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.