The stealth bigotry of “religious tolerance”

Oct 30, 2011 Comments Off by

For centuries people have held prejudices against and discriminated against those of other religions or other sects in the same religion. Extremists, fundamentalists, literalists – call them what you will (these terms are not quite synonymous) – are especially liable to do this. There are people who call themselves “religious moderates” who, for all their religiosity, eschew such a failing. They pride themselves on their ability to tolerate those of different opinions. But there’s a problem. For several likely reasons I will touch on in due course, they often maintain an anti–atheist bigotry. (Many religious moderates aren’t guilty of this and aren’t the subject of what follows.) “People of all faiths are equal, although people of no faith are inferior to those of faith” is hardly the pinnacle of being a tolerant person. Indeed, as I will explain, these particular moderates do not just display a bigotry against atheists; they blame atheists for the bigotry of the even worse religious people over whom they consider themselves superior when it comes to tolerance.

One factor at work here concerns the charge that atheists are just another strain of literalist. Many foolish opinions are held because a religious text says they’re right. If moderates were honest, they would admit all religious opinions are of this character, with the exception of some believed either because an authority says they’re right or because one can derive comfort from a slight tweaking of the dogma one “should” have as a member of that religion. But moderates are convinced the reason, for example, creationists are creationists is because they reject any scope for non–literal meaning in their texts. Of course, every belief held because a book says it’s right is being considered literal, even if that person admits some parts may not be literal. How they cherry–pick which bits are which is been explained, of course; to be honest, the only criterion is whether there is a non–religious route by which we know it’s wrong. Atheists point out that religious texts are frequently literally wrong and have never been proven literally right on any points unique to them religiously (murder being wrong doesn’t count as a religious claim, and nor does Jerusalem being a real place), that we have no real evidence to support any “it’s a metaphor” excuses as being genuinely true, we have no way of knowing which bits are literal if only some are, and all beliefs based on the texts are due to a literalist attitude being applied to at least the relevant verses. These observations do not put atheists on a par with religious literalists; they put religious moderates on a par with religious literalists. But because of the “they’re both types of literalists” argument, moderates have an excuse for dumping atheists in the “extremist” sin bin (if you’ll pardon the term). And once you’ve set up the pretence you are in between two extremist groups, “centrism is right” reasoning writes the rest.

But moderates, being religious, think religion is ultimately good, and thereby feel they have more in common with religious extremists et al than they do with atheists. Indeed, given the “it says so, so it’s right” reasoning moderates at least sometimes practise, perhaps this feeling is warranted. And the moderates feel compelled to tolerate even the intolerantly religious, if only because they are doing their best to be religious – the good thing – in their own way. So atheists get the blame for the ills of which religious extremists are truly guilty. And because any criticism of religion is treated as if it is bigoted, perhaps even racist, rather than as a factually accurate and unanswerable objection to baseless claims and the silly attempts to give them a base, moderates find this blame especially easy to place. What’s more, since they think so little of criticisms of religion, even criticisms of those who give religion its bad name become anathema to them; so, if they cannot concede the full extent to which religious intolerance is due to the religious, they have to reassign blame to atheists. Sadly, this gives the cover extremists need to do so much evil.

This is all silly. Atheists are the only people who view all religious beliefs equally (they are all false and unsubstantiated), or all religious approaches to forming beliefs and decisions equally (they are best avoided). Every theist, however “moderate”, has a particular school and feels that school is superior. The source of the bigotry is firstly the extremists, secondly the moderates, and not at all the irreligious. More on all this in a later post (yes, there’s that much more to say of this nonsense).


About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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