Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions.Speaking of incivility, here's Russell Blackford being rather uncivil. It's not a matter of calling O'Neill names (she's not one of the "Colgate Twins," for example). It's just that he treats her like she's far beneath him. In the end, he accuses her of being "horribly confused," charges her with "ignorance," "tying herself up in knots," and "writing nonsense," and claims "her post lacks intellectual merit." Anyone going by tone alone would think "the professor has spoken!" and conclude O'Neill was a very confused young lady indeed. Incivility can distort and distract--that's one of the problems with it.
What's O'Neill supposedly so confused about? Blackford thinks O'Neill is making utterly elementary mistakes about freedom of religion--she must think the first amendment ensures us the right to practice a religion without ever being criticized! Good heavens, how could she not know that it merely protects citizens from state imposition of religion?
How indeed? I'll bet she does know that, and her point was a trifle more subtle. She was alleging a connection between meaningfully exercising religious freedoms and living in a a climate of mutual respect. And she's surely right about this connection.
Let's look at a microcosm--a classroom. I teach a class on the good life in which religion is a frequently topic. Students by all means have the right to openly avow theism or atheism, but they're sometimes uncomfortable doing so. Atheist students have told me they worry about being seen negatively by religious students, and vice versa. Do all of these students have a right to speak out? Yes, technically they do. But it's just a right "in principle" if the atmosphere of the classroom makes it extremely uncomfortable for students to exercise it. If I permitted "personal and vitriolic attacks," the attackers would more meaningfully have a right to speak in my class than the people driven into silence.
So yes, meaningfully having rights and freedoms does mean receiving certain forms of respect. As the referee, I have to make sure students interact with a sense that they are on a par with each other. I can't set things up so that there's a "smart side" and a "dumb side." For people to meaningfully have the right to participate, some level of mutual respect has to be the starting point. I have to make it clear that each person is entitled to their own world view, or something along those lines.
Likewise in society as a whole. If it becomes too uncomfortable to express a view, you have a right to express it only technically. To really have a right in a meaningful way, it has to be reasonably comfortable to exercise the right. In fact, that problem is particularly sharp for atheists in the US. Technically of course they have a right to speak out, but they often can't, for fear of being vilified. Most visibly, Muslims have that problem right now--sure they have a right to free exercise of their religion (technically!), but the whole issue about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero seems to have brought all the islamophobes out of the woodwork. It's become harder to be a Muslim, even if legally speaking, no rights have been taken away from them.
So yes, having a meaningful right to express a belief or practice a religion does turn on receiving respect. Conversely, disrespect can be used as a tool...and sometimes that's as it should be. Some ideas really are so odious that they ought to be driven underground. The hope is that they'll shrivel up and die for lack of air. We can't have a mutually respectful conversation about whether gay people should be rounded up and killed. We want people to have the right to express that preference, but only in a narrow, technical sense.
So O'Neill is not wrong at all when she talks about a connection between rights (meaningfully having them, not having them in the narrow legal sense) and mutually respectful, civil interaction. There is that connection. The substantive question here is whether it makes sense for atheists to use disrespect in the way I just explained. Should they try to drive religion underground to shrivel up and die through mockery and disrespect? Blackford makes this very simple--'What's the point of having freedom of speech if you don't exercise it?" he asks. Answer: it's so you can, when it's a good idea to do so.
Who would want to eliminate all the great religion mockers from the canon--people like Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Voltaire? Let there be mockery. On the other hand, there has to be hesitation. For one, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If the skeptics get to try to mock the other side into the shadows, they can't complain when disrespect runs in the other direction. Setting that aside, the conscientious skeptic should consider the full breadth of what religion includes and how it affects the way people live. O'Neill makes a good point that skeptics have to take a different stance toward religion if their primary goal is to maximize wellbeing. In spite of all the evils than can be traced to religion, the positive psychologists (e.g. Seligman, Haidt, Graham) tell us that religion has benefits for wellbeing--religious people are happier, and even the skeptics around religious people are happier. This is not a trivial phenomenon, not easy to explain, and not just a matter of people hanging onto "delusions" under duress (O'Neill weakens her case by using that word). There's a lot in the empirical study of religion that ought to slow down the evidence-based, morally-inspired skeptic.
But in any event--is there a connection between having rights in a meaningful sense, and receiving respect? Of course there is.