December 11, 2008

The Limits of Tolerance

Painting by Titian of Tarquinius' son raping L...Image via WikipediaWith Christmas approaching, some atheists are starting to call on other atheists to be more tolerant of religious belief, nicer to believers, and the like. There may be some real merit in doing just that. But before we all hop on the tolerance bandwagon and convince ourselves that we should shelve our quest for equality this time of year and withhold criticism of an irrational and dangerous belief system, I'd like to offer a few words of restraint.

Do you know what a rape myth is? Briefly, psychological research has demonstrated that male rapists and other men predisposed to 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 strongly agrees with these and many 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 have to place him at an elevated risk of engaging in sexual assault.

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, but would we not seek to modify beliefs of this nature?

But there is a world of difference between rape myths and religious beliefs, right? After all, those rape myths that can be conclusively disproven have been conclusively disproven. But is that enough of a difference?

Much like the religious believer, there are many men out there who hold these beliefs about rape and maintain them even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Some will 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. 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 to argue that some types of beliefs do not warrant our tolerance. We all tend to draw a line excluding beliefs which are irrational and dangerous from the sphere of tolerance. I'm not sure this is a bad idea regardless of what time of year it is.

If you'd like to spend more time with Christians, do so. Many are great people who can be wonderful friends. Do strive to be more tolerant of them as individuals. However, their beliefs are no more immune to scrutiny than ours are.