Aug 17 2007

Episode #512: Intolerance

I have gotten some requests for show notes on occasion. In response, I’m going to begin posting summary notes to the blog, so that when requests for notes come in, I can just point them here. Thanks, Martin.

The word “tolerance” has two very distinct meanings that can, but do not always, overlap. One is to respect others or their actions and beliefs. The other is to merely allow others to act and express their beliefs—regardless of whether or not I, personally, respect them, their beliefs or actions.

It is unreasonable to expect that no one will disagree with my opinions or ideas. In fact, there are many ideas that are so widely disrespected that they are almost universally disdained. The ideas expressed by Hitler or NAMBLA not only lack widespread acceptance; they are openly disparaged by the general population; and the actions they promote are legally prohibited. So, in either sense of the word, they are not “tolerated.” The ideas they espouse are not generally respected; and the actions they endorse are not allowed. No society exercises absolute tolerance by either definition. And expecting any belief, value or idea to be universally respected is simply unrealistic.

The goal in the United States—and I realize it’s not always achieved—is to allow the individual the right to believe and act freely insofar as his/her actions do not compromise the rights of fellow citizens. We value, in this country, the right of Freedom of Speech—aka Freedom of Expression. We all have the right to express our ideas and opinions to the extent we don’t violate someone else’s rights. Freedom of Speech can violate someone else’s rights when, for example, I seriously threaten to harm or kill someone for exercising a legal action or expressing an idea or opinion.

My right to say what’s on my mind is limited when it forcibly stops others from exercising legal actions or expressing ideas and opinions. In the public forum, I can disagree, disparage, ridicule, challenge, even insult; but I cannot try to silence the free expression of others. I must tolerate (allow) all expressions, in the sense that I must respect—not the expression itself, or even the person expressing it—but the right of other person to express. And that freedom extends to responses as well. In the real world, no idea, opinion or belief is universally respected or accepted. If I don’t want my ideas challenged, then I should carefully consider whether or not I want to express them in a public forum; because the public has a right to respond, and I need to respect that right, even if I disrespect the content of the responses I might receive.

In the show, I referenced the following:

-Karen Powers

“I always like to point out to my many atheist friends that I have never tried to convert them or ridicule their beliefs, but have been on the receiving ends of dozens of rants against my belief system…something that feels a lot like the person is trying to “convert” me to their way of life (atheism) all the while accusing religious people of being intolerant.”

Here Karen equates attempts to convert with intolerance. First of all, an attempt at conversion does not impede Karen’s right to believe or act. No matter how badly someone wants Karen to do X or believe X, simply talking to her about X cannot force her to do either. She is correct, though, that it can show a level of disrespect for the beliefs she holds currently when someone tries to change her mind. Atheists understand this from dealing with apologists; just as Karen understands this from her atheist friends. But I’m free to respond that I disagree with them, as is Karen, and also to express why I disagree, as is Karen. I’m also free to not listen to them if I so choose, as is Karen. No harm, no foul.

Karen’s post was not the only one addressed, but it was representative of what is found when you look up “atheist intolerance” on the Internet. The main complaint is that atheists don’t publicly respect theists or theism. But, again, that’s the case with any belief—none are universally respected. I’m unsure, though, why that’s a problem. No one requires my stamp of approval in order to do or believe whatever they want. If I express that what someone else does or believes is silly or stupid, it has no impact whatsoever on their right or ability to continue to do or believe it. There is, in fact, no reason whatsoever for anyone to care what anyone else thinks about what they do or believe—if the assessment extends no further than a mere personal opinion.

Fortunately, with regard to atheists, most of the people I know in the community really don’t care what Christians “believe,” despite the fact we get weekly letters asking us why it bothers us so much that other people believe in god. It actually doesn’t bother most atheists that theists believe in god. What tends to bother atheists is when any particular religious group tries to impose it’s beliefs upon the rest of the population—either via legislation or via other means of policing public policy (legal or otherwise). When theists try to dictate my behavior so that it is in line with their theistic doctrines, this imposes on my individual rights and freedoms—granted to me by the Constitution. Constitutionally, I have as much right to choose my beliefs and actions as any other citizen in this country.

The show included numerous readings from theists who felt that atheists should not exercise their Freedom of Speech. Perhaps the best example was the transcript of a Paula Zahn Now! show:


In this episode, real venom was aimed at atheists and atheism. I don’t mind people aiming venom. Again, so long as they let others live their lives, I don’t care what they think or how vehemently they think it or express it. But a line is crossed when they begin telling others to “shut up.” Attempting to demand that others stop expressing ideas, opinions, and beliefs—is the beginning of intolerance. Criticize ideas however you like—but don’t tell others they need to stop exercising their Constitutional right of Freedom of Speech. Each of us has as much right to express our ideas as anyone else has to criticize them. I’m happy to dialogue—but “shut up” isn’t a dialogue. It’s an expressed wish to monologue publicly, without public challenge or response. And that’s the way to shut down public debate—which is simply hypocritical, cowardly and not in the best interest of maintaining a free and open society.

One particularly interesting statement made on the program was when Karen Hunter said, “Don’t impose upon my right to want to have prayer in schools, to want to say the pledge of allegiance…”

First of all, nobody can impose on anyone else’s right to “want” something. But as far as her right to actually have it—nobody has imposed on that, either. Anyone is legally allowed to pray and say the Pledge of Allegiance in any nondisruptive way, and I have yet to meet any atheist who opposes this. However, theists are not Constitutionally allowed to impose prayers upon nonadherents, and they are out of line to add narrow religious statements into a pledge that is intended to be used by the entire nation. This imposes a pledge to monotheism/religion upon all citizens who would like to also be able to say the Pledge to their nation. There is no reason the Pledge should not be accessible to all citizens equally. It should not apply only to those citizens who adhere to the idea of a monotheistic deity. Again, Karen’s right to express her beliefs should end where the right of others to express themselves begins. According to Karen, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have to choose
between pledging loyalty to her religious beliefs and pledging loyalty to my country. But if no mention of god was contained in the Pledge, there would be no imposition to either theistic or atheistic Americans. That’s the difference. The insertion of the monotheistic god into the Pledge was a move in the 1950s that continues to alienate some very patriotic citizens in the U.S. to this day. And it is logical that a national Pledge should as much as possible unite, and not divide the citizenry.

I ended with a reading of several articles, all published in the last month, that gave examples of Christians being intolerant by attempting to disallow others to exercise legal actions or express beliefs. Examples included death threats to J.K. Rowling, threats of harm to a library for a summer program that included workshops on astrology, a bomb planted at a women’s clinic, a man who murdered another man because his victim was gay, attempted book bannings at a school library by one mother, an attempted ban on Sunday liquor sales, and a disruptive protest during a Hindu prayer before the U.S. Senate. There were more articles, but we didn’t have time to address them all.

While I acknowledged on the show that this behavior is not representative of the vast majority of Christians; it is fair to ask why, when this sort of religious thought-control and behavior-control intolerance is covered in the U.S. media, it appears to be almost exclusively attempted by Christian adherents? And why, if that is the case, are atheists the ones consistently labeled as “intolerant”—most often merely for legally exercising their Freedom of Speech by criticizing ideas with which they disagree?

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