The equal toleration of all religions is the same as atheism.
– Pope Leo XIII
This may come as a surprise, but I have a good deal of respect for fundamentalists. This does not mean I agree with them or respect their (ill-formed and irrational) opinions; rather, I respect their adherence to a set of morals and principles which they (rightly) recognize are in direct contradiction to opposing value systems.
I first realized this in 2002, when I was enrolled in my first literary criticism class at UIC. It was the semester I had B. in the middle of, and I had an asshole T.A. who’d promised to record the lectures when I took two weeks’ maternity leave but then decided he wanted to make mix tapes using the six-pack of Memorexes I’d given him. That’s neither here nor there, though. Walter Benn Michaels was the instructor (the beginning of an intellectual love affair I had with him, and then Stanley Fish, that’s now been eclipsed by my fascination with all things existentialist), and at some point the idea of opposing principles was broached.
The conversation was humorous – including Michaels attempting to pit an ethical vegan (not me) against an omniove – but the message was this: there are some beliefs we hold that are in contradiction to beliefs other people hold, and sometimes compromise isn’t possible. For some issues, and in fact for many of them, reality requires neither tolerance nor respect.
As an example: Jews and Christians can tolerate each other if by toleration you mean “live in close proximity to each other without engaging in genocide.” Clearly that’s a worthy goal: to co-exist without a bloodbath. But if what you mean is “respect each other’s perspective on the world,” then we’ve got a problem. And by that I don’t mean an ethical problem; I mean a cognitive one. By definition, Jews and Christians differ in their view of reality, and you can (crudely) sum this by saying Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, and Jews think (at best) he was a cool guy with a beard and a few memorable lines. The essential and defining characteristics of Judaism in relation and contrast to Christianity isn’t that Jews and Christians happen to believe different things; it’s that they believe different things that DIRECTLY CONTRADICT each other. To ask Jews and Christians to “respect” each other’s points of view makes absolutely no sense.
This does not mean individual Jews should not be expected to respect individual Christians and their mutual rights to believe what they wish without fear of discrimination or ridicule. Certainly I believe everyone has the right to respect as living beings inhabiting the world; however, when people invoke the need to “respect someone else’s point of view,” that’s not generally what is meant. Instead, what they are doing is the direct result of the perversion of postmodernism in contemporary society: attempting to turn ethical positions and epistemelogical perspectives into matters of personal preference. But it isn’t the case that being a Jew (or a Christian) is the same thing as liking chocolate ice cream (soy, of course) over vanilla. Being an active member of one religion (rather than another) entails the acceptance of and belief in a set of well defined principles that are, by definition, in direct contradiction to completely different sets of principles held by opposing religions. Furthermore, changing from being a Christian to a Jew means you have to change the way you view the world, not simply change the building in which you worship or start wearing a yarmulke as a fashion statement.
It is in this sense, then, that I respect fundamentalists (and, for that matter, anti-abortion activists). It isn’t that I respect their tactics or the positions they hold; I find the former reprehensible (not to mention counterproductive) and the latter to be ill-formed, illogical, and misinformed. Nonetheless, these two groups of people are some of the few in contemporary society who actually get that ethical positions and worldviews aren’t something to “respect”; they are something to strive toward and fight for and work to get as many people to see your point of view as possible. However, most people are more scared of this than anything, as it requires them to (a) think and (b) take a stand.
I hate to invoke Chuck Klosterman here, but I think he does a remarkable job of pointing this out in “33” (contained in his Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto):
Americans have become conditioned to believe the world is a gray place without absolutes; this is because we’re simultaneously cowardly and arrogant. We don’t know the answers, so we assume they must not exist. But they do exist. They are unclear and/or unfathomable, but they’re out there (98).
We live in a world in which it is deemed impolitic to hold strong passionate opinions, and Klosterman is correct when he says that this grows out of both fear and arrogance. Holding firm to the things in which we believe requires confidence and familiarity not only with one’s own position but one’s opponent’s position. For many people, it’s easier to say we “believe” things when what we mean is that we “feel” them, and thus we don’t really have good reasons for what we are supposed to hold dear. And if we don’t have good arguments (because we’re not really even sure why we “feel” what we do), how can we engage on these issues? The sad thing is that, rather than exploring and questioning our own values to develop a thoughtful set of explanations and justifications for our positions, we remove ourselves from public discourse about these issues and chalk up what should be real differences as instances deserving tolerance and respect. And those who are well-versed in their ethical positions get branded as intolerant or freakish or cultish.
I don’t at all think we should move back into a world where things are always black-and-white and people are unfairly judged for the positions they hold. Beyond being one of the more egregious logical fallacies (ad hominem), that is where respect and tolerance should come into play. Demanding that Jews respect the Christian faith may be a logically unintelligible request, but expecting them to take the time and effort to understand what the Christian faith is and develop an accurate account of the ways in which it epistemologically differs from Judaism is quite reasonable. [It is on this count that I believe both fundamentalism and anti-abortion activism fail; they demonize their opponents rather than undertaking an honest and benevolent account of the other side as a means of learning what IDEAS need to change before more people can be “converted.”]
And so I agree with Pope Leo XIII when he says that equal toleration of all religions is tantamount to atheism. By definition, the ethical positions we hold are always in contradiction to someone else’s; otherwise, whether we believe in capital punishment or democracy or civil rights becomes a preference akin to our taste for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Because these intellectual positions are things for which we can have arguments (meaning intellectual positions, not the kind of fight where people are throwing china against the wall), they deserve more consideration than being thrown aside or glossed over in the name of “tolerating” other people.
As a younger atheist I found it odd that the people most willing to engage in productive and respectful debate on the existence of God were fundamentalists. Still, debates with those fundamentalists (who respected my right to thoughtfully articulate my own position, if not my position itself) taught me more about my stance as a nonbeliever than any atheist ever could have, and I have grown to appreciate the diversity of opinions in the world. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness and confidence to enter into a situation in which we may either call into question or strengthen our beliefs about things we hold dear, but I think it’s a necessary step in truly adopting ethical positions as our own. Until we have a chance to enter a sort of intellectual marketplace of ideas, and engage in productive and respectful discussions with others whose views may well be opposed to our own, can we really say we’re doing anything more than doing what “feels” right?
This, then, is the reason I believe we fall back on respect and toleration as buzzwords that really mean “I don’t know enough about my own position to engage in this discussion.” [Honestly think about times you’ve been in a discussion with someone about an ethical issue and when things get heated or one person feels they don’t have a reason for their beliefs, the “respect” or “toleration” card gets put on the table. And think about how different – and more productive – that conversation could be if both people were brave and honest enough to articulate their differences and get to a real understanding of what the issues at hand were.]
All that being said, I hardly engage in the world in this manner on a regular basis. I’m guilty of sidestepping conversations on a plethora of issues, not because I’m unaware or uncertain of my own position but rather because I hate being branded as that person who’s intolerant simply because I *do* have articulate and thoughtful positions on a number of topics. I look forward to the day where engaging in public discourse becomes en vogue once more, so that I don’t have to look to people whose ethical positions I abhor as a model of intellectual honesty.