Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Is Atheism an intolerant belief?

A British Television show discussed this with some interesting back-and-forth as reported by The Friendly Atheist.

The problem I see in these conversations is the lack of specificity. The lack of definition. Two (or more) people talking with two (or more) perspectives on the subject. How do we define “intolerance”? Who determines what is “intolerant”? How do we develop a scale where something is “more” or “less” intolerant?

Let’s start with a basic definition—what is “intolerant”? It means “to not tolerate,” leaving us with the next question: defining “tolerate.” I would broadly define “tolerate” as “a situation where the person has no desire to change the status quo.

Think of it in terms of temperature. If a person is comfortable, they do not change the status quo--they leave things as they are. If they become warm, they no longer tolerate the situation and make choices: complain, lose some clothing, turn on air, sit there and sweat, etc. Become cold, make similar choices. They attempt to change the status quo.

Everyday we are confronted with situations designed to be intolerant. Designed for us to not tolerate. Your alarm clock is deliberately noisy and obnoxious to make you modify the status quo of sleeping. That phone ringing is purposely intended to change your situation of not answering the phone.

I have always found this preface phrase rather silly: “This doesn’t bother me, but…”. Of COURSE it bothers you; you would be unaffected and silent if it didn’t!

The question of whether beliefs are “intolerant” is so basic within beliefs (especially those strongly held), I find the question inane. The person with the bumper sticker, “Not out of a Job Yet? Keep buying Foreign Cars” has a belief about buying American products and is, by virtue of putting that bumper sticker there, attempting to change the minds of someone who does not. The very point of the bumper stick (and the belief behind it) is to change the status quo of a person thinking of buying a foreign car. Of making them not tolerate (by fear, or discomfort, or sense of loyalty) buying Honda.

The instant I begin discussing my belief with the intention of persuasion rather than mere information—I have become “intolerant.” I hope to change the status quo of another person by making them no longer “tolerate” their position.

Imagine someone asks me for the fastest way home. I suggest Highway I-75. Another person chimes in, “No, Telegraph Road is faster.” If I shrug and move away—I was only providing information about my belief as to the quickest route. I am not being “intolerant.” But, if I start discussing traffic signals, or construction, or number of miles, attempting to convince I-75 is faster—I am attempting to change the status quo. I am attempting to make the person not “tolerate” taking Telegraph Rd.

If we are in a position where we desire to convince another of the viability of our belief—whether it is atheism, deism, agnosticism, theism, pantheism, whatever—even if it is for a hope they recognize our human ability to be persuaded differently than they are; we have become “intolerant.” We are hoping to change the other’s status quo that our belief is not viable, or we shouldn’t hold such belief.

Beliefs are intolerant. Atheism is intolerant. The real question (hardly every addressed) is what is the proper response way to be intolerant? “Proper” being a heavily loaded word.

What reaction is required? What is “too much?”

Back to our temperature example. My wife is cold-blooded. She likes temperatures when they start to reach the lower 90’s. Then she becomes comfortable. Otherwise she does not tolerate the temperature. And she reacts.

Bless her heart; she tends to overreact. In the car we hear, “I’m cold!” and the next thing you know, the seat warmers are on, the heat is turned on full blast, she is wrapped in a blanket, hoodie, winter coat and boats. The rest of the family starts to peal off clothes like a Nudist Colony Lobby, and let the heat-stroke fantasy of being in a desert wash over us.

We expect beliefs to be intolerant. We expect beliefs to be proclaimed to the point of making another uncomfortable. Not tolerating the situation. The question is this—what is too much?

Here the problem varies so much from person to person. Some find street preachers too pushy. Others find them entertainment and love to engage them. What one person would say, “that level of persuasion is too much” another would say, “doesn’t bother me.”

A great example of this came from the video on Friendly Atheist. A person (theist actually) pointed out that some things said by atheists about theists were not as bad—not as intolerant—as being told you were going to hell. That has never bothered me. Christians who indicate “You are going to hell!” to me do not cause me to flinch. I understand why they think that, I am not afraid of a non-existent place, I understand they don’t have any evidentiary arguments and are reduced to fear-mongering.

I hear, “You are going to hell” and it doesn’t cause me to change my status quo. My heart maintains the same beat. My mind forgets it as quickly as a passing road sign. So what…

BUT, I hear, “The disciples wouldn’t die for a lie” and my heart does start to race. My mind starts to frame the argument as to why this is so terribly wrong. My fingers start to twitch on the keyboard. Other theists may hear this and think nothing of it. Forgetting it as quickly as a passing road sign.

“You are going to hell!” I don’t react. I tolerate this phrase.
“The Disciples wouldn’t die for a lie.” I react. My mind changes from what it was thinking on. I do not tolerate this phrase.

Yet for others it is the opposite. In such a diverse society, how do we learn to get along when each phrase could be considered highly intolerant to some, mildly offensive to others, and of no interest to the rest?

Who sets the standard for when something is “intolerant”? I propose we use the same method we do in other situations—think about the other people present, granting consideration as best as possible.

I sense Christians feel, in this area of intolerance, that their beliefs are being forced out of the marketplace of ideas. That they are no longer allowed to practice what they believe. I sense, when complaints of “Atheists are intolerant” are being banded about, it is saying, “You atheists get to practice what you believe, but we are hindered in some way.”

I see complaints of how Christians can’t pray at graduation ceremonies. Christians can’t hand out pamphlets on the street due to ordinance impositions. Christians can’t do this; Christians can’t preach that. I see Christians who feel like the society is giving deference and favoritism to non-believers.

It isn’t. It is attempting to give consideration to others. Christians should try it themselves with a dash of humility.

Imagine you are in charge of a banquet. What do you put on the menu? Think about it for a second.

Most likely, one of your first questions would be, “Who are I serving?” If you are at First Baptist Church, most likely wine would not be on the menu. Serving “Harleys & Hookers”—beer would be a prerequisite. You start to consider the people.

We’ve all been to wedding receptions. What is on the menu? Some salad, some rolls, a vegetable, a fruit, a potato, ziti with spaghetti sauce, a chicken and a beef. Occasionally a few fish. Why is that the menu over and over and over? Because it is designed to provide for the most people. Some like chicken, some like beef. Rare is the person who will only eat pork or fish. Salads are innocuous. Even a vegetarian will not starve with such a meal.

If you are in charge of a banquet, you will default to the safest menu in consideration of the crowd. Something that hopefully everyone will be satisfied with.

What you don’t see—what you won’t do—is say, “Hang it, I am in the mood for hot Mexican, so we are having chips and salsa (only hot—no medium or mild), and spicy beef & bean burritos and hot Spanish rice, Corona’s and deep-fried ice cream.” Banquet planners understand their own preferences will not please even a majority of the crowd.

Yet what happens when it comes to praying before the banquet? We often see Christians who proclaim, “I am a Christian, so I’m going to pray a Christian prayer, dang it. It is not about what others want, it is not about giving consideration to others—this is about ME and MY BELIEF, and if they can’t tolerate it—too bad. ‘Please God and not humans,’ so says God.”

The same person wouldn’t serve Thai and only Thai, because they like it. Yet when it comes to praying, they demand a Christian prayer, because they like it.

See, it is NOT that non-believers are winning some battle regarding praying at banquets. It is that, like the food, the safest route is to have a non-confrontational prayer, or no prayer at all. It is giving consideration to the audience.

Imagine giving a prayer that is not offensive to Jews. Best leave off Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And not offensive to Christians. “Allah” is right out! And not offensive to Muslims, and not offensive to pagans and not offensive to… In the end, the safest default is to have no prayer at all. True, even THAT will offend some. But it is impossible to pray before a banquet of mixed beliefs and not offend someone.

Face it—your belief is intolerant. What you do with that, and how much consideration you give to others who believe differently is up to you.


  1. I suppose I'm intolerant by that definition. Personally though I take it to mean something like "Allowing for things with which you disagree." So I disagree with Christianity, but I tolerate it, meaning I allow for it. I wouldn't want to make it illegal or force people to reject it.

    By that definition I think homosexual advocates that say "Christians are intolerant of homosexuality, but I'm not. I'm very tolerant" are not making sense at all. You're not tolerant of homosexuality. You agree with it, or you have no problem with it. You can't tolerate that with which you agree. Disagreement is a prerequisite for tolerance. Which is why tolerance is virtuous. It is good to allow for the views of others even when you don't agree with them. There's nothing virtuous about putting up with things for which you have no problem. Everybody does that.

  2. I would like to agree with Jon's take on the notion of tolerance, and suggest that you may be interested in listening to Wendy Brown's (political theorist at Berkeley) interview on tolerance at Philosophy Bites:

  3. Ah, good. A discussion.

    Reuben, I will not get a chance to hear the interview until tomorrow. Perhaps it will change my mind. In the meantime…Jon, if you don’t mind I will pick on you a bit to hopefully highlight what I mean by the lack of definition and clarity in this topic.

    Please understand I am not writing this in an antagonistic manner, but rather to generate some thoughts. The easiest way to do a cut-and-past response:

    Jon: You can't tolerate that with which you agree. Disagreement is a prerequisite for tolerance. Which is why tolerance is virtuous.
    Not at all. In fact, you DO tolerate that with which you agree. It is only when confronted with a different set of circumstances you no longer tolerate it. Think again to my temperature example. If the temperature is agreeable to you—you are tolerating it. It is only when the temperature becomes disagreeable that you no longer tolerate it! You begin to react to it.

    As I do not find intolerance an evil, it is little surprise I would find its opposite—tolerance—a virtue. What one DOES with their intolerance may be evil, but simply being intolerant is not.

    Jon: Personally though I take it to mean something like "Allowing for things with which you disagree."
    But what does that mean: “allow for things with which you disagree”? What does it mean to “allow”? I quite disagree with a person like Phelps—but I “allow” that he exists. I even “allow” he has a constitutional right to do the things he does. I would not “allow” him in my home. I would not “allow” him to speak to my family, if I can help it. Am I tolerant? Intolerant?

    What does it mean—“allow”? Allow it to exist? Allow it in my home? To further demonstrate how unclear this can be:

    Jon: So I disagree with Christianity, but I tolerate it, meaning I allow for it. I wouldn't want to make it illegal or force people to reject it.
    So a Christian believes they have a God-given right and duty to discriminate against a homosexual. But the law says it is illegal to discriminate against a homosexual. To the Christian, their very practice of Christianity mandates such discrimination.

    Would you support the law against discrimination? In fact—making the Christian’s practice of Christianity “illegal”? Or do you believe the law should be repealed.?

    Or the Christian’s demanding they can pray in a school. Or exact the God-given right of enforcing punishment by killing an abortion doctor.

    The fact is, we impose “Illegality” on beliefs all the time. It is a fact of society.

    And what do you mean by not wanting to “force people to reject it’? What is “force”? What is “reject”? It is people exactly like you who “forced” me to reject Christianity by appealing to my sense of searching for the truth. I could no more turn away from a path that ended up in deconversion that I could turn away from any other search for truth.

    Sure you didn’t hold me down and browbeat me! *grin* But force and coercion come in a variety of forms. Confrontation, to some, is a “forcing.” Asking questions can be “forcing.”

    See, we all have this nebulous idea we can do some things and they remain “tolerant” but there is some line, some point we cross, it becomes “intolerant.” Yet no one can explain what that is.

    Let me ask you (and Reuben, if they want)

    What method do we use to determine we have crossed from “tolerant” to “intolerant” in your opinion?

  4. "Not at all. In fact, you DO tolerate that with which you agree. It is only when confronted with a different set of circumstances you no longer tolerate it. Think again to my temperature example. If the temperature is agreeable to you—you are tolerating it. It is only when the temperature becomes disagreeable that you no longer tolerate it! You begin to react to it."

    Okay, I am in accord with your comments broadly speaking, as well as the original post, though I think that your specific notion of tolerance needs changing.

    As per Brown's interview, the use of the word "tolerance" in any field, be it minting, mining, pharmaceuticals, or whatever, regards the managing some undesirable element that one would rather not have to deal with. So when you say in your temperature example that one tolerates an agreeable temperature, I think that "tolerates" is being used inaccurately.

    I suppose that using it in such a context might be similar to calling a warm summer evening with a gentle breeze "bearable." Yes, you are able to bear the excellent weather, but the characterization would seem strange. Now, if the temperature were to rise dramatically, you might call the weather bearable or tolerable and sweat it out uncomfortably. Such circumstances would be authentically "tolerable" to your own body. But if the temperature rose such yet again, such that you suffered delusions or your shoes began melting, then you would call the weather unbearable or intolerable, because your body could not endure such conditions without damaging your health.

    Now, with this formula in mind, I'll skip down to your final question, regarding how to determine what is an intolerant activity or attitude or whatever, and simply say that, granted my analysis, your question is equally pointed under this alternative conception of tolerance. I do not pretend to know any such methodology, but do not think that this admission challenges my conception of tolerance.

    In the end, I guess, all your points stand, and I would re-cast them to suit a different notion of tolerance.

  5. Dagoods, I don't usually use "tolerance" and "intolerance" the way you define them in this blog, but I does make sense. People do use the word that way. But there are at least two other ways people use the words. You might find this article to be interesting. I guess the best thing to do when somebody accuses you of intolerance is to ask, "What do you mean by that?" or "Why do you say that?"