Are We Religiously Intolerant?

25 01 2011

So, when John Ashcroft got elected governor, he was anointed on the head with oil. I think that’s kind of silly. I mean–it’s silly, right? Using cooking oil to give yourself a blessing to be the governor of Missouri? I also think its silly that Shi’ites cut their heads and bleed all over the place on Ashura. I mean–it’s a bit extreme. Snake-handlers? Weird. That’s a weird thing to do, to run around handling dangerous snakes because of one of thousands of passages in the Bible.

C'mon fellas we're all just trying to have a good time.

Because I have trouble believing in anything supernatural–ghosts, spirits, nebulous “energy” other than those defined by science, etc.–I inherently think they are silly. Meaning in other words I think that these things are literally un-believable. Something not to be believed.

Here’s my thing. If somebody looked at something I held dear and didn’t just say, “I don’t believe that,” but rather, “I think that thing is silly,” I think my feelings would be hurt. So when I say these things are silly, am I being intolerant? Am I belittling and insulting someone for their beliefs? I don’t know the answer to that question. Can expressing an opinion be intolerant? I mean that would require that all non believers were inherently intolerant every time they expressed their lack of belief. That hardly seems fair. Still, I don’t want to be intolerant; I don’t want to make people feel assaulted or ridiculed for what they think is important in their life.

But then again, each member of each of these different faiths must, by definition, think all the other believers believe silly things. Are they intolerant of one another?

I guess we could object that intolerance is only meaningful as a word if we start to apply it at the point that it becomes coercive. In other words, “official” intolerance. This seems to be an extreme in the opposite direction. There much less legal discrimination, or official intolerance, against LGBTQ citizens today, but powerful rhetoric fuels public attitudes that make being LGBTQ difficult. Surely, that’s intolerance, despite not being coercive.

So the answer must be somewhere in the middle. I would absolutely oppose any official intolerance of religious belief–banning minarets and whatnot–but I also refuse to agree that my saying John Ashcroft getting anointed by cooking oil to better write a budget for the Department of Human Services is silly somehow makes me immoral.

That actually may be where the line is. Intolerance is not about criticizing or even mocking other people’s beliefs, but rather about treating or characterizing other people as immoral because of their beliefs. This is a useful point to set it at, because the things we permit a democratic government to discriminate against are those things that society in general considers immoral. Morality underlies most law, particularly criminal law. So if someone wants to mock atheism and call it thinly-veiled narcissistic self-indulgence, I disagree, but that’s okay, so long as you don’t say I’m doing something intrinsically “wrong” in believing it.

A quick point: this really only works with intolerance of beliefs, because that is an opinion and a result of a choice. Intolerance of who a person is inherently–whether by gender, race, or sexuality–starts on a much lower rung.



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