Religion is Not about Tolerance

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ABC Middle East correspondent Anne Barker became the target of an angry mob of Orthodox Jews.  The protest she was filming was happening because a local council decided to open a municipal carpark on Saturday.  As she filmed, several protesters noticed her.

I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms.

It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses.

Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face.

Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough?

No.  It was none of that.  She was using a camera.  Using a camera is a desecration of the Shabbat.  For pressing a button on a camera, these idiots decided that she deserved to be spat upon.  Not just a little, either.  She deserved to be covered in spittle.  She deserved to be kicked in the head.

This is obviously not the first time we’ve seen organized stupidity in the name of religion.  Various groups are ready to kill and torture for crimes ranging from drawing a cartoon to naming a teddy bear to performing legal abortions to being raped by an uncle.  It’s not my purpose to point out that there’s a lot of stupidity in religion.  If you are not aware of this fact, you either live in a cave or have permanent blinders attached to your head.

Instead, I want to make the case that “Live and Let Live” is simply not compatible with religion.  Sure, there are moderate religious people in most every religion who are content to let others have differing beliefs, but I think we’ve had it wrong all along.  These people aren’t the rule.  They’re the exception, and the exception doesn’t disprove the rule in this case.

I realize that this isn’t a popular position, and I also realize that it’s kind of hard to prove, in a statistical sense.  Here’s the problem.  Very few people want to be identified as religious extremists.  In fact, many people who are religious extremists don’t believe themselves to be.  Compounding this is the well known fact that people tend to see themselves as more rational, fair, and altruistic than they really are.  The result, then, is that in surveys, we would expect to see a large number of people self-identifying as religious moderates when in fact, their beliefs and attitudes are quite extreme.

Consider the extremist position of advocating, voting for, and demonstrating publicly for the legislation of a purely religious belief.  (I don’t think anyone would argue that this is an extreme practice of religion, would they?  It’s not “live and let live.”)  We have plenty of that in America, and a great deal of it is coming from the live-and-let-live moderates.  Moderates have been active supporters of prayer in schools, the Ten Commandments in court houses, the tampering with the Pledge of Allegiance, the teaching of religion as science in public schools, abolishing a woman’s right to reproductive choice, banning sex toys, changing the constitution to legalize discrimination against gays, restricting the rights of retailers to sell perfectly legal products on days of religious observation, and dare I say it… protecting the interests of Israel primarily because of its place in the history of our major religion.

If only those who self-identify as “fundamentalists” or “theocrats” or other extremists were behind all of these measures, none of them would ever pass.  The U.S. would be a truly secular nation with separation of church and state if only 20-25% of the population actively supported things like “faith based initiatives.”  But as we’ve seen time and time again, religious legislation has the support of large swaths of the American public.

I don’t want to harp on this for too long since it will distract from my main point.  I’m not trying to prove that there are lots of religious extremists in America.  That, too, should be patently obvious.  What I’m trying to do is demonstrate that religion itself — the belief in things that contradict science, and the validity of feelings over evidence — promotes and encourages this kind of behavior, and more importantly, that religious tolerance is NOT the normal state of affairs in religion.  It’s the exception that proves the rule.

In defense of this claim, I offer the following:

  • Humans, by nature, form religion in their own image.  Humans, by nature, are prone to intolerance, herd mentality, and group-think.
  • Many, if not most, religious moderates are more moderate in practice than belief.  At least in my experience, most moderates, if pressed, will agree with many of the extremist practices in principle, but will lament extremists as too “over the top.”
  • Our statistics on religious moderates are largely from self-identification, and people tend to identify as less extreme and more tolerant than they really are.  We should expect the number of “real extremists” to be higher than the statistics indicate.
  • The history of successful religious litigation, and the continued erosion of the church-state wall indicates very broad support — much broader than just self-identified extremists.
  • We see the same patterns in other major religions,  Islam and Judaism in particular.  It’s a lot more talk of tolerance than practice.
  • The “true feelings” of moderates towards atheists.  Time and again, atheists are viewed by the majority of theists as untrustworthy, immoral, or just outright evil.

If moderation and tolerance was the default setting for religion, we should expect that across cultures, extremists would have very little say in government, and that by and large, there would be few public fights over matters of religion.  What we see is quite the opposite.  In most countries where the population is primarily religious, we see heated and often violent public and legislative fights over how to institutionalize, legalize, and give preferential treatment to religious interests.

Human nature is not always pretty, and religion facilitates and encourages many of the worst parts of it.  It gives people permission to believe themselves correct despite outside reality checks.  It gives us permission to go to the dark places in human nature and not only give them voice, but put them into practice.  It lets us spit on women, cut off their genitals, and stone them to death after raping them.  Not only that, it gives us permission to believe that anyone who says anything about it is an infidel.

No.  Religion is not about tolerance.  When a person is religious and tolerant, it’s not the religion’s doing.  It’s the person’s own nature overriding the destructive and divisive beliefs that religion gives them permission to have.  When a church adopts a kind, gentle view of Christianity that doesn’t shout about hell and damnation, it’s because the people in the church are good in spite of the nastiness inherent in their religion.

Religion is poison.

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