Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why tolerance isn't enough

I send this blog out as a challenge. I contend that promoting secular tolerance to achieve world peace - or even just local peace - will not succeed.

The following is a quote that I'm sure many people would agree with:

"I am heartily sick of the type of religion that insists my soul (and everyone else's) needs saving - whatever that means. I have never felt that I was lost. Nor do I feel that I daily wallow in the mire of sin, although repititive preaching insists that I do. Give me a practical religion that teaches gentleness and tolerance, that acknowledges no barriers of color or creed, that remembers the aged and teaches children of goodness, not sin."

It would seem that what the world wants is ethics, not religious truth. It wants tolerance preached, not salvation.

Okay, here is what (I think) would happen, if you replaced religion with ethics, and salvation with tolerance.

Everyone says tolerance is a good thing; we can't fathom why people in some some extremist religions are intolerant of other races or religions. Here's the problem: tolerance only works as long as no one gets hurt. Most of us Americans, who have never experienced someone else of a different nationality, race or religion suddenly appearing and threatening our lives or our livelihood, can sit in our relative safety and prosperity and scratch our heads and wonder why other people just can't be tolerant. But suppose your neighbor down the street suddenly starts harrassing you, threatening you. Telling you that you have to move out of the neighborhood because, say, you voted for someone in the last election that he doesn't approve of. You stand firm. Then, one of your kids gets beat within an inch of his life by the neighbor's kids. How tolerant are you, at this point? Look at the long-standing enmity between the Israelis and the Palestineans. They both claim the same land as their homeland, and over the years there has been too much bloodshed over "the neighborhood" for them to risk "tolerance" anymore.

Now, consider ethics. Ethics is basically the study of morality, or the study of what makes actions right and wrong. It can be pretty much summed up in the Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or as its put in the quote above, "gentleness and tolerance." Even people who disdain the Bible and the Christian worldview will usually acknowledge that the Golden Rule (straight out of the Bible) is very wise.

The problem is, no one keeps the Golden Rule very well. We may try, yes. Everyone has been hurt by someone else at some point, and has reacted by being hurtful in return. Since human beings aren't very successful at keeping this one over-arching rule, what we devised instead is a whole series of rules and clauses for dealing with different circumstances. For instance, the issue of abortion. If you applied the Golden Rule to this, we wouldn't kill unborn babies because we wouldn't want someone to come along and kill us because we weren't wanted or we happened to show up at the wrong time or too soon or under difficult circumstances in someone else's life. But the Golden Rule is very difficult - especially, say, for a fifteen year old girl that gets pregnant after her boyfriend got her drunk and date-raped her. So we create a new rule for girls in that situation, that it's okay to get an abortion. Well then other people will argue, but what about my circumstances? Shouldn't I be allowed an abortion too, because of this, or that? More rules. Or, a new rule that says that unborn babies aren't really babies with human rights until they are born, or until the third trimester maybe.

So ethics holds up fairly well if you don't mind having to deal with hundreds, or thousands of rules. And if you don't like an exisiting rule because it doesn't benefit your particular sitaution, you can hire a lawyer and fight the rule, or march and protest to hopefully enact change. A lot of religions are also very rule-based, but here's an interesting point: it's the very rule-based religions that are generally called the "organized religions" that so many people are really disgusted with because of rampant hypocrisy not to mention terrible historical events like the Crusades, the Inquistion, and all the bloodshed that occurred following the Reformation.

So if tolerance only works when one one gets hurt, and ethics only works if we burden ourselves with endless rules and laws, why do so many people still hate the thought of the alternative: which is a religion that preaches the need for salvation?

Because it means admitting that we're flawed. That we are lost and in need of a Savior. That we can't operate on our best level or even on a consistently good level without God. The Golden Rule wasn't designed to operate alone: it is the second of two commandments, and the first one is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength". The two rules weren't meant to operate separate from each other. To love your neighbor as yourself (or do unto others as you have them do unto you) you need to first have that deep love relationship with God empowering you to love others, to be able to forgive them even when they hurt you instead of inflicting hurt back at them.

What would it take to bring peace between two nationalities or culture or races or religions that have been at war with each other for decades? Suppose an Palestinean and an Israeli find themselves in a burning building. The Israeli passes out. The Palestinean is almost out of the building, but he goes back and rescues the Israeli, even though it means he gets so badly burnt that he ends up dying. How do you think the Israeli and his family would view Palistineans after this event? The long-standing fear and distrust and hatred would finally be broken. It might just be in one family, but a noble sacrifice has won peace.

The same religion that gave us the Golden Rule, also gave us the only means by which humans can truly live out the Golden rule: Jesus died for us, to rescue us from the burning flames, to set us free, to show us the way to peace.

Here are some other challenges I've made. I love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.

Worldviews part 1: the truth is we need help

Worldviews part 2: What about suffering?

Some thoughts on Avatar and why it is so appealing


  1. I don't think that admitting that we are flawed goes hand in hand with the idea of being saved by some external God-entity.

    Tolerance "doesn't work when people get hurt" because people has difficulty seeing past the illusion of separateness. If people saw through this illusion, they wouldn't hurt each other because they would _know_ that they are hurting themselves when they do it.

    The idea of being flawed - valid. The necessity of an external agent to _intervene_ to fix us - not valid. We have the tools to see through the veil of ignorance, it's just so much work, and we are pretty damn lazy (see point about being flawed above).

    I really enjoyed this entry - keep 'em comin'!


  2. I've never wanted tolerance, what I want is acceptance. Acceptance that you and I can stand toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye and, because of our different paths and experiences in life, we believe wholly different things. Acceptance that the path the other has taken may be as right for him as your path was for you.

    Tolerance is an insult; it implies I'm being tolerated for my heretical beliefs. Acceptance requires a surrendering of the soul, an admittance that, whatever protestations to the contrary, no one on this rock really knows what's really going on. Folks who can admit that get my acceptance, not just my tolerance.

    dave leone

    1. Acceptance is absolutely wonderful. The problem is, hardly anyone practices it. In our ivory towers we think we are accepting, until something is thrown in our face. Then how do we react? How often do we turn the cheek and say, "to each his own" - especially if we've been hurt? In the end, acceptance, though it is truly more noble and enlightened than tolerance, still fails when someone with different beliefs beats up your kid or threatens your livelihood or freedom.

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