Tolerance of Religion vs Respect for Religion

The question of religious tolerance may very well be the single most divisive issue among secular liberals in the west.  From the proposed French ban on female head-covering to pandering defenses of female circumcision, liberals find themselves divided on the question of when and whether it is appropriate to tolerate the institutionalized intolerance that is often a part of religious conviction.  The debate takes on a special vitriol in the United States where minority religious rights are as close to a sacred value as any secular principle could be.  We hold it as a virtue to protect freedom of worship, even if we cannot agree about what god, if any, is worthy of our worship. But, at the same time, we are made uncomfortable when confronted with the racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, and xenophobic descriptions and prescriptions that lurk in the pages of every major religious text.  We embrace liberal theologies that explain away these uncomfortable details, and we shake our heads with frustration when confronted with fundamentalists who refuse to compromise.

The recent controversy over the proposed plan to build a Muslim community center- which would include a mosque- a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood has given me pause to reconsider the puzzle of religious tolerance.  Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with a mosque being built at or near ground zero.  If the United States protects the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble for the purposes of religious worship and fellowship, then it should protect that right for all citizens, regardless of the content of their beliefs.  Moreover, most of the people who are complaining about this "disrespect" or "insensitivity" really just have a problem with Muslims, not the content of their beliefs (which are, incidentally, much more similar to the beliefs of Christians and Jews than are secular philosophies and various other Eastern and polytheistic religions).  So, lest there be any confusion on the matter, I am not on the same side as Sarah Palin and her ilk.  I don’t think building a house of prayer "hurts hearts."  I don’t think every Muslim is a potential plane hijacker anymore than every Christian is a potential abortion-clinic bomber.  And, if places of worship are going to be built, I think the former site of the Twin Towers is as good a place as any to put one.

All of that being said, I don’t think the imperative to tolerate peaceful assembly or private religious fellowship in any way extends to an imperative to respect religious belief.   If your religion tells you that the world is less than 7,000 years old and you believe it, then I think you are an idiot.  If your religion tells you to disown your gay son and shun your immodest daughter and you do it, then I say you’re an awful person.   I can tolerate your believing things that are nonsense so long as you aren’t breaking the laws we’ve both agreed to obey, but that doesn’t mean I respect what you believe.  Moreover, I think I have a moral obligation to challenge your beliefs when you hold them up in defense of a policy that will affect me and other people in my community.

It’s this distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect that is really at issue in the mosque-at-ground-zero controversy.  The most vocal critics of the mosque are not rabid atheists who are angry about religious zealots killing people.  They are right-wing Christians.  Now, leaving aside the possibility that some of the Christian mosque-building opponents are just plain racists, I think the best explanation for why this group opposes building an Islamic house of worship near the former site of the Twin Towers is that they conflate the imperative to tolerate peaceful religious practice with an obligation to respect the content of other people’s religious belief.  Their thinking seems to be that because Muslim belief (among other things) motivated the 9/11 hijackers, showing tolerance for Muslim belief so close to the site of the attacks is an inappropriate sign of respect for the religion.  If you think about it from their perspective, the twisted logic is not hard to follow.  The Christian right is quite fond of accusing the secular left of intolerance. Whether by charging that the left is "closed-minded" for not teaching creationism as a science, or "ignoring the will of the people" when a federally-appointed judge overturns the church-promoted Proposition 8, Christians in this country are fond of painting themselves as the victims of religious persecution.  So, given that the Christian right conflates legitimate challenges to their beliefs with "intolerance," it kind of makes sense that they might confuse the reasonable mandate to tolerate Muslim religious practice with a legitimate objection to belief in the tenets of Islam.

So, let me make the distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect explicit.  Refusing to teach religious myth as science in public schools is not intolerant.   Allowing homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples is not intolerant.  Blocking people from building a religious community center on property they have legally acquired is intolerant.  In all three cases, I don’t respect the religious beliefs that motivate the project.  I don’t believe in your God, so what you think He says about the age of the Earth, the sin of sodomy, and the proper way to pray doesn’t matter to me.   In the first two cases, the issue is not private religious belief but the legal definition of the terms "science" and "marriage" which have implications for everyone in the country, regardless of their beliefs.  In the third case, once the legal status of the building property is determined, the issue really is private religious belief.  I am not affected by you praying at your house of worship, but I am affected by you legislating from it.  Perhaps the religious right would appreciate the relative harmlessness of the former if they stopped doing the latter.

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23 Responses to “Tolerance of Religion vs Respect for Religion”

  1. James Gray Says:

    How can we convince people that religions deserve tolerance? Should we tolerate all religions? If someone created a religion purely for the sake of evil, should we tolerate it?

    • Liza Says:

      I don’t think anyone deserves tolerance outside of some agreed-upon social contract. The arguments for tolerating religion are the same arguments for protecting freedom of opinion, private behavior and peaceful assembly. Tolerance is a necessary negative side constraints that protects the order and peace in a free society. In answer to your question, I would say that, arguably Anton Levay’s”Satanic Bible” and the people who follow that would count as an example of a religion created “purely for the sake of evil” (though it’s probably more “purely for the sake of profit” or “purely for the sake of seeing if you can”). I think we should tolerate that just as we tolerate groups like the KKK and the neo-Nazis (though in defense of Levay, I am pretty sure he has never claimed responsibility for lynching people). We allow them to assemble, and we don’t put them in jail just for saying repugnant things. Tolerance means holding religious groups to the same standards as we hold everyone else. So long as personal belief stays personal, it’s your business. When you put it out in the public sphere, it can and should be challenged. When you act on it in a way that violates the law, you are held accountable for that action.

      • James Gray Says:

        I suspect that tolerance of religion could be founded upon respect for human beings. We can respect people without respecting their beliefs or religion. But respecting a person might mean to let them a certain amount of freedom. This “freedom” can include their personal beliefs, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.

        • Liza Says:

          Of course, as a moral realist you want to use “respect for persons” in place of “tolerance.” I’m fine with that, James, but it does raise the meta-ethical stakes. Tolerance is a much weaker moral requirement than respect. In fact, we don’t have to consider tolerance a moral end at all. It may just be prudence, a means to peaceful co-existence with people who don’t share your values. I think you can make the argument that we all do have a moral obligation to respect other persons, but I wasn’t making that argument here.

  2. ambiguous Says:

    Define: right-wing Christians

    • Liza Says:

      A right-wing Christian is a person who holds conservative Christian values with regard to things like sex before marriage, abortion, homosexuality, etc., and also believes right-wing economic talking points (opposes socialized medicine, opposes corporate regulation, taxation, opposes labor rights and unions, etc., etc.)

      • jmmx Says:

        I would add that the right-wing christians are those who wish to impose their Fundamentalist religious ideology into the political sphere. They have additionally linked extreme conservative economic policies (as you note in your parenthetical remark) to their Fundamentalist religious viewpoint.

        The ironic thing to me, is how these people claim to be so religiously pure, yet they bow down to the golden calf of the most extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism.

  3. saadia k Says:

    I really appreciated the way you dealt with this topic, so thanks for that!

    And I really do believe that all of the hubbub surrounding the Muslim cultural center is just masking the hostility towards Muslims in a way that makes it appear acceptable. If there is an issue to get in a tizzy about, such as the Cordoba House, or 9/11, it serves to “legitimize” outbursts of anger and outrage towards Muslims. What’s more, the whole question of tolerance can bypassed because we can just resort to the “That is just so wrong/inappropriate/insensitive” argument.

    So, what, then, is the Christian right’s definition of “tolerance”??

    • Liza Says:

      I think their definition of “tolerance” is something like “let us dictate the rules for everyone else because we know what God wants and you don’t.”

  4. CW Says:

    Personally, I’m still finding this to be more of a political issue than any moral/religious issue – it just seems like this brouhaha was fabricated to stir up emotions, shift attention away from issues, and exploit the fears/biases of their constituents for the upcoming elections.

    But this was a great post Liza. I’ve been looking for non-theist’s perspective on this issue – to help me look at this topic from a “tolerance of/respect for” viewpoint.

    And this line right here: “I can tolerate your believing things that are nonsense so long as you aren’t breaking the laws we’ve both agreed to obey, but that doesn’t mean I respect what you believe” is very reasonable.

    The problem becomes is that opponents of the Islamic center aren’t using reason to defend their opposition. They are using appeals to paranoia and appeals to emotion. Or like Krauthammer, they’re grasping at straws by citing other precedents in which “sensitivity/courtesy” trumped “rights.”

    I’ve come to the recent conclusion that I don’t think this is a fight that critically-thinking non-theists’ have a role – it’s a zero-sum game.

  5. ambiguous Says:

    Are you saying their religion influences belief of ” right-wing economic talking points (opposes socialized medicine, opposes corporate regulation, taxation, opposes labor rights and unions, etc., etc.)”.
    It seems to me to be all about opposing historically failed plans not just talking points dictated by religion. Basic logic is out the window.

    • Liza Says:

      I’m not sure what you are asking. Religion can influence belief in right-wing talking points, but I don’t think that’s the best description of what’s going on. I think what’s really happening is that the Republican party has carved a niche for itself by giving lip-service to the things that social conservatives care about, and many social conservatives care about those issues because they are very religious. The idea that the government should have some interest in what goes on in your bedroom but not what goes on in your banking account seems kind of contradictory if it isn’t sold just right, but the right-wing is really good at selling that position. The key to the position is that conservatives tend to value social order above all other things. The great triumph of the neo-cons in the last 30 years or so was creating the “moral majority” and couching values debates in terms of a loose “us” (read: most denominations of protestant Christianity, plus conservative Catholics and Jews) vs. “them” (read: secular academics, moral relativists, and people with weird religions). The existence of conservative Muslims complicates this “us” vs. “them” picture much more in Europe and other places where there are fewer devout Christians and more secular liberals, but in the United States the conservative right has been able to sell a pretty uncomplicated story that puts people who have conservative Judeo-Christian values on one side and everybody else on the other side. What this means is that people who hold conservative Christian moral values look to the Republican party to represent those values and, along the way, they get sold this story that all of these right-wing economic talking points also represent the Christian-values position. Of course, there are loads of Christian conservatives who don’t buy into the right-wing economic talking points, but they are less reliable as a chunk of the voting block, so their opinions tend to be discounted. If you are interested in seeing how this breaks down, this Pew research study is interesting and revealing:

      • ambiguous Says:

        Great analyst of the Pew Research Center!I could not find the term “right-wing”,”Christian”, or “Conservative right”.Did the term neo-con from this survey as well?Wow, I am going to makeup a name for a group based on a survey of 3000 people, guess why they pick a party, guess what they get “sold” on, guess which group is not reliable by guessing this group “don’t buy into” and say things like:

        The idea that the government should have some interest in what goes on in your bedroom but not what goes on your dinner table seems kind of contradictory if it isn’t sold just right, but the right-wing Muslim is really good at selling that position. How could this not be contradictory? I mean they are both things put into your body. They are sold on this because the party has their religious values.


        Secular academics have very poor critical thinking and research skills. They chose a thesis that cannot be proven so they guess their points.

  6. James Gray Says:

    Although I agree with what is posted here (that disagreement can be warranted against Islam without being intolerant), I think something important is left out. In particular, it doesn’t distinguish between disapproval and agreement. Yes, we don’t have to agree with Islam. We can highly criticize it and disagree with it. No, Islam does not warrant the extreme disapproval that people have been having towards it. Islam is not something as bad as the KKK. I discuss my viewpoint in greater detail here:

  7. jmmx Says:

    Regarding the Muslim cultural center “near ground zero”:

    Perhaps we should point out that Tim McVey was a christian (of some sort or other). Should we ban all churches from Oklahoma City?

    A second point here.

    To my mind, the center would actually be a sign of Americans standing up for our beliefs and principles and repudiating the hatred of Al Qaeda and their ilk. We could stand proud and say “We will not fall prey to your hate-mongering!” This is precisely what differentiates us from the radical fundamentalism of such groups.

    Unfortunately, we have our own radically fundamentalist groups and they too are vying for political power.

    (Is it not a bit odd that they radical right eschews the once favored term of Fundamentalist?)

  8. ambiguous Says:

    @JMMX Timothy McVey was not a fanatic who was killing in the name of his religion.

    • jmmx Says:

      Was he not? I am not particularly familiar with his philosophy, it it seems most of the right-wing extremists base their political reasoning on some twisted christian-political ideology.

      Furthermore – that matters little. The question is not whether those who directed the 9/11 attacks did so in the name of their religion, but whether or not that religion – and all its adherents – support that interpretation.

      Oddly, to my mind, if we say that they do then WE actually choose to validate that extremist interpretation.

  9. National Organization for Marriage’s anti-DFL text raises questions of legality | Zera The Disestablishmentarian Says:

    […] Tolerance of Religion vs Respect for Religion ( […]

  10. ambiguous Says:

    Somebody is in far left field. Tim McVeigh was agnostic, who killed in retaliation for the government killing 76 people in a cult.Just like most radical agnostic left-wing hippies(ha). How does someone come to the idea “right-wing extremists base their political reasoning on some twisted christian-political ideology.”
    Can you first define the terms “right-wing extremists” and “twisted christian-political ideology”? Who is “WE” and what is the “interpretation” Please don’t waste peoples time with vague guesses. Facts please. Please don’t refer to a pew study which does not contain these terms. People who study philosphy should use logic reasoning which includes commonly defined terms.

    • jmmx Says:

      Perhaps you should define “radical agnostic left-wing hippies(ha)”

      Have to admit that you are right about his being agnostic –

      However, the point still stands – if he had been a member of a Christian church – would you ban churches from Oklahoma City within 3 miles of the federal building?

  11. ambiguous Says:

    This isn’t a commonly defined term but radical agnostic left-wing hippies is someone who bases opinion on delusions and trendy paradigms not facts with religion being the only exception. The government should not ban any church but should validate the fact there really are fanatics who are killing in the name of their religion.An overwhelming majority of current killings are by fanatics of that religion (
    I agree that to treat this guy with shady funding friends but no solid proof of terrorist ties would be seen as treating an entire religion differently. Would you ban mosques from three miles of the DC snipers killings.

  12. bokep Says:

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