What Does It Mean to Be Intolerant?

Many Christians Have a Double Standard in their Demands for More Tolerance

More and more, religious theists are objecting to what they call "intolerance" on the part of irreligious atheists who are critical of religion, religious beliefs, and theism. Religious theists insist that atheists are being intolerant and rather than criticizing or mocking religion, atheists should become more tolerant of religion. Liberal democracies place a high value on tolerance, so this sounds at first like a reasonable request but it's not because of how "tolerance" is being defined.

Tolerance is not a simple concept which either is or is not present; instead, it's a complex concept with a spectrum of possible attitudes. It is thus not only possible for a person to be "tolerant" of some idea, thing, or even person in one way yet not another, but it is in fact the norm. While it might be reasonable to expect tolerance in one sense, it's not necessarily reasonable to also expect tolerance in another. Let's look at some of the definitions which dictionaries give for tolerance:

  1. A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
  2. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.
  3. Sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own.
  4. Lack of opposition for beliefs or practices differing from one's own.
  5. The act or capacity of enduring; endurance.
  6. The act of allowing something.

Is it reasonable for religious theists to expect or demand any of this from irreligious atheists? The first looks reasonable at first, except for the "and" in the first part. Irreligious atheists should be as fair and objective as possible when dealing with religion and religious beliefs, but what about "permissive"? If that just means not opposing the freedom of religion to exist, then that's appropriate. This is why the 5th and 6th definitions of tolerance are reasonable to both expect and demand.

What's in Between?

Everything in between, though, is problematic. It's not reasonable to insist that irreligious atheists "respect" religion and religious beliefs except insofar as it is limited simply leaving people alone and not trying to suppress their religion. Unfortunately, the sort of "respect" often demanded is more along the lines of high esteem, admiration, and even deference.

It's not reasonable to expect irreligious atheists to be "indulgent" (humoring, catering to whims, yield to) of religion and religious beliefs they consider false. It's also not reasonable to expect irreligious atheists to "lack opposition" to religion and religious beliefs. To see just how absurd that would be, imagine demanding that conservatives be more "indulgent" of liberalism or that liberals "lack opposition" to conservatism. Does that make any sense? Does anyone expect something like that to happen? Of course not.

Such "tolerance" isn't expected in other religious contexts, either. Jews aren't expected to "lack opposition" to Christian claims that Jesus was the Messiah. Christians aren't expected to be "indulgent" of Islam. No one is expected to "respect" Osama bin Laden's religious beliefs. Few if any people raise any objections to such situations. Why? Because beliefs, ideas, and opinions don't deserve automatic tolerance except in the last two senses.

French-Arab novelist Amin Maalouf wrote that "traditions deserve respect only insofar as they are respectable." The same can be said for all ideas, beliefs, and opinions and the basic principle can be expressed thus: they do not "deserve" tolerance in the sense of being indulged, not being opposed, and being respected, unless they earn that sort of tolerance.

Hypocritical Standards?

I find it very curious how often Christians demand tolerance of their religion even as so many Christians refuse to demonstrate the same sort of tolerance towards others. Some Christians argue that because Jesus made an exclusive claim to Truth, they are obliged to not be "indulgent" or "respectful" of falsehoods — precisely the attitude which some Christians, and perhaps some of the same Christians, want irreligious atheists to cease.

Other Christians don't support tolerance when it prevents them from asserting social and political superiority over other groups. In the minds such Christians, they have no obligation to be "tolerant" — they are in the majority and therefore should be permitted to do whatever they want. Only minorities have an obligation to be tolerant, which basically means allowing the majority Christians to do as they will. If they stand up to challenge this and demand that the government treat everyone equally, this is basically the same as oppressing Christians and failing to show them "tolerance" (in other circumstances, the correct word would be "obsequiousness")

This, then, seems to be the position which irreligious atheists are in. They are obliged to be "tolerant" in the broadest sense towards Christianity in that they shouldn't challenge Christian demands, question Christian claims, object to Christian positions, mock Christian beliefs, or resist Christian power. Christians, on the other hand, are not obliged to be any more "tolerant" than in the narrowest sense towards irreligious atheists — and even that might be withdrawn if atheists get out of line and refuse to be appropriately submissive.