Tolerating Intolerance?

The other day I received a typically interesting e-mail for The Bible Geek podcast.  I  thought it would be good to address it here. Dan Mangum wrote:

You often point out that you are not concerned about the religious belief someone may hold. You are not alone, and this opinion is common.  On the surface it seems logical, reasonable, as well as pragmatic. 

I don’t agree. My concern is that a religious belief frequently carries with it quite a bit of baggage. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have said they don’t care about an individual’s personal belief but with the caveat that they just don’t want those beliefs forced upon them or others. Yet part of their belief system for many requires or demands that they try and convert others to their religion.  Belief systems can promote profound scientific ignorance from denial of evolution to denial of global warming. If we are in the End Times, as many evangelicals seem to believe, why would they worry or care about global warming?  Some beliefs, as you know, hold that the Bible is inerrant and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Some belief systems may fight vehemently against gay rights and birth control, some treat women as second class or worse, while others may consider it their duty to kill those of different beliefs or even those of the same beliefs, including honor killings. 

My point is perhaps we should no longer say that it is OK for someone to believe what they want (or are told) to believe, particularly when the consequences of those same beliefs can lead to some horrible actions and outcomes.

I invite Dan to correct me if I have misread him, but I think he is saying that we should not retreat into too-tolerant relativism, to say that all viewpoints are equally true or equally wholesome. I agree with him. In my remarks to which he refers, all I mean to say is that, in polite, civil society I say “Live and let live.” I do not consider it my duty to try to convert individuals I meet to my beliefs (or lack of beliefs). It is simply none of my business. This is quite different, as I see it, from exchanging ideas in print, when the point is to share opinions in theoretical terms. Even when I debate “opponents,” I do not consider them enemies. Usually I find I can become friends with them after the debate (or between debates). I am happy to call Greg Boyd, Gary Habermas, Bob Siegel, and others friends. I feel that theoretical disagreements should not get in the way.

But I draw my circle of friends and friendly acquaintances even wider, numbering among them a whole gallery of Catholic traditionalists, fundamentalists, Satanists, Communists, Moonies, New Agers, Ahmadis, you name it. It would not cross my mind to try to convert them to my views. I am all the more stimulated and enriched by their views the more different they are from mine. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

What about science denial? I think it is unfortunate for fundamentalists to deny evolutionary biology, but really what difference does it make? None until Creationist organizations try to get public schools to teach Creationism/Intelligent Design alongside evolution. And then what to do? Go to court! That is the proper venue, and so far it has worked pretty well. “Witnessing” to individuals that they should accept Charles Darwin as their personal savior is only going to make you into a jerk.

(By now, you probably are aware of my skepticism toward the Politically Correct doctrine of Global Warming. Go right ahead and try to shame me as a heretic for questioning Progressivist apocalypticism. I believe that is the custom. But I don’t want to derail the discussion by pursuing that here.)

The West has gotten itself into real big trouble in the last decades by tolerating intolerance. I once had a parishioner whose husband was undergoing treatment, including radical surgery, for throat cancer brought on by smoking. The guy was a smoking fanatic, and he kept puffing even after this. But there wasn’t very much “after.” He died from the cancer he had enthusiastically invited into his body. And that is what Europe has done by welcoming Muslims to come in and set up ethno-religious enclaves with no intention of assimilating to the host culture. More and more these immigrants demand special privileges up to and including their own Sharia laws and law courts. In Pauline terms, they demand that the state cater to the “weaker brethren” by making everyone else (the native French, Dutch, Swedes, Britons, etc.) observe their Islamic restrictions, e.g., skipping the Holocaust in history classes because it might offend Muslim kids who have been catechized to believe it never happened—but should again. (I know there have been false rumors about this, but also true reports). Or removing menu items from restaurants for fear of Muslims boycotting their establishments. And, of course, allowing the public propagation of Jihadi hate-speech. Newspapers shy away from criticizing Islamic violence for fear they may be its next objects. So much for free speech.

That man I mentioned should have stopped smoking once it became clear what the costs might be, and Europe should have reversed its tolerance of intolerance years ago now. These days, they are taking a second look, but, short of mass deportations, whatever they do will probably be too late. We in the United States are not as far gone yet, but the PC “useful idiots” would rather be martyred for the sake of self-surrendering “toleration” and Multiculturalism even if it means endangering the very Western ethic that prompts them.

(Deportations? Wouldn’t that be sweeping with too broad a broom? Wouldn’t you be exiling many innocents along with the dangerous few? No doubt you would. But ask yourself: doesn’t that argument allow terrorists, in effect, to hide behind human shields? We’re talking about emergency situations.)

Remember, our American toleration and celebration of diversity is a function of our Social Compact system, which means we maximize, not absolutize, personal freedom. “Your freedom ends at my nose.” That’s pretty simple. We should not fear we are guilty of bigotry or intolerance when we say, “You’re welcome to believe in Islam as long as you behave yourselves.” And we’d better be ready to say it. Same goes for the (numerically tinier) Christian Identity lunatics. And the (slightly more numerous) Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists who are armchair theocrats (thankfully repudiated even by most fundamentalists).

The Social Compact means the limitation of freedom just as much as it does the enjoyment of freedom, because, without the limits to define it, we lose freedom. Just like traffic laws, right? You can travel anywhere, but you gotta stay in the correct lane!

Back in New Jersey I was pleased to make friends with the local Imam and a member or two of his congregation. I even had him speak in my Sunday service. I still would. I have no problem with anyone’s beliefs, even if I think they are groundless. I only have a problem with bad behavior, behavior that inhibits the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

So says Zarathustra.


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