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Religion* is Not Compatible with Tolerance


ABC Middle East correspondent Anne Barker became the target of an angry mob of Orthodox Jews.  The protest she was filming was happening because a local council decided to open a municipal carpark on Saturday.  As she filmed, several protesters noticed her.

I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms.

It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses.

Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face.

Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough?

No.  It was none of that.  She was using a camera.  Using a camera is a desecration of the Shabbat.  For pressing a button on a camera, these idiots decided that she deserved to be spat upon.  Not just a little, either.  She deserved to be covered in spittle.  She deserved to be kicked in the head.

This is obviously not the first time we’ve seen organized stupidity in the name of religion.  Various groups are ready to kill and torture for crimes ranging from drawing a cartoon to naming a teddy bear to performing legal abortions to being raped by an uncle.  It’s not my purpose to point out that there’s a lot of stupidity in religion.  If you are not aware of this fact, you either live in a cave or have permanent blinders attached to your head.

Instead, I want to make the case that “Live and Let Live” is simply not compatible with religion.  Sure, there are moderate religious people in most every religion who are content to let others have differing beliefs, but I think we’ve had it wrong all along.  These people aren’t the rule.  They’re the exception, and the exception doesn’t disprove the rule in this case.

I realize that this isn’t a popular position, and I also realize that it’s kind of hard to prove, in a statistical sense.  Here’s the problem.  Very few people want to be identified as religious extremists.  In fact, many people who are religious extremists don’t believe themselves to be.  Compounding this is the well known fact that people tend to see themselves as more rational, fair, and altruistic than they really are.  The result, then, is that in surveys, we would expect to see a large number of people self-identifying as religious moderates when in fact, their beliefs and attitudes are quite extreme.

Consider the extremist position of advocating, voting for, and demonstrating publicly for the legislation of a purely religious belief.  (I don’t think anyone would argue that this is an extreme practice of religion, would they?  It’s not “live and let live.”)  We have plenty of that in America, and a great deal of it is coming from the live-and-let-live moderates.  Moderates have been active supporters of prayer in schools, the Ten Commandments in court houses, the tampering with the Pledge of Allegiance, the teaching of religion as science in public schools, abolishing a woman’s right to reproductive choice, banning sex toys, changing the constitution to legalize discrimination against gays, restricting the rights of retailers to sell perfectly legal products on days of religious observation, and dare I say it… protecting the interests of Israel primarily because of its place in the history of our major religion.

If only those who self-identify as “fundamentalists” or “theocrats” or other extremists were behind all of these measures, none of them would ever pass.  The U.S. would be a truly secular nation with separation of church and state if only 20-25% of the population actively supported things like “faith based initiatives.”  But as we’ve seen time and time again, religious legislation has the support of large swaths of the American public.

I don’t want to harp on this for too long since it will distract from my main point.  I’m not trying to prove that there are lots of religious extremists in America.  That, too, should be patently obvious.  What I’m trying to do is demonstrate that religion itself — the belief in things that contradict science, and the validity of feelings over evidence — promotes and encourages this kind of behavior, and more importantly, that religious tolerance is NOT the normal state of affairs in religion.  It’s the exception that proves the rule.

In defense of this claim, I offer the following:

  • Humans, by nature, form religion in their own image.  Humans, by nature, are prone to intolerance, herd mentality, and group-think.
  • Many, if not most, religious moderates are more moderate in practice than belief.  At least in my experience, most moderates, if pressed, will agree with many of the extremist practices in principle, but will lament extremists as too “over the top.”
  • Our statistics on religious moderates are largely from self-identification, and people tend to identify as less extreme and more tolerant than they really are.  We should expect the number of “real extremists” to be higher than the statistics indicate.
  • The history of successful religious litigation, and the continued erosion of the church-state wall indicates very broad support — much broader than just self-identified extremists.
  • We see the same patterns in other major religions,  Islam and Judaism in particular.  It’s a lot more talk of tolerance than practice.
  • The “true feelings” of moderates towards atheists.  Time and again, atheists are viewed by the majority of theists as untrustworthy, immoral, or just outright evil.

If moderation and tolerance was the default setting for religion, we should expect that across cultures, extremists would have very little say in government, and that by and large, there would be few public fights over matters of religion.  What we see is quite the opposite.  In most countries where the population is primarily religious, we see heated and often violent public and legislative fights over how to institutionalize, legalize, and give preferential treatment to religious interests.

Human nature is not always pretty, and religion facilitates and encourages many of the worst parts of it.  It gives people permission to believe themselves correct despite outside reality checks.  It gives us permission to go to the dark places in human nature and not only give them voice, but put them into practice.  It lets us spit on women, cut off their genitals, and stone them to death after raping them.  Not only that, it gives us permission to believe that anyone who says anything about it is an infidel.

No.  Religion is not about tolerance.  When a person is religious and tolerant, it’s not the religion’s doing.  It’s the person’s own nature overriding the destructive and divisive beliefs that religion gives them permission to have.  When a church adopts a kind, gentle view of Christianity that doesn’t shout about hell and damnation, it’s because the people in the church are good in spite of the nastiness inherent in their religion.

Religion is poison.




*Please note that for this article, I am using a very Western and specific definition of religion.  A “religion,” for my purposes, is a set of  beliefs and/or practices that is Faith Based and therefore in opposition to science and reason as the only legitimate means of knowledge aquisition.  There are certain eastern religions that do not necessarily qualify by my definition.  I don’t mean to imply that they are not really religions.  I simply don’t have a suitable word that describes precisely what I mean, and “religion” is the closest thing for the Western reader, so I have over-specialized it for this instance only.



7 thoughts on “Religion* is Not Compatible with Tolerance

  1. I Agree 300%. Very good text! And it is really as you say
    «When a person is religious and tolerant, it’s not the religion’s doing. It’s the person’s own nature …»

    Religion or better patriarchal religion, make me distrust human nature.

    Posted by adília | July 7, 2009, 3:21 pm
  2. This is one of those areas where inexact or undefined terms seem to end up leading you to say more than you probably need or want to say. For example, Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition – but their central religious principles are explicitly anti-dogmatic and directly oppose exactly the sort of thing you are complaining about here. Buddhism is also a religion – even the sort of westernized Buddhism commonly practiced in the U.S. (which is really just Buddhism more in line with the core teachings of the Gautama Buddha and stripped of all the pantheistic nonsense tacked on later in China and India). Yet one of the central teachings (and famous sayings) of Gautama Buddha was, roughly translated/paraphrased, “Believe nothing that anyone tells you – not even what I have told you – unless it agrees with your own reason and observation.” Again, quite the opposite of what you’re (rightly) complaining about here. And if you make any sort of objection along the lines that “Unitarian Universalism isn’t really a religion” or “Buddhism of that sort is more a metaphysical and ethical philosophy than a religion,” you are not merely splitting hairs, you’re sliding very quickly into “No True Scotsman” fallacy territory.

    “Religion” is just too big a concept – one including too many extremely dissimilar ideas and traditions and institutions and activities – for arguments such as yours here to really stick. You should focus on the common element that is the genuine source of the problem: What leads to the sort of cruelty and stupidity you frequently point out is not religion in and of itself in all its particular forms, but the willingness of individual religious people to determine their beliefs about the world based on nothing more than emotional preferences or the declarations of illegitimate authorities (holy books, preachers) instead of determining beliefs based on evidence and reasoning – in a word, faith. Similarly, the problem is not religion as such, but specifically those religious traditions and institutions which encourage and valorize faith “as a way of knowing” when faith is in fact a way of willfully not knowing, of explicitly rejecting the only legitimate, effective, proven foundation for knowledge – justification by evidence and reason, rigorously tested and always subject to revision based on further evidence and better reasoning.

    Not all religious people and institutions embrace faith; some reject faith outright, such as the aforementioned Unitarian Universalists and Buddhists. The distinction between those who embrace faith and those who eschew faith is much deeper than the distinction between so-called “moderate” and more conservative or fundamentalist believers, and religious people who don’t fall for the ultimate sucker bet of faith don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. If anything, such people are the natural allies of atheists and secularists – if they aren’t too alienated by broadsides against “religion” which lump them together with the fundies. I know people who take a non-faith-based, decidedly more rational and genuinely tolerant approach to religion are in the distinct minority – but they make much neighbors than the other sort, so I think it’s worth a little care to avoid unwarranted and unintended offense.

    I think the distinction between religion and faith is also worth making for another reason: It makes it clear what the only possible basis for real, honest-to-goodness religious tolerance could ever be: People would have to give up going around and claiming things are true as a matter of faith. Faith beliefs necessarily lead to conflict with everyone who says quite different things are true as a matter of faith, as well as conflict with those of us who have better sense than to make truth claims unsupported by evidence and reason. If people would give up faith as a way of embracing and preserving false, immoral and/or downright stupid beliefs, the only religious ideas, traditions and practices left would give the non-religious no cause for complaint.

    Posted by G Felis | July 7, 2009, 6:39 pm
  3. Oops. Missing word. “…they make much better neighbors than the other sort…”

    Posted by G Felis | July 7, 2009, 6:42 pm
  4. As always, your criticisms are valid and reasonable. I think one simple addendum will clear up most of the problem, however. In previous essays (which ones, I can’t recall) I have taken the liberty of defining religion in a very specific way for my own arguments. For my purposes (and only within the context of my arguments) I define religion as any set of beliefs and/or practices that specifically endorse methods of knowledge acquisition involving contradiction with or opposition to the scientific method. That is a long way around my ass to get to my elbow and say “Faith based religion” but it also encompasses several other similar belief systems that I believe go hand in hand.

    Yes, I know I’m just avoiding the No True Scotsman by redefining a perfectly good term, but as in many of my arguments, the terminology I need for clarity and brevity simply doesn’t exist in English. To my knowledge, there isn’t a word that encompasses anti-science religion, what you call quackery (homeopathic medicine, UFOlogy, cryptozoology, New Age, Tarot, astrology, etc) and other forms of just plain bad critical thinking. Since I am writing to a primarily western, English speaking audience, I have taken the liberty of hijacking the very broad term, “religion,” and making it fit my narrower purpose.

    In a colloquial sense, I do think UU doesn’t count as a religion. I realize that it’s a religion because it calls itself one, but really… it’s just an excuse to have potluck dinners. That’s neither here nor there. It’s just my cranky opinion. The only thing that genuinely bothers me about UU is that most of the practitioners (can you even call them that?) I’ve known refuse to condemn faith based religion. Whether they’re supposed to or not based on the tenets of UU (Do they have those?) I have no idea.

    Anyway… back to the point at hand.

    In the Big Three Monos, I do think the brush covers all practitioners. Sure, there are probably a few people who call themselves Christian but practice and believe some bizarre bastardization of Christianity that doesn’t include anything faith based, but let’s face it. Nobody but them understands that, and by calling themselves Christian, they are identifying with and condoning what Christianity means to 99.9% of westerners. There are also “cultural Christians” who don’t give a rat’s ass what’s actually said in church, and just attend services because that’s what everybody in their culture does. I don’t believe they get let off the hook, though. Again, their non-participation in faith-based nonsense doesn’t change the fact that for practical purposes, Christianity IS faith based, and anyone hearing the word Christian knows good and well that it’s about a 2000 year old zombie who got himself killed so he could forgive us for being the way he made us. By participating in cultural Christianity, practitioners are condoning religious Christianity. Maybe it’s not fair, but I don’t see any way around it.

    In any case, I’m adding my definition disclaimer to avoid confusion. Thanks as always for your critique!

    Posted by hambydammit | July 7, 2009, 7:00 pm
  5. I must also add that since my audience is primarily Western, and most of us are pretty unfamiliar with eastern religion, the distinction is mostly irrelevant. I’d guess that 99% of my readers, when they read “religion” are forming a mental picture of faith based Western religions. Yes, it’s a little sloppy philosophically, but I think it’s rhetorically effective. I think for this kind of article, wordy perfection would be so pedantic that it would blunt the overall point.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 7, 2009, 7:10 pm
  6. I knew that somewhere in the back of your head (although apparently also in the backlogs of your blog, which I didn’t know) there was a definition of religion that included faith as a necessary component. However, I think that the re-defining words that already have a perfectly good definition approach is always gonna buy you more trouble than it avoids. As for the inadequacy of existing language, what’s wrong with using the word “faith” and its cognates? If UFO-ology and New Age beliefs and astrology and “alternative medicine” (i.e. alternatives to actual medicine) aren’t rooted in faith, nothing is: It’s very easy to connect any and all such woo to the idea of faith, no complicated explanations required. In contrast, it’s not at all obvious what, say, cryptozoology has in common with Christianity as a sociocultural phenomenon – other than the obvious commonality that both rely heavily on beliefs that lack objective evidence, i.e. faith. If faith is the primary identifying feature shared by the things which aren’t normally labeled as ‘religion’ which you are artificially forcing into your idiosyncratic definition of religion, then… uhm.. maybe you’re just using the wrong word?

    “Faith” is a perfectly good word that points towards everything your arguments typically target, and it carries with it the virtue of automatically making the real source of the problem clear: Religious people of the world, it is neither your cultural heritage nor your rites and traditions (or at least, not most of them) that atheists and secularists and freethinkers have a problem with – it’s your fucking horrible epistemology! If you’d just stop going around believing things for no good reason, you’d stop doing all the other stupid shit we’re always complaining about!

    Of course, one of the things most religious people believe for no good reason is that some god or other exists – but that particular article of faith is in many ways the least important aspect of the problem: It’s all the other things they claim to know about this invisible, intangible, unevidenced entity that are the problem – how he wants us to behave, who he hates (gays, apostates, women, people who work on the Sabbath, etc.), what he thinks we shouldn’t do with our naughty bits. If you’re going to go around believing in this ineffable entity who is so difficult for puny mortal minds to understand that the only way to “know” he exists is to simply decide to believe, maybe you shouldn’t go around claiming to know in such excruciating detail every little thing this mysterious entity wants from us!

    See, I can be rant-y too! But by focusing my rant on faith, and more specifically on the inherent problems with claiming to know anything as a matter of faith, I can target the real source of trouble and keep the focus where it belongs instead of letting a reader (willfully or otherwise) misunderstand my aim. Faith is the problem, not religion. Yes, most religions involve faith – but those religious persons and traditions that eschew faith are also the ones that don’t cause other problems, such as the cruelty and stupidity you’ve had more than a few occasions to vent about here. On the flip side, lots of ideas and institutions which DO cause huge problems – “alternative medicine” quackery, for example, or Greenspan-ian free market fundamentalism – share exactly one feature in common with (most) religions – again, faith.

    Posted by G Felis | July 7, 2009, 8:03 pm
  7. You’ve convinced me. When I’m not busy playing online spades, I’m going to run this article through a sieve and substitute all instances of “religion” with “faith.”

    Posted by hambydammit | July 8, 2009, 12:21 am

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