The Case Against Religious Tolerance

Yes, that’s a deliberately contrarian title, and I’m not advocating religious persecution.  Neither is Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith; however, he does put forth the argument that religious tolerance need not, and indeed should not, extend to unreasonable lengths of political correctness.  

He argues, not against religious tolerance in the sense of the Constitutional protection in this country, but against religious indulgence in our daily discourse.  This is only one of many topics he covers in this illuminating and wide-ranging book, but it serves as the dominant theme and clarion call to action.

There is a modern taboo against saying anything that might be offensive to the religious.  On the one hand, nobody today believes that Dionysus – if he even existed – was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, so we can speak of it as a primitive myth which obviously never happened, and not be accused of intolerance.  But apply such a patronizing tone toward the claim of the virgin birth of Jesus and you’ve trodden on the religious sensibilities of the majority of Americans.

Harris says, “there is sanity in numbers.”  Whereas the tolerant feel obliged to respect the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, the virgin birth of Dionysus may safely be dismissed as delusional.  Both stories are substantially identical and equally at odds with what we ordinarily believe about the reproductive process.  The difference, argues Harris, is only that Dionysus has no remaining believers in the modern world, but Jesus has many.  He argues that we should be free to debate and evaluate beliefs based on how well they conform to what we otherwise understand about how the world works, not based the number of believers.

In science, this attitude is expected; in fact, it is required: much of the scientific consensus today began as maverick hypotheses that flew in the face of what the vast majority of scientists of the time believed.  However, unlike scientists, most people are not accustomed to reversing deeply-held beliefs as a matter of routine.  This is especially true when the belief itself includes penalties such as execution for apostasy or eternal torment if the belief is ever questioned or rejected.  Whereas challenging one’s scientific beliefs is invited, challenging one’s religious dogma is considered insensitive.

The basic problem of religious tolerance, argues Harris,  is that most of the major religions of the world are intrinsically intolerant of other beliefs, and often savagely so.  Harris walks us through the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition and other infamous moments of persecution by the religious.  He throws a harsh spotlight on Islam; but he attacks the common sentiment that Christianity is a milder, more compassionate religion by pointing out that modern Christianity is tempered by contemporary secular laws and sensibilities.  It is not Christianity which has progressed morally, he argues, but Western society; the Bible itself has not changed since the Inquisition.

Religion, he argues, is intrinsically beyond rehabilitation.  The continued indulgence of it empowers radical fundamentalists to continue terrorizing others by diverting the focus from religious zeal to political, ethnic, or economic explanations.

The quote from the book which may best sum up Harris’ admonition to the moderates and apologists who constitute the majority of Christians today is this:

“All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture places on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God….The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts.  By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law.  By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.”

You can get The End of Faith here.

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