I am stubborn in a lot of ways; hard headed more like it. But I believe there is a misunderstanding of what my role in the conversation is. Yes, I am criticizing religion. That is the whole point of my interest in entering such a discussion. But the problem is that because I am doing so, I am inherently viewed as in the wrong. I ask the question then, why are we able to use the same tactics for politics and social rights, but not for religion? What would happen if democrats weren’t allowed to critique republicans (or vice versa) on the basis that it would be intolerant? What would happen if the suffrage movements were viewed as going against something sacred?

Some of the arguments that have been held against my wanting to challenge the conversation on religion include: tradition, spirituality, and comfort. Sociologist Gabriel Tarde, made the point to not confuse Tradition with Opinion. That something is traditional, does not mean it is opinion nor that it is free from it. Opinion is of present time and those who once held what is now traditional as opinion have come and gone. That Seppuku, or honor suicide, was once an ingrained traditional act by Japanese samuri, does not mean that it should be retained in the fabric of Japanese modern civil society. It was once viewed as a sacred and honorable act, we now view it significantly different. Had we followed holy books to the letter to present time (which generally doesn’t happen), our social world would be immensely catastrophic. Therefore to say that one cannot critique what is traditional seems senseless to me.

I’m also often criticized for critiquing what some consider purely spiritual (this is where the label of closed mindedness tends to come in). Yes, I do have problems with that argument. That you somehow feel an inward “blessing” from your religious beliefs does not take away from the fact that your belief is not yours. Sorry (not sorry) to say it. My dear Neo-Atheist heroes, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, always point out that what you believe in was most probably indoctrinated in you. Your religion is as much yours as is the political party you support. Yes, there is a type of emotional aspect that comes in to play as much as nationalism does. But you are as randomly a catholic, for example, as you are Mexican (I’m using my own background here). And it also is not coincidental that those two identities come hand in hand. Geography matters. Therefore, to say that I cannot critique something because it feels intangible to you is not a proper argument. That your behaviour was molded by the religious views of your parents, is not a personal spiritual concept. That in some cultures and religions, women still retain a second-class citizen role, is not a personal spiritual concept. So the argument that your experience is of personal spirituality; I simply don’t buy it.

Now, the one of comfort is a complicated one. It is often said that lack of belief is for the elite, while belief is for the downtrodden. I understand why this is often said. “Some people need it.” My response is: they need their community, their nation, and their government. We as people have built institutions with the purpose of facilitating life. We have reworked and reshaped economic models to better fit our survival. We have created governmental institutions to ensure our safety and civility. And we have created the concepts of family and friends to further support our private and increasingly individualistic lives. Of course these all need work, but to say that someone ‘needs’ religion, and it tends to be the poor or marginalized, I believe, is to undermine the deeper problems that are in those social groups. It is to accept or believe that they can’t be helped. When I am critiquing what you label was what someone needs, does not mean that I am being negligent to them. It means that I look to hold true what the roles of government, community and country are meant to be. It is not only about critiquing religion, it is about critiquing everything. If you believe they need it, the question then is: why? And then, we can get to work.

I’ll admit something, when talking about religion I do get heated and often emotional. I understand how those reactions come off as negative. I do need to control my temperament. But while for some this conversation seems pointless, it matters to me and many others. It matters not only as a general subject but as a personal one. Growing up in my community, I realized women often feared being chastised and reprimanded in a way men didn’t. I often found myself angered by this and at times rebelled. The concept of a fearful God haunted me when I stepped over lines, and the concept of a benevolent God simply offended me. By the time a let go of this split-personality God, I was able to take responsibility for myself and become more understanding of others. While it may seem contradictory to the religious, I became much more compassionate.

So, I will continue attempting to critique and debate religion. I believe it to not only be worth it, but necessary. And while I do so, if I continue to be labeled closed minded, judgmental, stubborn, and somehow elitist; so be it. But hopefully it won’t be for long.