June 24, 2018

Political Intolerance Seems to be Getting Worse

heckling will not be tolerated signAs I watch my neighbors driving to church this morning, I can't help reflecting on how there is only so much any of us can do to influence the world around us. What American atheist hasn't felt frustrated by the incredibly slow rate at which religious belief has been fading around us? No matter what we do to expose the many problems associated with religious belief, it often seems like we are making little difference. Of course, I recognize that part of the reason things feel that way to me is that I'm impatient by nature. Another important part of the reason has to do with my location. When it comes to the influence of religious belief, Mississippi is going to be one of the last places to change.

Fortunately, there is at least one very optimistic thing I can say about the state of religious belief in the U.S. that would apply even here in Mississippi: no matter how bad it is, I have little reason to think that it is getting worse. Yes, the overwhelming majority of our neighbors still believe in ancient gods. And yes, these bizarre beliefs sometimes influence their behavior in ways they shouldn't. But at least it doesn't seem to be getting worse. Not only that, but survey after survey shows a slow trend toward secularization. Not only is it not getting worse, but it appears to be improving. I think this is a reason for optimism, especially when one contrasts it with other types of beliefs that do seem to be getting worse.

From where I sit, our intolerance of persons who hold political views that differ from our own is getting worse. This includes the sort of political polarization, tribalism, and conflict to which I keep calling attention; however, for now, I'm just going to lump all that together under the label of intolerance. I am not going to claim that this is the worst it has ever been. I do recall hearing about something called the Civil War, after all. What I will claim is that this sort of intolerance does seem like it has been moving in the wrong direction (i.e., getting worse instead of better) for the last 30 years or so.

I don't have a clear sense of when things started to go downhill, but I think it is worse today than it was when Barack Obama first took office. And I think it was worse during Obama's administration than it was when George W. Bush first took office. And it was worse under W than it was under Bill Clinton, worse under Clinton than George H. W. Bush, and...well...you get the idea. It seems to me like our intolerance of views that differ from our own, and especially of others who hold such views, has been getting worse.

As pessimistic as I sometimes feel about the success of our efforts to steer people away from religious belief, I am far more pessimistic about similar efforts aimed at helping people develop the sort of tolerance of diverse political views needed for a healthy society. Things seem to be moving in the wrong direction. I'm not at all sure about this, but I find myself starting to wonder if this sort of trend might ultimately prove to be even more detrimental than some of the lingering religious belief that gets more of our attention.