Monday, April 20, 2009

Atheists against religious tolerance.

Found a scary article today by Sam Harris. Key quote is this:

"I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss." From The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Link here

On the face of it, he claims that religious tolerance is a destructive force. Really? His line of reasoning is this -- if we refuse to call a religious idea wrong (like "I will get 72 virgins in heaven if I blow up this building") then we have no basis for stopping them.

But in arguing this, he misunderstands the basic concept of religious tolerance.

First, religious tolerance is and always has been bound by law. This is to say, "you can believe whatever you want, but you cannot act in such a way as to violate the commonly agreed-upon law." The basis for acting against a terrorist is not "You may not believe that about God." It is, "Blowing up buildings is illegal."

Second, religious tolerance is not religious acceptance. You tolerate a screaming baby next to you on a full flight. But that doesn't mean you like it or think it's as good as any other scenario. It means that, because of the rights of all the people involved, there's nothing you can do to force the baby to stop. You can't throw the baby out the window, smother it, or force somebody in first class to hold it. The baby and its guardian have rights which you can't violate. You have to tolerate the screaming.

Does that mean you can't talk to the person? Of course not. Maybe you have tips on how to keep the baby quiet. Maybe you've noticed that the baby's diapers are dirty and need changing. You can converse, attempt to persuade, even cajole. But you cannot violate their rights.

That difference between tolerance (I'll put up with it) and acceptance (It's fine) is extremely important in the context of religious tolerance. We don't have to accept all views other than our own. But we do need to tolerate them.

And why? Why is tolerance so important?

Primarily, because we don't trust anyone to be the moderator of Truth. No Christian, no Muslim, no Jew, no Atheist, no Agnostic, is to be trusted as gatekeeper of Religious Truth. Because who knows for sure what's absolutely True -- who is sure enough to justify their punishing people who don't believe what's true? Nobody. That is the fundamental assumption underlying religious liberty.

And it's why religious tolerance is so important.

Now it might be argued that I'm just playing a semantic game -- that he was really arguing against what I called "religious acceptance." But if so, he's arguing against something that isn't a significant factor in the world. Everybody who has an opinion on religious matters believes their opinion is better than the alternatives. Dogmatics because their dogma is right. Agnostics because the evidence is unclear and therefore those who have strong opinions are wrong to do so. In other words, they believe agnosticism is better than religionism. Who are these "acceptanceists" out there arguing that no belief system is better than another? I haven't met any.

So if he meant "religious tolerance" as the belief that all belief systems are equal -- and then went on to argue that this concept was one of the principle forces leading us into the abyss, then who are these people who think every belief system is equally valid? I haven't met one.

So, he gets away with this argument through equivocation -- his conflation of tolerance with acceptance. He blames a basic principle of human liberty (tolerance) for something it doesn't do (accepting all religions as equally valid). Simple, no frills logical fallacy.

The ironic part is, of course, that the author is sinking to the level of the worst of his opponents. How many religious wackjobs would make the same argument against him? "We cannot tolerate atheism, because CLEARLY [insert religion] is the truth religion and atheism is the source of all evil in the world."

And around and around we go again.

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