Big Question 4: Tolerating Diverse Ideas Among Atheists

We have arrived at question #4 in our series of the six big questions that divide atheists, and I am finding this one the least pleasant to address so far. For the most part, this is because I consider it to be the most potentially divisive of the questions considered to this point. It isn't just that people disagree on this one; opinions seem to take on a moral quality we don't see with many of the other questions. That is, someone who disagrees with one's answer to this question is often viewed as a bad person.

The other part of my distaste for this question is that it seems to be the question where Atheism+ best fits, and I feel like I've written as much as I want to about that subject. My hope is that we can find a way to meaningfully address this question without having to revisit the Atheism+ stuff here. I agree that it is a relevant example, but I think the question is much broader. Even if Atheism+ had never existed, I think this question would have eventually become relevant.

The fourth question on our list is the following:
How tolerant should atheists be of diverse ideas within our own community and those who hold them? Some atheists are interested in purging the community of ideas they find unacceptable (e.g., conservative political views); others believe that there is strength in diversity and that our community is big enough for those holding what may be unpopular views to be included (i.e., "big tent" atheism). I'm inclined to include much of the Atheism+ (and Freethought Blogs/Skepchick) debate here because much of it seems to boil down to whether we must chose a single ideology (i.e., liberal politics married to third wave feminism) and banish those who do not agree with it from our community or accept others who might have some different opinions.
So the crux of the question involves how we deal with ideas in the atheist community with which we may disagree and those who hold them.

Tolerance Within the Atheist Community

As a group of people with nothing to connect us besides our lack of god belief, the atheist community is incredibly diverse. We are diverse in our demographics (e.g., race, gender, nationality, socio-econominc status, sexual orientation, education), life experience, political orientation, and more. Our ideologies, beliefs, attitudes, values, world views, and priorities are all over the place. If we want to do anything together, we need to come to terms with how to engage ideas with which we disagree and the people who hold them.

Much of the atheist community makes no attempt to do anything together. Many atheists are not interested in working toward any sort of commonly shared values. But some of us are interested in joining together to pursue secular activism or engage with others in something we might call an atheist movement. And for us - those who are interested in working with other atheists to accomplish something - tolerance becomes even more important. Tolerance of diverse ideas (and those who hold them) within the atheist movement is important for at least three reasons:
  1. Much of what many of us hope to accomplish requires numbers (i.e., we need other people), and greater numbers will inevitably expose us to diverse perspectives.
  2. Working effectively with others is likely to require some minimal level of willingness to work through or set aside differences and work collaboratively toward shared goals.
  3. Infighting will limit the effectiveness of group work if it is not handled appropriately.
We are going to disagree with others, including those with whom we are trying to work productively. This is inevitable. How we approach and resolve such disagreements will be critical in determining our effectiveness. And this is where tolerance comes in. We are going to be in the position of having to figure out how to work effectively with persons who hold very different ideas.

One possible approach, and a very appealing one at that, is to conclude that one's own way of viewing the world is the only one that is acceptable and engage in subgrouping. One surrounds oneself with like-minded individuals and forms a group-within-a-group where everyone shares the central aspects of one's ideology. Conflict is minimized within the smaller group, and it becomes almost a safe haven within the larger group. Diversity is sacrificed at the expense of the positive feelings that come from having one's own opinions echoed. Members bond over their disagreement with those outside their group and may come to believe that they are being persecuted for their opinions. Members of the in-group are viewed as being morally superior to the out-group in that out-group members are not only wrong but malevolent.

An alternative and far more difficult approach involves a willingness to engage in a struggle to understand diverse perspectives, resolve disagreements in ways that do not necessarily involve one's own perspective "winning," and recognition that the benefits of diversity outweigh the discomfort it often brings. One challenges oneself to learn from others who have had vastly different experiences, and one is willing to grow as a result of such challenges even when growth involves modifying one's previous positions. Conflict is encountered, experienced, and worked through. The in-group is much larger and more diverse, and this will certainly bring a number of challenges. But those who opt for this path do so because they value diversity and are not arrogant enough to think that theirs is the only valid perspective.

How Tolerant Should We Be?

Personally, I think we should be far more tolerant of diverse ideas within our community than many of us are. I understand why some would want to purge individuals holding certain ideas, and I can even think of a few extreme circumstances where it might be acceptable to do so (e.g., individuals arguing for violence against religious believers). But in general, I think that purges, purity tests, and tribalism do more harm than good. They reduce diversity, foster groupthink, and strike me as thoroughly inconsistent with freethought. Place me on the side of those who find strength in diversity even when it is uncomfortable.

One way to answer the question of how tolerant we should be is to ask ourselves what our ideal atheist community might look like. I want a large, active, and diverse atheist movement. I am not interested in having the atheist movement linked to a single political ideology, even if it is one I happen to share. But how can this be? Why would I not want everyone to share my political orientation? If my life experience has taught me anything, it is that I am not always right. I am not going to learn much by surrounding myself with people who agree with me about everything, and I am not arrogant enough to think that I don't still have plenty to learn.

To foster the sort of community I want, I need to be quite tolerant. I am asking for diverse perspectives, and so I need to be receptive to such perspectives when they appear. If I claim I want diversity and then make my career on attacking anyone who expresses an opinion which differs from mine, I'm left with little credibility and open to accusations of hypocrisy. None of this means that I must adopt an "anything goes" approach and pretend that all ideas are equally valuable, but it does mean that I need to be willing to listen to what others are saying and allow myself to be affected other perspectives.

Tolerance vs. Growth

Tolerance of diverse perspectives often describes an approach where one person detests the ideas of another but keeps his or her mouth shut in order to avoid conflict (e.g., "I hate your conservative politics but I will keep it to myself so we can work together"). There are times when this is probably the best outcome, but I'd like to suggest that another approach is sometimes possible and might even be something for which we might strive.

Instead of merely tolerating differences, we can allow ourselves to grow as a result of encountering them. Through fully encountering different ideas, we allow ourselves to be affected by them (i.e., we may be changed in the process). No, this does not mean that we reflexively adopt the positions of others around us. It means that we do not reflexively discount the positions of others, including those with which we may initially disagree. We allow ourselves to experience them, think deeply about them, and grow through having done so.

Obviously, this is far more difficult than merely tolerating a different opinion. It requires effort, and it probably won't make sense in all circumstances. I am merely throwing it out there to suggest that tolerance of diverse perspectives, as difficult as it seems to be for some, may be easier than other options. Perhaps the question isn't how tolerant we should be but how far we can progress beyond tolerance.