The Limits of Tolerance

Painting by Titian of Tarquinius' son raping L...Image via Wikipedia

As you have undoubtedly observed, some atheists are fond of calling on other atheists to be more tolerant of religious belief, nicer to religious believers, and the like. There may be some merit in doing so, especially if one is interested in changing minds. People tend to be more receptive when they feel respected or at least not attached. Still, it might not be a bad idea to think through these suggestions a bit before we all hop on the tolerance bandwagon and convince ourselves that we should withhold criticism of an irrational and dangerous belief system.

In my experience, those calling for increased tolerance of religious belief are often aiming to silence criticism of religious belief. I am aware that this is not always the case, but it often seems to be the case. As a result, many atheists are not what I might call receptive to such suggestions.

Do you know what a rape myth is? Briefly, psychological research has demonstrated that male rapists and other men predisposed to commit acts of sexual violence against women are more likely than the average man to hold erroneous beliefs about male-female interactions, female sexuality, and the like. In non-offender samples (e.g., male college students), the tendency to agree with rape myths has been associated with negative attitudes toward women and more positive attitudes toward violence against women.

If we consider just a few examples of rape myths, these findings will not surprise you.

  • "Women secretly enjoy being raped."
  • "Women 'ask for it' by their dress or actions."
  • "If I spend a lot of money on our date, she owes me sex."

Imagine a male college student who agrees with these and other similar myths. This is not the sort of guy most women would be eager to date. His thinking is distorted to the point where we would probably place him at an elevated risk of engaging in sexual assault. It isn't that we'd know he would assault others, but we'd expect him to pose a higher risk of doing so based on the science.

Fundamentally, rape myths are a type of belief. Irrational and dangerous beliefs, but beliefs nonetheless. Would any rational person suggest that we should be tolerant of these beliefs? Perhaps we could still be kind to the person holding them (especially if we were to encounter them in a treatment setting), but would we not seek to modify beliefs of this nature once we recognized the harm associated with them?

But there is a world of difference between rape myths and religious beliefs, right? After all, there is solid evidence that what we regard as rape myths really are myths (i.e., those that can be disproven have been disproven). While there is next to no evidence that most religious beliefs are true, this is not quite the same thing as having solid evidence that they are false. But is that enough of a difference?

Much like the religious believer, there are many men out there who hold these beliefs and maintain them even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Some may even tell you that they are a source of comfort and that they are inseparable from one's identity. Like religious beliefs, these beliefs are irrational. Like religious beliefs, these beliefs are harmful. Or at least, they are associated with attitudes and behaviors we consider harmful. Why would we tolerate them?

We wouldn't, and we shouldn't. My point here is not really to compare religious beliefs to rape myths; my point is merely to note that some types of beliefs do not warrant our tolerance. We all tend to draw a line excluding beliefs that are irrational and dangerous from the sphere of tolerance.

If you'd like to spend more time with Christians, do so. Many are great people who can be wonderful friends. I agree with those who suggest that we should all strive to be more tolerant of them as individuals. Still, their beliefs are no more immune to scrutiny than ours are. I think it makes sense that we'd have relatively little tolerance for some of what they believe. Tolerance is not always our best response.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2020.