July 18, 2007

Religious Intolerance: Christian Pot, Atheist Kettle

From a Christian perspective, spotting religious intolerance is a fairly simple matter. Odds are, if you are an atheist, you are intolerant. And yet, this is a simplicity based on irrationality and Christian privilege. What is religious intolerance, how should we recognize it, and is it a crime of which all atheists are guilty?

Christians Accuse Atheists of Religious Intolerance

First, anyone who openly criticizes the idiosyncratic beliefs of a particular Christian is guilty of intolerance. This is true even if the critic is simply pointing out inconsistencies between an individual believer's belief system and the Christian bible or other official doctrine of a recognized religious group. Of course, critics of the bible itself or mainstream Christian doctrine will also be accused of intolerance, but what matters most is the individual believer's unique interpretation and personal experience (e.g., revelation). Anyone who questions this is labeled as intolerant.

Second, anyone who dares to oppose the right of a group of Christians to oppose their religious ideology on others is guilty of religious intolerance. Select any hot-button issue you like to see how this works. Do you think that Intelligent Design should be taught in our nation's schools? No? Intolerant bastard!

Third, promoting a reality-based worldview in which science, reason, and secular morality are valued is religious intolerance. Indeed, rejecting religious faith as a valid way of verifying knowledge claims is intolerant.

I could go on and on like this for a while, but I think you get the point by now. Time to move on.

What is Religious Intolerance?

Religious intolerance is the failure to respect "the fundamental right of other people to hold religious beliefs that are different from your own." It has nothing to do with religious practices or behavior motivated by religion. The focus rests squarely on respecting the right of others to hold religious beliefs.

I think it is fair to say that I have never met an atheist (nor am I such an atheist) who does agree that others have a fundamental right to hold any religious belief they select. It is your absolute right to maintain your Christian beliefs even if they are false and even if they cause harm to you. I hope you will outgrow them. I think they are laughably absurd. I have not one shred of respect for the beliefs themselves. However, I respect and defend your right to hold them.

But Secular Intolerance of Religion is Recognized as a Form of Intolerance

Yes, it is, and so is intolerance by a religious group against nonbelievers. But we need to stay focused on religious intolerance coming from atheists and being directed at Christians.

According to ReligiousTolerance.org,
We consider the following actions as exhibiting religious intolerance:
  • Spreading misinformation about a group's beliefs or practices even though the inaccuracy of that information could have been easily checked and corrected;
  • Spreading hatred about an entire group; e.g. stating or implying that all members of a group are evil, behave immorally, commit criminal acts, etc.;
  • Ridiculing and belittling an entire faith group for their sincerely held beliefs and practices;
  • Attempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others against their will;
  • Restricting human rights of members of an identifiable religious group;
  • Devaluing other faiths as worthless or evil.
  • Inhibiting the freedom of a person to change their religion.
In the case of atheist intolerance of Christians, most of these are easy to dismiss. I have yet to encounter atheists deliberately spreading misinformation (criticism you do not like is not the same as misinformation). We often go overboard in the opposite direction and end up knowing the Christian bible better than many Christians! Next, atheists do not typically attempt to spread hatred against Christians as described here. We recognize that there are many wonderful people who happen to be Christian (I've had the pleasure of knowing several), and some of us work with Christians regularly to pursue common goals. As I've said before, most Christians are good people. Clearly, we cannot reasonably be accused of attempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others. Atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in gods) is hardly a religion and has no attendant practices. Similarly, atheists (especially those who are also secular humanists) seek to expand rather than restrict human rights. Secular morality does not distinguish between others in terms of religion when it comes to human rights. Finally, we have no interest in inhibiting the freedom of a person to change his or her religion. While we hope that people will eventually arrive at atheism on their own accord, everyone should be free to explore.

Oops! If you read that closely, you'll see that I left one out. What happened to "Devaluing other faiths as worthless or evil?" Certainly, we atheists are guilty of this form of intolerance. We can dispense with the part about "evil" right away (atheists do not claim that all Christians are evil simply because they are Christian). But don't atheists devalue other faiths as worthless? Actually, what we devalue as worthless is faith itself. Specifically, we devalue faith as a being a valid means for acquiring knowledge (i.e., we recognize that faith cannot be applied to verify truth claims). While atheists do tend to criticize the various religious faiths, we do not devalue them as worthless. To the contrary, we recognize that believers meet many important needs through their religions. We think that there are better ways of meeting these needs, but we recognize that the burden to show how the needs can be met without religion is ours.

The Christian Pot and the Atheist Kettle

Christians are quick to label atheists intolerant because we have the nerve to criticize their religion. And yet, many are reluctant to acknowledge that Christian intolerance of atheists and those who practice non-Christian religions is widespread and even built right into the Christian bible. Let's review the above list and add some brief examples via links.
This was a long post but one that is easy to summarize: there is minimal evidence of widespread intolerance from atheists directed at Christians; there is ample evidence of intolerance from Christians directed at atheists and persons from non-Christian faiths.