Ask any blogging atheist or freethinker and you’ll probably find they’ve done a post or two on tolerance. Well here’s mine.
It’s not uncommon for atheists to be told they shouldn’t criticize others people’s beliefs, because it’s rude or intolerant. Other bloggers have explained in detail why it’s important to do so and why it’s not rude to disagree. The consensus seems to be that being universally tolerant of other people’s beliefs allows a free-pass for bad ideas which can lead to some crazy or dangerous behaviour.
Tolerance does not imply the lack of an opinion, it merely implies allowing others to disagree.… I will, however, continue to argue for my own position. And I still think you’re wrong.
When I do get into debates on beliefs, I try to avoid being insulting or antagonistic. This isn’t something I always get right; it’s something I aspire to. I know from experience that it’s all too easy to mock or humorously misrepresent someone’s beliefs in the heat of the moment, especially when the debate is face to face.
However, I genuinely don’t want to cause offence. The people I chat with about religion are generally nice decent people and I wouldn’t like to see them upset if I can help it.
I know some atheists say we shouldn’t worry about upsetting people. In some situations I can understand that attitude. For example, when “You’re so intolerant” is being used to shut down an important political issue rather than accept the more rational argument. Even more so if you’re being asked to tolerate a belief that is itself hateful or intolerant.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to get people to listen to your point of view, maybe change their mind, then I think causing offence will hinder your efforts. If you say or even imply that someone is stupid or crazy for believing what they do, you can expect anger and resentment, not carefully considered responses. It turns from a conversation into a confrontation – one in which backing down is seen as weak and shameful rather than open-minded.
So there’s a fine line to tread. We shouldn’t play the sycophant and pretend to agree so as not to hurt people’s feelings; but we’d be ill-advised to resort to condescending mockery or insults simply because we disagree.
The trouble is that many believers feel their beliefs are an intrinsic part of their identity. However politely it is phrased, the disagreement may still be interpreted as an insult. This is mostly the believer’s problem, but we should nevertheless bear it in mind when debating with them.
Maybe we should tolerate/respect the believer, but not their beliefs. This distinction may be obvious to us; I think we should make it obvious to those whose beliefs we criticise.
After some searching I discovered that a similar idea was suggested by Mahatma Ghandi, and not Jesus as some Christians have apparently claimed:
Hate the sin, love the sinner.
My version is, “Tolerate the believer, not the belief”. I think that’s a good lesson for me both in the way I think about and treat believers.
As much as possible we should separate the believer from the belief. Smart people often believe stupid things. Most of us probably have some false beliefs, but that doesn’t make us idiots. It just means we’re mistaken in that case.
Now I need to work out how to make the difference clear to people without upsetting them…