Thinking about Tolerance

I’m glad to see that Jaya is continuing her thoughtful comments on my review of Geisler and Turek’s book, I Don’t Have Enough FAITH To Be an ATHEIST. Her latest post deals with my comments on David Limbaugh’s accusation that liberals are intolerant of Christians.

Yet the Professor misses the point of LImbaugh’s argument. The point, which is clear to any Christian reading it, is that Christians are not always welcome, and their beliefs are not always tolerated.

No, actually I quite understood that this was Limbaugh’s intended point. The problem with Limbaugh’s argument is that it’s not really a valid complaint. Jaya has some sympathy for Limbaugh’s point, being a Christian herself, and indeed even I can sympathize, having been an evangelical Christian for many years. But the “intolerance” and “hypocrisy” that Limbaugh accuses liberals of is the mere fact that they refer to Christian intolerance as intolerant.

[P]art of the outrage that we feel at being labeled “intolerant” is because, in the act of labeling someone thus (in the context of the connotation that word has taken on in our modern culture) is rather intolerant, and hypocrisy bothers us just as much as it does anyone else.

The connotation associated with the word “intolerant” is that you’re not willing to let other people live according to their own conscience in matters of individual liberty, but rather, you insist on forcing others to live according to your personal standards of faith and conduct. That’s generally seen as a bad thing, and it is indeed a significant detriment to social cohesion in a multicultural society. Such an approach inevitably raises conflicts over whose personal standards should be imposed on everyone, and if anyone does win, the successful imposition of their practices on others will foster resentment and rebellion, leading to more conflict.

The question is, is it “hypocritical” to identify intolerance in the words and deeds of those who are not willing to let other people live according to their own conscience, or is it merely honesty? Jaya is honest enough to admit that Christians are indeed intolerant, and are arguably not intolerant enough.

There are some things which should not be tolerated, and those are the things that are sinful.  Murder is one of them, and one on which everyone agrees (until you get so far back into the life of a person that he’s not born yet – then for some reason people get this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and assume it’s suddenly ok to kill him… but again, that’s another argument for another day).  And then there are things like homosexuality, which, according to the Christian world view, is sinful, and therefore should not be tolerated.  So of course we are against tolerating homosexual marriage.  It’s sinful, and sin is not to be tolerated.

Most liberals, however, are perfectly fine with allowing Christians to express their views on such topics. Merely holding and speaking such beliefs, while objectionable, certainly falls within the lines of what tolerance ought to allow. (And in return, Christians ought to grant that liberals and non-Christians have an equal entitlement to expressing views critical of Christian views). The problem is that Christians go beyond merely expressing opinions about abortion and homosexuality. They seek to actively impose their standards of faith-based behavior on those who do not share their faith, with actual criminal penalties for those who fail to comply. Christians have even passed constitutional amendments in many states specifically denying homosexuals the right to marry the person they love.

We’re not talking about just free speech any more. Christians are actively interfering in the religious liberty of non-Christians, and even of liberal and gay Christians. Jaya is quite right about one thing, though: there are some things which should not be tolerated. Oppression of minorities, for example. Injustice. Dishonesty. Crime. Even intolerance itself, in the sense of the meddlesome intolerance that works to divide a society into classes of rulers vs. the ruled. I’m proud to be intolerant of those things, and you can go ahead and say so. I won’t complain in the least. In fact, I’ll have a somewhat lower opinion of you if you’re not intolerant of such things.

The thing that Christians need to remember is that they’re preaching their Christian definition of “sin” in God’s absence. God does not show up in real life to declare to us that, for example, the fetus is a “person,” or that homosexuals deserve to be denied basic human freedoms. And in God’s universal absence, the only basis Christians have for interfering in the religious liberties of others is the say-so of other men who presume to speak on God’s behalf in His absence. And there’s no way to objectively confirm whether or not any of these men really have the “correct” interpretation. Not only are there a number of different religions in the world, there is disagreement even within the different faiths. Religious arguments are endless precisely because there is no point in objective reality that can conclusively answer the question of who is right (if any).

This is why our Founding Fathers wisely wrote religious freedom into the Constitution. Notice the First Amendment does not mandate separation of “church” and state. It specifically forbids the state establishment of religion. Because in God’s absence, there is no “right” answer to any religious question, there is only “the answer that seems right in my own eyes.” And that’s not guaranteed to be the right answer.

Religious tolerance is crucial to the survival of free society, but you can’t have genuine religious freedom if you make exceptions based on what this or that sect perceives as “sin.” Who is to say that at the next turn of the wheel it might not be you who are being oppressed because you’ve “sinned” by submitting to the Pope (or refusing to submit, if you’re Protestant)? The world we all live in together is a secular world, and we need to live together bound by the common secular experience we all share, i.e. by secular laws. Forbid things with demonstrably bad real-world consequences, like fraud, stealing, and murder, and allow religious liberty in other areas. Be free to submit yourself to whatever religious beliefs you like, in private, but respect the religious liberty of others. And if you can’t do that, then don’t complain if people identify you as religiously intolerant. Fair’s fair.

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One Response to “Thinking about Tolerance”

  1. mjrobbins Says:

    I think the problem for Christians is that because the definition of what is and isn’t sin can vary so widely, and because in practice there is no central authority to decide, they risk looking as though they pick and choose the things that they want to regard as sinful based on their own pre-existing beliefs.

    For example, do people start declaring that homosexuality is wrong *because* of their religion, or simply because they don’t like it? I’m reminded a little of conspiracy theorists who spend hours sifting the internet for little pieces of evidence to support their “theories”, while disregarding all else.

    Anyway, the point I’m making is that (to me at least) Christians come across as using religion as a handy support for their own existing intolerances – which makes them seem all the more, well, intolerant.

    A second problem then is why they have to come out and be so aggressively opinionated. For example, if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, why should it bother you if some stranger sins? Why should it bother you if too gay people get married or live together? If your beliefs are right, they’ll go to hell, and if not then it doesn’t matter. Either way, you live your life regardless. This need that many Christians have to meddle in other people’s affairs makes them seem just plain intolerant, or even vindictive.

    As for the suggestion that labeling someone as intolerant is, in itself, intolerant, that line of reasoning fall apart when you realize that it’s the equivalent of saying that because I don’t tolerate racism, I must be racist-ist.

    Anyway, great blog, and I enjoy your writing.