November 18, 2009

When Tolerance is Not Viable

dog in Santa hat

Astreja asked a thought-provoking question over at ExChristian.net, "Where do we draw the line between tolerating or attacking someone else's weird ideas?" I suppose that "tolerating" in this context likely refers to remaining silent on the subject of someone's beliefs even if one does not agree with them. Thus, we might rephrase the question to be one of how we decide to speak out and criticize a belief versus keeping our thoughts to ourselves. I suspect the decision usually boils down to our estimation of the likelihood that a particular belief will be harmful, doesn't it?

When I encounter a parent telling her children about Santa Claus, I find it unfortunate that someone would lie to one's own child merely for entertainment purposes. However, I feel little need to say anything. The potential for harm here seems trivially small. Perhaps the child will learn the valuable lesson that adults cannot always be trusted. I cannot say the same for the Muslim parent instructing his son in the virtues of martyrdom or the Christian who tells her daughter that her Jewish friends will go to hell because they have not been "saved." The potential for harm seems much greater here.

Beliefs which are false and have a reasonably high potential to cause harm must not be tolerated. They must be criticized in the hope that the person holding them and others encountering the criticism will eventually realize that they are flawed. I think it is fair to place many religious beliefs in this category. They are false, and they have great potential to cause harm. In fact, we regularly see them causing harm.

I think it is the potential of someone's weird ideas to cause harm that helps us determine where to draw the line. If they are just silly but relatively harmless, laughter seems like an appropriate response. If they are silly but dangerous, that requires a different sort of response.