Religious Believers Use Accusations of Intolerance to Silence Critics

Bad Religion, Barcelona
Bad Religion (Photo credit: alterna2, CC BY 2.0)

If you are an atheist, 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, etc.). You have experienced as least some adverse consequences for failing to do so. You are aware that many religious believers despise, fear, and misunderstand you. If you've spent any time studying religious texts, you have learned that these negative attitudes are not a twisted interpretation of religion. They are contained in the "holy" texts themselves. Intolerance is a feature, not a bug.

Of course, if you are an atheist who has expressed your lack of belief, you have been accused of being intolerant. You are perceived as hating religion and religious believers. You want to ban their texts, prevent them from engaging in their cherished rituals (most of which seem to involve public displays), and even end their "sacred" holidays. You want no such thing, but this is how you are depicted. In other words, you are the real purveyor of intolerance, not them.

Are Atheists Intolerant of Religion?

This paradox has become something of a pet issue. I find it occupying my thoughts a great deal. The moment an atheist expresses criticism of religion they are attacked as intolerant. I have experienced this several times. I have written about this before, and I'm sure I'll do so again.

I value human diversity, and I 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 hatred. This stuff leads to human suffering, and we should not tolerate it.

Does it make sense that we should tolerate intolerance? I see no reason we should expect this. Beliefs which are divisive, lack justifying evidence, and foster conflict should not be tolerated. If we tolerated such beliefs, wouldn't we be intolerant?

At first glance, things appear more complicated as we start to consider religion. If I criticize someone's religious beliefs, am I not being intolerant? This is the argument religious believers make.

But if religious belief is divisive, irrational, and harmful, why should we tolerate it? Religion seems inherently divisive. Religious believers oppose non-believers and those from other religious traditions. If this is intolerant, why should we tolerate it? Religious beliefs lack evidence and include claims about reality that have been discredited by science. Why should we tolerate this? Religion fosters conflict through its divisive nature and by elevating believers to a status above everyone else. The conviction that one is part of a "chosen people" surrounded by evil infidels permits all sorts of atrocities. Can we tolerate this? Given the nature of religious belief, how is tolerance of it not a liability?

Should Anyone Tolerate Racism?

Most people agree racism should not be tolerated. This does not mean that racism no longer exists. It continues to cause problems. If we ask why most people are intolerant of racism, we might learn something that could be applied to religious belief. We recognize that racism is unjustified, divisive, and harmful. Some of us have recognized similar problems with religious belief.

We do not feel guilty for refusing to tolerate racism, do we? If we express an anti-racist position, we don't apologize afterward. If we scold someone for telling a racist joke, we don't worry about being insufficiently tolerant of their racism. Why is religious belief any different?

There might be some casual racists out there, but couldn't we imagine someone's racism being part of their "sincerely held beliefs" too? Some racists believe they are right, don't they? Some racists are committed to racism, aren't they? Why should we apply a different standard to someone's "sincerely held religious beliefs?" And have we not noticed how often religious beliefs are intertwined with racism?

Decent Humans Should Not Tolerate Some Religious Beliefs

When your irrational beliefs become so maladaptive that they lead to conflict, hatred, bigotry, and a host of other adverse effects, I am not under any obligation to be tolerant of them. In fact, it could be argued that I'm morally obligated not to tolerate them. Decent humans should not tolerate all beliefs, and this includes religious beliefs.

If your religion teaches that women who commit adultery should be stoned to death, no decent person should tolerate that. If you believe that your religious beliefs make you morally superior to those who do not share them, no decent person should tolerate that. If there are some beliefs (e.g., racism) that should not be tolerated, why is it tempting to change this when it comes to religion? Some religious beliefs are relatively harmless, aside from being false. They can be tolerated. As for the less harmless ones, we tolerate them at our collective peril.

Religious believers have found an effective way to silence atheists by accusing us of intolerance. We don't want to be perceived as intolerant, and so we hold our tongues. This is a mistake. Not all beliefs deserve tolerance. The fact that some beliefs are religious does not change this.

This post from 2006 was revised and expanded in 2022.