December 7, 2006

The Paradox of Intolerance

If you are an atheist, it is likely that you have first-hand experience with religious intolerance. You have learned to hold your tongue in certain situations (e.g., family gatherings where religious persons are involved, around religious co-workers or supervisors, etc.), and you have probably experienced as least some adverse consequences for failing to do so in other situations. You are fully aware that many believers despise you, fear you, and misunderstand you. If you've spent any time studying religious texts, such as the Christian bible, you have learned that these negative attitudes are not simply a twisted interpretation of religion but painfully clear in the texts themselves.

Of course, if you are an atheist who has expressed your lack of belief, it is equally likely that you have been accused of being intolerant yourself. You are perceived as hating religion and religious believers. You want to ban their "holy" texts, prevent them from engaging in their cherished rituals (all of which seem to involve public displays and proselytism), and even end their "sacred" holidays. In other words, it is you and not they who are the real purveyors of intolerance.

This paradox of intolerance has become something of a pet issue for me, as I find it occupying my thoughts as much as any other topic. The moment an atheist expressed criticism of religion he or she is attacked as being intolerant. I have blogged about it before, and I'm quite confident I shall do so again. I believe that there is a way out of the paradox, but I recognize that it will not be an easy sell as far as believers are concerned. Besides, I'm not convinced that I've managed to completely resolve this paradox for myself yet.

Let me begin by saying that I value human diversity and believe that promoting tolerance is a worthy goal for any civilized society. At the same time, I reject the notion that all human differences deserve equal respect and tolerance. For example, I have no interest in being tolerant of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of irrational hatred. Thus, we should not be held to the expectation that we must be tolerant of intolerance (for a dissenting opinion, see this bizarre article). These beliefs are divisive, lack justifying evidence, and foster conflict. We should not tolerate them.

As we start to consider religion, things appear to get a bit more complicated. Am I not being intolerant by criticizing religious belief? But in this way, religious belief bears very little difference to racism and the other previous examples. It is divisive (e.g., believers are pitted against non-believers and believers from other religious traditions). It not only lacks evidence of justifying belief, but it lacks any evidence whatsoever and goes as far as to make claims about reality that have been discredited by science. Finally, religion fosters conflict through its divisive nature and by elevating believers to a status above everyone else (i.e., the conviction that one is part of a "chosen people" surrounded by evil infidels permits all sorts of atrocities). Like other forms of intolerance, tolerance of religious belief is a liability.

When your beliefs become maladaptive, promoting irrationality and condoning conflict, hatred, exclusion, and a host of other adverse effects, I am not under any obligation to be tolerant of them. In fact, I am morally obligated to speak out against them.

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