Tolerate the believer not the belief

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.

But what constitutes tolerance? Lynet at Elliptica describes what seems to me like a reasonable idea of tolerance:

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.

I commented recently on Kelly Gorski’s post ‘And They Call It “Tolerance”‘ to suggest that separating the belief from the believer is important. (Excuse the gratuitous self-quote).

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…

10 thoughts on “Tolerate the believer not the belief

  1. My concern with your whole notion of trying not to upset people is that people who have all of their emotional investment in their beliefs will perceive any criticism as an attack. They cannot separate the belief from the self, and thus will vew the criticism as an attack on their core beliefs, on their very identity.

  2. They cannot separate the belief from the self, and thus will vew the criticism as an attack on their core beliefs, on their very identity.

    I know that is a problem.

    However, I don’t think that should make us give up trying to communicate effectively. We can at least be tactful and not give them any justifiable reason to be offended. If they’re still offended by polite disagreement, then it’s their problem. If you’re civil in what you say you can at least defend your approach. You could maybe even show by analogy that disagreement is not in itself offensive.

    It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I’m hopeful sometimes it work in some cases.

  3. I agree that we should try to be tactful and respectful, but only to a point. When theist interlocutors take every opportunity to personalize the issues and turn the conversation to allegations of unregenerate sinfulness (why else would one turn from God?) then it seems pointless to continue taking the high road. Why turn the other cheek more than once or twice before striking back?

    Kelly is right that many self-styled apologists take everything as a personal attack, so much so that they cannot seem to differentiate between attacking an argument and attacking a person. Ever since St. Paul, this has been a problem within Christendom in particular.

  4. Welcome to the atheosphere!

    I agree with your intent to separate believer and belief and hope that it will make a difference in at least some cases. There will be cases in which it will not matter, as some people will still be offended by the simple fact that you disagree with them. Nonetheless, if you’ve done your best to be civil, that’s all you can do. You can’t control other people’s responses to you.

  5. Hi DAM10N,

    Kelly is right that many self-styled apologists take everything as a personal attack, so much so that they cannot seem to differentiate between attacking an argument and attacking a person.

    Perhaps I’m lucky to have mostly come across less aggressive apologists.

    The Christian persecution complex (or persecution doctrine might be more accurate) seems to be one of those memes which has evolved to prevent them from ever having to take disagreement seriously.

    I know some theists are offended by the mere existence of non-believers. That’s why we need to reiterate that it is not reasonable to be offended by tactful disagreement. I know it is incredibly hard to stay tactful in the face of a belligerent apologist, so maybe it’s better to walk away from the discussion in those cases. Rather than be goaded into anger or making personal attacks, which would cloud the issue of whether we are being tactful, ideally we should leave the conversation saying we’re not willing to be insulted.

    I know that’s idealistic and I’ve been one to strike back with unreasonable personal attacks before, but I try not to.

    the chaplain,

    Welcome to the atheosphere!… Nonetheless, if you’ve done your best to be civil, that’s all you can do. You can’t control other people’s responses to you.

    Thanks! You’re quite right, it’s hard enough to control one’s own responses when your morality is being questioned!

  6. I admit myself to often getting frustrated and upset when those I’m debating with refuse to acknowledge my points and instead continue to spout, well…idiocy. They just repeat their beliefs without giving any reason, sometimes, and that becomes impossible to do anything about. I do think I’ve been debating an entirely separate sort of Christian than you, however, as it doesn’t seem you’ve been having to deal with this. Lucky!

    Atheists should aspire to take the higher ground and be gently rational and critical.

    It is ironic that Christians are crying ‘intolerance’ after subjecting the rest of the world to violent intolerance for centuries.

  7. I do think I’ve been debating an entirely separate sort of Christian than you, however, as it doesn’t seem you’ve been having to deal with this. Lucky!

    It probably helps that I live in the UK, where the majority of people are religiously apathetic. The main taboo is having strong opinions and talking about religion in public, whether religious or not.

    That said, opinions on religion seem to be polarising and I have found some zealous believers. Actually, the JWs did have a tendency to just repeat their beliefs again or quote the Bible ad nauseum.

  8. Hi Eshu

    I guess tolerance depends on the context. If you’re just chewing the philosophical fat with a religious aquaintance there’es no point in getting personal, but if they’re agitating for creationism to be taught in your kid’s school that may be a different matter.

  9. Your post is very wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, although I do agree — in principle — with its thesis. However …

    Even in the Atheosphere, I don’t tend to go out of my way to “battle” with religionists unless they show up, uninvited and with woo-guns drawn, at my blog or a friend’s. The problem with tolerating the believer but not the belief, as you and some commenters have pointed out, is that in some cases (possibly many cases in BlogWorld), believers confuse their “selves” with their beliefs. They have no personae that exist outside of and apart from their beliefs.

    When I’m confronted by such a person, I follow his or her lead. If that individual’s very personhood is inextricably bound up in nonsense, if that individual defines himself or herself as a personification of that nonsense, I kiss toleration goodbye and send it on its way. The more dangerous the ideas, the more intolerant I become.

    I think it’s important not to tolerate ignorance. Or ignorant people. Because you know what?

    Ignorance is contagious.

  10. The Exterminator,

    The more dangerous the ideas, the more intolerant I become.

    Thanks. Yes I see your point. If someone thinks Elvis is still alive I might be tempted to let them get on with it, but if they’re saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, I don’t think we can agree to disagree. The trouble is, for each piece of woo-woo you have to do your homework just to get started, so it’s hard work putting someone right on their pet subject.