October 11, 2010

Coexisting is Fine, But Tolerance Has Limits

coexist.jpgI don't see too many of the coexist bumper stickers here in Mississippi. In my experience, the Southern Baptist majority here is far more interested in converting than coexisting. Some people regard these bumper stickers as little more than a naive utopian ideal with little basis in reality. They have a point. After all, religious believers do not have the best track record of living harmoniously with those of other faiths (or no faith at all). Is there anything positive communicated by this symbol?

Symptom of the Universe explains his take on the coexist sentiment as follows:
The main argument of this movement, or better still – sentiment – is that all religious groups should get along with each other and play nice. Just be tolerant of one and another and accept each other for who they are and everything will be alright – one gigantic bohemian love fest for the world community.
I suspect that this is a fairly common reaction by atheists. As Symptom points out, religion tends to be about exclusion rather than inclusion, and possibility of believers changing that any time soon seems far fetched.

One of the most problematic things about the coexist message is that it is often interpreted as communicating the message that religious beliefs should be immune to criticism. That is, Christians should not criticize Islam because that would run counter to the coexist message and vice-versa. This puts we atheists in an even stranger position because our task would be one of not saying anything negative about any sort of religious beliefs.

As No Forbidden Questions recently explained, the promotion of tolerance must not come at the expense of truth or the quest for knowledge.
It’s good to respect people of all different religions. But respecting people and respecting ideas are not the same thing. Some unfounded or mistaken beliefs may indeed lose out once we discuss all alternatives openly and exercise our “free thought,” but thoughtful dialogue is not disrespectful to the people involved. Sometimes, the best way to show that you respect someone is to help them understand why one of their beliefs is incorrect and damaging to themselves and others. Friends don’t let friends waste their lives worshipping imaginary deities.
As atheists, one of our most valuable contributions involves our promotion of knowledge and tolerance. But part of this is that we recognize that there are limits to tolerance and even situations where tolerance should not be the goal.

So, do these stickers communicate anything positive? To the degree that they might help religious believers refrain from condemning those who do not believe as they do, I suppose they might. But again, the concern is that productive, reality-based criticism might also be stifled.

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