Should atheists show more respect and deference to religion and theism? Isn't it disrespectful to religious theists to be so critical of their beliefs?
There is an increasingly popular attitude that religion and theism deserve automatic respect and deference from everyone even those who don't share that religion or that theism. People attack atheists for failing to show the "appropriate" respect to religious and theistic beliefs. Atheists shouldn't say things which constitute pointed, direct, or harsh challenges to religious and theistic claims. At the risk of further accusations of being intolerant and disrespectful, this is nonsense.
To be fair, religious theists typically put their religion and their theism at the center of their lives; when something is so important, it's natural to become defensive or upset when those beliefs are criticized at all, never mind harshly. However understandable such reactions may be, though, they aren't a good reason to insist the criticism not be made just because a person takes criticism of their religion or theism personally doesn't mean that others are obligated to protect the believer's feelings by not speaking out.
First, religious believers who object to atheistic critiques of religion and theism, demanding more deference and respect, don't typically apply this standard consistently. They don't claim that political beliefs should be accorded more respect and not be criticized harshly. They don't demand that movie or restaurant reviews be less harsh and more deferential. Atheists' criticisms of religion aren't more harsh or intolerant than analogous political, movie, or restaurant criticisms.
Religious theists don't even apply this standard across the full spectrum of religious and theistic beliefs. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion: "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers." Most religious theists don't respect the beliefs of bin Laden; that, however, requires not treating religious beliefs as inherently and necessarily deserving of our automatic respect; instead, we evaluate those beliefs on their own merit and react accordingly. This is what the so-called "new atheists" or "militant atheists" do, but they do so to all religious and theistic beliefs.
Second, beliefs themselves do not merit automatic respect and deference. Humans certainly deserve some basic level of respect and respectful treatment, but beliefs aren't people. We should be polite and respectful towards the person, but we are justified in being harsh and critical of a person's claims. However much a person might take such criticism personally, we must separate ourselves from our beliefs. An attack on one shouldn't be treated as an attack on the other. If a belief or idea is to be respected, it must earn that respect.
Third, treating a belief with respect or deference sends the message that one considers the belief worthy of respect that one holds the belief in high or special regard. Synonyms for "respect" include: admiration, esteem, favor, honor, and reverence. These may be the opposite of what an atheist critic really thinks; thus a demand that atheists show more respect towards religious and theistic beliefs is a demand that atheists change their minds about religion and theism, adopting a new perspective on them. This is not achieved through counter-arguments, refutations of, or rebuttals to any of the atheists' critiques; instead, it is achieved by insisting that insufficiently respectful "criticisms" need not be addressed at all. In a sense, religious theists are saying that unless you approach their religion and theism from something like their perspective, they can dismiss your comments without a second thought.
Fourth, the mere existence of atheists is considered an affront to some. We don't have to criticize their religion at all, much less harshly, in order to be treated as if we are insulting believers and their religion. Simply by calling ourselves atheists, we are telling people that we not only reject the important beliefs upon which their lives are based and don't place those beliefs at the center of our own lives, but we go out and live full, interesting, and happy lives without their religion or theism. We demonstrate that their religion and theism simply aren't necessary.
Atheists in America represent a specter of doubt, questioning, skepticism, criticism, and even blasphemy. Irreligious atheists are like metaphysical anarchists who do not submit to the authority of any religious institution, not even those of "false" religions, and thus feel free to criticize all religions. Irreligious atheists call into question the validity of religion generally by merely existing. Some people just can't handle this and that's why they object to people being vocal, unapologetic atheists at all. It's also why some people are bullied into not even admitting that they are atheists, preferring instead to use the label "agnostic" because it's perceived as more "polite."
Atheists are not responsible for making religious believers feel better about their religion or their theism. Atheists are not responsible for helping validate religious theism by treating it with a respect or deference that it hasn't earned. Atheists are not responsible for protecting the feelings of religious theists by not speaking out, showing where theists haven't supported their claims or where they have used poor arguments.
Theists who believe they can't handle pointed, direct, and even harsh criticism of their religious and theistic beliefs always have the option of just not bringing them up. This is precisely the same choice facing every person and every belief: you can either put your belief out in public for comment and critique, or you can keep it to yourself. You don't have the option of putting your belief out in public and then insisting that everyone respect it or not criticize it.