This is an examination of religious tolerance, with a specific focus on Christianity. I want to demonstrate that the price paid for religious tolerance is a watering down of religious belief until it's considered by its believers to be little more than their guess as to what life is all about?
What is religious tolerance?
At its simplest level, religious tolerance is about allowing others to hold beliefs that run contrary to one's own beliefs. It does not require that opposing beliefs be facilitated, supported, or not contradicted - but it does require that competing beliefs be allowed to exist.
Some would dissent from this definition, claiming that religious beliefs should not be criticized, yet this position is untenable and an example of empty-headed political correctness. The mere existence of competing belief-systems is in itself criticism. For example, it's difficult to read the Bible without coming away with the impression that Hindu and Muslim beliefs are utterly wrong, and certainly the basic premise of Islam condemns the heretical Christian claim that Jesus was the son of God.
The atheist perspective
Atheism is not a belief system or a religion, so I'd like to address this before getting too deeply in to the religious view of tolerance. The main problem of religious toleration is one of contradiction - which only affects non-believers when religions make claims of a naturalistic nature. For example, the biblical claim that Jesus is busy building mansions in Heaven is as meaningful to an atheist as the Islamic belief that their mansions will come complete with hot and cold running virgins. Such beliefs should be tolerated, even though they appear untestable and the product of wishful fantasy. Where problems arise is when believers make assertions that affect reality - such as those made by creationists and the religious habit of imposing their morals and sensibilities on to everyone else. Of course everyone is quite familiar with the Islamic predilection for finding explosive shortcuts to their virgin-stuffed house in the clouds.
It's difficult to see why an atheist would take offense to the claim that Jesus was not divine, but such a belief should be offensive to Christians. This cuts to the core of the issue. There is no such thing as a devout atheist - or least anyone who would claim to be a devout atheist with an unchanging view is certainly more likely to have chosen atheism for emotional reasons. In reality very few atheists stake a claim to knowledge of unanswerable questions - but such answers are the stock and trade of religions.
The problems posed by religious tolerance
The problems posed depend on a few factors:
- Scripture - including directives from a deity, or a prophet or similarly important similarly important religious figure
- Degree of religiosity
- Sincerity and empathy
In the case of scripture, religious adherents are not consistent in how they use scripture. At the lighter end we see those who see scripture as being more a guide, in which the basic message is true - but the texts themselves are subject to misinterpretation or error. It is easier for such people to practice tolerance, because to a great extent their beliefs tend to be a little vague and uncertain. At the heavier end we see the fundamentalists who place great emphasis on the innerency of scripture - although like the more casual believers they tend to pick and choose the sections of scripture that conform to their personal beliefs. This is evidenced when Christian fundamentalists cite the Ten Commandments as the ultimate source of law - while ignoring the more esoteric and inconvenient commandments found in the very same book. How many Leviticus-loving anti-homosexuality activists, with their biblical verse emblazoned signs, are known to call for the stoning of adulterers or a ban on clothing manufactured from a mix of wool and linen? Not many.
Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scripture tends to be rather direct when it comes to the toleration of other Gods. The result of straying from the One True God™ tends to end in damnation. The more wooly-minded believer may take the approach that other religions are simply different paths to God, or that on judgement day God will surely judge these infidels kindly - yet this is in direct opposition to scripture. It would be impractical to list every piece of scripture that condemns heretics, but a short list of examples will suffice.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.—Gal.1:8-9
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.—Rev.1:8-9
These are verses from the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament teachings are quite clear on the matter - although the Jewish tradition of reinterpretation tends to find ways that allow Jews to escape their obligation to execute anyone caught washing his Lexus on a Saturday. Christians can point to the example of Jesus spending much of his time in the company of non-believers, heretics, and social outcasts - but this should not be mistaken for tolerance. Jesus did not take the approach that its fine to worship idols and doubt his divinity. His purpose was to convert the unbelievers to the true path, and it's made quite clear that failure to accept his teachings would result in punishment - or perhaps what could charitably be described as a denial of the gifts intended for the faithful.
Attempting to interpret scripture to tolerate the existence of competing religions is tantamount to suggesting that Moses descended Mount Sinai, clutching in his hands the sacred tablets of the Ten Helpful Suggestions. It is a fact that the Abrahamic religions are all mutually exclusive of each other. Christianity attempts to replace Judaism, which denies that Christ was the son of God - a position it shares with. There is no way to reconcile all of these religions without positing either a confused and bumbling god, or perhaps three different gods in three entirely separate realities.
Degree of religiosity
The degree of religiosity determines how seriously a believer takes their religion, but does not necessarily dictate the actual beliefs. As an example, Christian fundamentalists are not all in agreement on all matters of their shared religion. Fred Phelps - perhaps the counter-apologetics equivalent of Godwin's Law, is without doubt sincere in his beliefs - and his grasp of scripture cannot easily be dismissed. However, his extreme Calvinist belief that salvation is through grace alone (and that what we do is unimportant, since God has already compiled the book of life in which damnation and salvation are pre-ordained) does not sit well with traditional evangelical belief that salvation can be achieved through the acceptance of Christ.
If the scripture and tradition of the religion pay little attention to heretics and non-believers, then a fundamentalist viewpoint will not lead to intolerance. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Most believers, thankfully do not attempt to enforce the commands of their gods through the medium of murder, but certainly civil liberties are threatened by those wishing to have their own particular take on religion made the norm for everyone. The greatest risk of such an ostensibly care-free approach to those of competing beliefs is the dehumanizing factors associated with it. Why bother with the well-being of people when it's known that God is going to smite them anyway?
Sincerity and empathy
This is where the more friendly and tolerant believers risk the charge that they are being willfully negligent in their obligations towards their fellow humans. Consider the following hypothetical situation.
It is a foggy night, and I am aware that the bridge further up the road has collapsed. There are no warning signs posted, and I am unable to make a phone call to warn the authorities.I have several options available to me. I could return to my comfortable and warm house, and perhaps phone the authorities in the morning. I could fashion a small sign - which would perhaps be visible to some but certainly not all. Finally, I could remain at the bridge, frantically warning drivers to turn back - perhaps even risking my life by jumping in the road on such a foggy night.
Of these three approaches, the first is comparable to the Phelps brand of Christianity. Although he and his odious church are famous for their pickets - these are not intended to convert people. Instead their purpose is to remind the sinners of their impending doom. The second approach is closer to tolerant Christians would do. They believe themselves to be correct, but are not making strong efforts to convert people to their belief system. The final example is another fundamentalist approach, in which there is a stark choice: Do what I say or be damned!
The tolerant approach arguably makes for a more peaceful society, given that multiculturalism is the norm in many countries, but it comes at a cost. Believers are abandoning their role as "their brother's keeper" (Gen.1:8-9) - doing not nearly enough to prevent their fellow humans from driving over the proverbial bridge.
How important is religious belief?
This follows from the degree of religiosity, although is worth tackling as a separate topic. As Pascal, in his famously cynical wager suggested belief in God as a kind of pragmatic way to hedge one's bets. Pascal's wager is a hopelessly naive and patronizing argument for belief, but he is correct that a believer needs to weigh-up the pros and cons of their beliefs.
If God exists, and scripture is indeed God breathed, then surely Christianity is the single most important thing in the lives of believers. Believers will receive eternal life, and a direct relationship with the most powerful being in the universe! Unbelievers risk some form of eternal damnation, which according to the Dante tradition will be an eternity spent in a perpetual medieval torture chamber, while less angry Christians prefer to consider this to take the form of separation from God or simple oblivion. We know that religious belief is not nearly as important as most people would claim it to be, if only from the fact that Christians commit crimes and most have little more than a vague understanding of scripture and the history of their religion. Don't believe this? Next time you meet a random Christian and ask them the following questions:
- Who wrote the gospels, and when was the first canonical gospel written?
- What's the name of the disciple who was prophesied to disown Christ, and how many times would he do this before the cock cried?
- In which gospel is Jesus described as having existed prior to his appearance on Earth?
- Were Mary and Joseph already living in Bethlehem, or did they travel their in order for Mary to give birth?
- Can you list the ten commandments?
- When was the Bible written, and what languages was it written in?
The final two questions are obviously of a trick nature, but are likely to trip-up the believers to whom Jesus is a blue-eyed white guy who, prior the believer watching Mel Gibson's snuff porn, was assumed to have spoken English. There are obvious downside to basing one's knowledge of eternal salvation on the sermons of one's pastor and the Christmas watching of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.
The consequences of disbelief are incredibly bad. This being the case, why should a Christian be tolerant of dissenting religious beliefs? Christians in western Europe are no-longer allowed to save souls by jabbing people with pointy objects, but still there is much they could do if they have any sense of moral responsibility. Is it ethical to accept the delusion of another person in the full knowledge that they are condemning themselves to eternal torture?
Religious tolerance has two main sources. The first is a callous disregard for the eternal salvation of unbelievers. It is tantamount to advising a friend to not drink a can of petrol, yet then just sitting by and watching with disinterest as they pop open the cap. The second cause is related to the morphing of Christianity in to something so wooly and watered down that it's more a vague kind of hope than a real belief. The latter is pragmatic and certainly fits better in to a modern multicultural society, but such a belief has been forced upon Christianity by secularism and ultimately robs Christianity of any automatic claim to moral authority.
Personally I'm happier to see the latter - except when I want to seriously discuss Christian theology. I recall a commenter on a TV show claiming that Phelps was being somehow more honest, but this is demonstrably false. Fundamentalists and wooly liberals alike cherry-pick what they want from their Bibles, and perhaps the most dishonest category would be those who claim biblical inerrancy in matters of history and science.
I don't think that tolerance can work while allowing Christianity to remain in any way meaningful. I am grateful when meeting Christians open to discussing theology, and it's particularly enjoyable to hear reasoned interpretations of Christian scripture and tradition, but I come away wondering why such a seemingly important "truth" is treated with no more reverence than any random self-help book? This isn't just casual Christians adopting this line. Popes, archbishops and rabbis have all come out in the past to preach a message of tolerance - when in reality one would expect their line to be one of "we're right, they're wrong!"