Friday, March 21, 2008

Taking Tolerance Too Far

There is a great op-ed at the Arizona Republic. But while the author – Linda Valdez – is dead right about the fact that religious tolerance, something carefully pushed by the GOP, is infringing on individual rights, there is one thing that bothers me about her piece. She is adamant in her assertion that “it is time for some lines”. But this seems to indicate that we need to work on balancing our tolerance of religion with individual rights. I disagree. Rather, I think we need to scrap this idea of religious tolerance altogether.

Religion has been given a special place in our society. A prime example in current events – the successes of pharmacists who are fighting not to do their job because of religious beliefs. But why should we be tolerant of religion? Sure, tolerance in general is a good thing. But under this idea of “religious tolerance” lies the repugnant notion that religions and religious dogma cannot be challenged, cannot be questioned. Think about it. Someone tells you that they believe an embryo has a soul, as does an individual in a persistent vegetative state. You ask for their reasons. They tell you its part of their religion. This is almost always a conversation stopper, unless you are willing to “attack their religion”. And if you do that, then you are immediately open to a charge of intolerance. Why? Because religious tolerance involves deference to religious practices and, in this case, religious beliefs. Any attempt to undermine those beliefs from outside the religion in question is automatically intolerant.

Ms. Valdez is correct that religious tolerance leads to infringements on individual rights. But her desire to draw lines between tolerance and rights is misguided. Dogma does not respect the boundary of individual rights. You cannot insist that that creationism is false, and hence should not be taught to children, and still be deferent to religious origin myths. You cannot claim that women have a right over their bodies, and yet still be deferent to religious claims that they do not. You cannot claim that homosexuals should be treated like everyone else and still be deferent to religious claims that homosexuality is an act worthy of stoning. You cannot draw a line between deference to religious dogma and rights, for any line you wish to draw will immediately be seen as intolerant.

Now, in claiming that we should scrap the idea of religious tolerance, I'm not advocating any sort of legally forced belief systems. Nor am I advocating discrimination against those who hold these religious beliefs. We should be tolerant of other people. But tolerance of people who happen to religious is not the same as tolerance of religion. Our tolerance of religion has not been just a tolerance of the people who adhere to religion. That is as it should be. Rather, our tolerance of religion has extended itself to encompass a different sort of tolerance entirely - a tolerance of belief without evidence, one that requires that we not challenge this special class of religious beliefs the same way we would challenge other sorts of belief. If we are to protect our rights, that sort of tolerance has to stop.

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