Beyond Tolerance — A Few More Paces


Note: Though written to stand alone, this is related to an earlier post called Beyond Tolerance.

For a long time I was confused. As a closet agnostic growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, I thought no one could understand me; at least, no one I knew. Telling anyone “I do not believe in God” seemed like saying “I want to boil kittens alive for fun” or “I am a hateful angry person who wants to see all Christians hanged.”

At 15 I knew that I was not that person, so to get perspective, I turned to those who shared my point of view: religious skeptics. Some said reason and the evidence of the senses created the surest path to knowledge; I agreed. And when they said that the Bible contained contradictions, I could point to specific ones and say, “Yes. Here they are.”

But many went further to say that Christians were “dumb.” I had been a Christian as a child. I did not think I had been dumb back then, nor did I think my IQ had changed after I had become agnostic. I did not think my college professor dad was dumb either.

Other labels followed: “boring, stodgy, mindless.” I thought about my creative brother who had helped me put together a haunted house for my eleventh birthday. The words may have applied to sappy televangelist types but they did not resonate with my personal experience. I felt torn — caught between knowing my family for who they really were and the need to be understood as the person I was.

I felt the pressure to pick a team: to either be loyal to my family or to “go over” to those who could understand my point of view. But belief-wise, there was no going back. Defending my family from “dumbness” charges was one thing; defending the belief system of my childhood was another, because that would mean voting against myself. The dogma of fundamentalism did not say, “You are either with us or against us.” It said, “You either are us, or you are against us. Think like us, believe like us, or else.”

I could no longer believe. But I knew that in the eyes of many, my non-belief meant I was foolish and vile and deserved to be tortured eternally. My family, who knew me, were forced to accept, as part of the dogma, that this was true.

I had believed it at one time. Now I was the enemy I had been taught to fear. The mainstream media preached religious “tolerance,” but that seemed intended only for those who had religious faith; any kind would do. But being tolerant of those who had no faith was never mentioned.

It was not clear what the word “tolerance” even meant. A few people used the word to mean love and compassion for strangers who were different from the majority. But in general it seemed to be a kind of social etiquette for preventing conflict.

What it meant to me was a need to keep my true thoughts to myself. If I thought a belief was self-contradictory, I could not say it; to do so would be intolerant, even when the “sacred” belief affected how I was perceived, such as the one about me being evil.

The inevitable alternative to this kind of fearful tolerance, many assumed, was violence. Not wanting to be on the side of violence, I felt the pressure to be tolerant of the belief system I had abandoned, even though the system wrongly cast me as someone who was either lost and miserable or angry and hateful.

Tolerance was a chore with no clear end. In practice it seemed to mean hearing Christians talk freely about what they believed while remaining silent and never saying anything to contradict them. Contradicting them would have made me “militant,” even though I had no violent impulses nor a wish to hurt anyone.

My family has become even more fundamentalist than they were when I was a teenager. They watch Fox News, decry the “liberal media,” and object to saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” They think prayer should be “put back in schools.” And they believe, as I was once taught, that Christians are a minority persecuted by “liberal” nonbelievers. Being tolerant of a religious dogma that is intolerant of me has been exhausting, so I have been seeking alternatives.

One alternative, which many nonbelievers practice, is anger. Name-calling such as “dumb” is an expression of it. So is flinging charges of immorality back at Christians. Whatever its drawbacks, anger is an understandable response to baseless charges of cruelty. An intellectual position that asks for beliefs to be backed by evidence has been heaped with so many false side attributes that the energy of anger is sometimes needed to cast them off.

There is a stereotype that atheists are “arrogant.” It is a sweeping generalization no less offensive than saying Jews are greedy. But most find the “arrogance” assumption acceptable.

However, angry behavior has drawbacks. Expressing anger reinforces the view many fundamentalist Christians have of nonbelievers as being chronically angry and unhappy. “Look! See how militant they are? We are right to despise them!”

Negative impressions aside, I wonder if raging is the ideal response; that is, I wonder if fundamentalists are responsible for their biases. I was them once. I remember how the world looked through the lens of faith. I had not created the idea of hell for nonbelievers. I had just accepted what I had been told by those I most trusted.

That nonbelievers were immoral was as “obvious” to me as water being wet. The idea that they deserved hell seemed bigger than me; I assumed the “rules” had been in place for thousands of years before I was born. Had a nonbeliever been mad at me for believing as I did, I would not have understood. I now know that I was mistaken, but most everyone I knew as a child still believe as I once did.

That being said, for me to be “tolerant” of a dogma that is intolerant of me makes no sense; I cannot do it. And I cannot go back; I cannot return to the dogma of my family; I would not want to if I could.

But I love them. I have given a lot of thought to that word lately, and what it means. I think love is the opposite of tolerance. As commonly practiced, tolerance is fear-driven. Love banishes fear.

Tolerance forces uncritical approval of any belief, no matter how outrageous or self-contradictory. It assumes that uncontrollable rage teeters on the precipice of every disagreement, and that the best that can be hoped for is avoiding violence.

Unlike tolerance, love is not repressive, but expressive. It seeks to see people as they really are. It allows them their complexity. It grasps that kindness and cruelty can exist in the same person, and it does not generalize that Christians are dumb any more than it assumes that religious skeptics are immoral.

Rather than forcing conformity, love honors uniqueness. By comparison, tolerance is cold. It is a boring, passive duty, a tired act of obedience to a cultural directive. It silences skeptics and has no regard for the truth. Its only goal is to avoid something unpleasant: conflict.

But love that is concerned enough to seek the whole truth about someone is the emotional equivalent of objectivity. Until recently I have felt torn between emotional bonds with my family and the critics of religion who shared my views. On both sides I saw reality distortions. I have had to duck to avoid being hit by the crossfire of name-calling. Now, finally, I have found my place with those who strive hard to be objective.

But what does being objective have to do with love, which is supposedly blind? Infatuation may be the love of an illusion, but love of a person sees clearly. Otherwise, what good is it to be loved at all?

To say “love is the answer” sounds trite, but the alternatives all seem weak. Indifference is passive. Conformity feels dishonest. Being angry at the believers from my hometown seems as pointless as being angry at my believing childhood self. Rage reverberates down the corridors of history, perpetuating cycles of violence and misunderstanding. But I cannot refrain from being critical. The only solution that feels honest is to love those who disagree with me while unapologetically, relentlessly remaining myself.

For that reason, I have wondered lately if love may actually be the powerful answer to human conflict that many have claimed it is. But the idea has been around for thousands of years. If love was going to create universal social harmony, it should have by now. But I think love – or at least empathy – is an emotional expression of reason.

However, I am a realist. I am not wired to love just anyone. Maybe no one is. But I am tired of being tolerant, so I am going to try.

5 thoughts on “Beyond Tolerance — A Few More Paces

  1. You know, I recently struggled with this. Facebook follower posted that Christ only answer…or something to that effect twice in the comments to a post of mine. I ended up deleting the comments because I did not want dissent or judgement in the comments to my post. I did not want to offend non-Christians. My message is one of love and is non-denominational, and could be humanistic as easily as religious. I wonder if I did right by deleting his comments.

    • I know just what you mean Kitt! People love to be on a team and teams sometimes go too far in deriding and misjudging the other side. I think it pumps the adrenaline more to take an extreme position.

      I understand why you deleted the comments. You did not want to appear to take a judgmental position and I really admire you for that!!! It is rare.

      Viewing reality as the complex thing that it is does not sell. This post has gotten practically not retweets compared to others (although I cannot sure be that is why). It is hard to be in the middle because you risk losing the support of both sides.

      Thanks so much for sharing it and your awesome insights!!! 🙂

  2. Excellent post. And to be honest, refreshing considering how many bloggers write about their daily lives, which is great and all, but it’s nice to read something heavier, if that’s the right word.

    You bring up very good points of name calling on both sides which I can relate to because I’ve heard them, as well. Whenever I’m around Christian types (there are a lot of missionaries in Thailand), I do exercise tolerance. But not in an exasperated way. I have Christian friends, you know? More like in a replacing the word “God” with “love” kind of way becuase so many people have a huge hangup with the word GOD.

    And so, when I do this, conversations feel quite normal. My grandma is also fundamentalist Christian so I grew up with her very wacky sense of Christianity. Overall though, I do think Christ taught us good things. I mean now we start talking about the Old Testament vs the New Testament…different books.

    Buddha also taught us ways and seeing that are in line with Jesus, so….I do think tolerance and open-mindedness help us to build lovely bridges, but of course, we have to be willing to listen and just let new ideas and perspectives sit for a moment.

    I could write a lot, so I better stop there… 🙂

    • Glad you liked the post! You have such an interesting perspective, having been influenced by Buddhism and Christianity. I feel like I should study Buddhism so I can compare.

      Interesting that you can just substutute “love” for “God” and carry on an easy conversation with Christians. The idea of love is central to Christian teachings but I have found few Christians (especially among fundamentalists) who put it into practice when it comes to anyone outside the family or belief system.

      I think there is a quote by Mark Twain that went something like, “Christianity would be a great idea if anyone actually practiced it.” 🙂

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