Today I saw this news story of a Christian couple not being allowed to be foster parents because “they could not tell a child a homosexual lifestyle was acceptable”. I guess as a society we are grappling with what to tolerate.

Christians will feel persecuted as a result of this court decision, as well as the other case earlier this year where a gay couple sued the Christian B&B owners who refused them a double room. They will probably feel society is intolerant of Christianity and therefore hypocritical to speak of tolerance. I’m not convinced the outcome of the fostering case was right. But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to be intolerant of intolerance. You can’t just live and let live if it means letting people do things which are contrary to that principle as you understand it. No matter how tolerant you might want to be.

Religious believers usually want to live and let live. If you decide God has revealed that homosexuality is wrong, you may still accept people’s right to have gay relationships and not want to impinge on that right. But if your child is gay, your view on it will nevertheless make their life very hard. It is sort of a contradiction really.

In the same way, as a secular or liberal person you may want to be universally tolerant of religious beliefs, but it is a contradiction to tolerate a belief that homosexuality is wrong – and tolerate the effects that belief produces on people’s lives – when you yourself fully approve of people being gay.

It would be nice if we could all just get along and agree to disagree and it pains me that it is not that simple. I get frustrated when people think it is. Ultimate example is religions or philosophies that endorse all other religions as divine revelations. (I was at a Multifaith Conversation this evening and the Baha’i representative put forth this view.) It is a very nice, lovely, tolerant view. What a beautiful idea – all those differences are merely superficial and all religions say the same thing. Except they really don’t. The central message of mainstream Christianity is that Jesus is the son of God and saviour of the world. The central message of mainstream Islam is the unity of God, and that associating others with God (Christians are explicitly named in this practice) is the biggest sin. The only way these belong to a common divine revelation is if God is severely schizophrenic.

It would be nice if only dogmatic religions need be intolerant and those of us who reject dogma could somehow rise above that and tolerate everything. But how can I not feel uneasy at dogmas which exclude me, as a non-member, from the loyalty members are expected to uncritically extend to each other? How could I, in tolerance of my husband’s beliefs, allow those beliefs to effectively wipe out the freedom of any children I might have had? What kind of weak, pathetic tolerance would that be? As the Hindu speaker tonight put it, the “more muscular” religions dominate and it seems to me that universal tolerance just rolls out the red carpet for them.

It is obviously a sensitive personal issue for me and one that brings up a lot of emotions. It is hopefully clear from my previous posts that I am not anti-religion in a blanket way, I believe religion has benefits, and I don’t believe that the eradication of religion would automatically create a better world. But for all of us, it has to be OK to think that someone’s view is wrong, either because it makes no sense to you or because it would seem to be harmful (or both). It has to be OK to speak out against it. It has to be OK to want to steer your children away from it. I don’t see any other way. Maybe this makes me every bit as intolerant as a dogmatic religious person. But maybe what’s needed in the world is constructive confrontation, not meaningless blanket tolerance.

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10 Responses to Tolerance

  1. sanil says:

    Huh. I’m very torn on the foster child issue. I don’t think religious beliefs should stop someone from adopting a child and think that sets a dangerous precedent…but I also don’t think a kid should be placed in a home that may make them feel guilty for things they can’t change. I’ve known too many people driven to depression by similar situations. I think maybe I might draw the line at asking what the parents would do if the child was gay. They don’t have to agree with it, but I would say that they do have to show support and understanding for the child and not make him or her feel ashamed for it. They have to be able to show love for the child in a way that doesn’t harm them. (I don’t care what your motives are, it is not loving to constantly tell a child that their natural desires are sick and that they have to change so God won’t hate them.)

    It’s an interesting topic and a difficult balance to reach. Thanks for giving me lots to think about!

  2. HMJ says:

    Sarah, brilliant post. I shall start 1st with your last paragraph.
    Religion, even if we wanted, could never be eradicated. Like ‘the poor,’ it will always be with us.
    People use it for control of others, to make themselves feel ‘big’ and ‘right’
    It’s used to stand against others and have wars.
    It’s used as an ‘exclusive club’ – if you’re ‘in’, you’re fine, ‘saved’ or whatever. If you’re ‘out’, you’re anything from inferior and misguided, to the ‘enemy’ and heading for the fires of Hell.
    Poor countries like Africa welcome religion – where life is so hard and hopeless, it promises so much (though not necessarily in this world) When you have no hope of a better life, the mystical, magical thinking of religions is something to grasp onto, and the only price to pay is having to sign up to (unpalatable) beliefs such as the ‘sin’ of homosexuality and contraception.
    And we all know what religion provides for the (generally poor) Muslim countries.
    If you have nothing else, you have this incredibly strong family and cultural belonging to Islam, with its inbuilt rules and attitudes to which ALL adhere. No questioning, no free thinking. Such a firm grip, held in place by fear, ultimately of after-death, but also by shame and ostracism of individuals who might choose to do things differently.
    On a more micro-level, most people are gregarious and have a need to mix and ‘belong’. Religion gives them a building where they ‘club together’ and meet at least once a week. Once started, a hard habit to break. It’s easy, you get to see your pals, but leaving your thinking brain at the door of the church on the way in. The only rule of thois club is that you cease rational thinking and questioning, and buy into what’s provided for you week by week.
    Yes, if religion were possibly eradicated, people would still be left with these needs:
    – to belong (to a club of like-minded people)
    – to feel the same as others
    – to be told what to do/think/act/believe
    -to argue and stand against other groups
    -to have a specific identity and culture
    -t0 control/ be controlled
    -to feel superior
    So religion can and does fulfill human needs both good and bad, but I would bet that it’s not occupying the ‘holy role’ to anything like the extent most people would suppose.

    Sarah, in this blog you have absolutely stripped away all the fuzz and crap and reached the heart of this whole matter.

    If Christians do feel persecuted as a result of this court decision, then it is time for Christians to ‘get real’. They are Christians because they hold certain religious beliefs. Beliefs are a particular way of thinking that people have decided to align themselves with and they cannot be proven one way or another.
    Religious people should not belong to some kind of precious, untouchable group, whose views and beliefs cannot be questioned. Neither should they expect or be given special treatment in law or public life because of them. In the same way, the rest of us should not fear that we are causing this group more offence than any other if we don’t go along with their beliefs, especially if we can happily over-ride them (in this case) by putting children’s psychological well-being, and human compassion above all.
    I feel that this kind of thinking is now beginning to be reflected in our legal system, as in the child-fostering case. What the judge was establishing is:
    He considered the religious views held by these prospective fosterers to have the potential to damage children.
    And Sanil, if the parents were able to show support and understanding for the child, and not make them feel ashamed (of being gay), it would be obvious what a dichotomy the issue was causing the parents. Religious teaching says one thing, human (again, God given?)sympathy, empathy and compassion tells us another. How do you live with both?
    Sarah, this is not ‘sort of a contradiction really’ it is ABSOLUTELY a contradiction!
    And, if we are seeking truth and clarification, contradictions in thinking are not on.
    especially when they come up against common sense.

    To be honest Sarah, I think in this blog you are arguing yourself out of the need for religions and their teachings, which, for free thinkers, are always going to cause moral dilemmas and dichotomies.
    You say you think religions have benefits. Perhaps you’d like to elaborate in a future blog?
    Thanks for making me think hard, as usual!

    • sanil says:

      I don’t see why it should be a dichotomy for the parents. I’m not saying they have to applaud it or even necessarily allow the kid to have a homosexual relationship while under their roof. But there absolutely needs to be an understanding that it isn’t something the person has chosen, it’s not something that is going to go away, and it’s not something they should ever be made to feel guilty for feeling. They can set down rules about dating or whatever – I wasn’t allowed to date at all while I was at home, before bringing into the fact that I wanted to date other girls. It’s not going to hurt the kid to restrict behavior that way. But being in an atmosphere that constantly says that there is something evil and wrong about you is how you get teen suicides. Compassion and care for the child’s well-being absolutely needs to have higher priority than the parents’ or society’s philosophical leanings, and if a parent can’t make sure to love a kid no matter what and do what’s best for the kid, they shouldn’t have one.

  3. Sarah says:

    Wow, what a lot to respond to!

    Firstly, I wrote specifically about the benefits of faith here: I am not entirely sure that there are real benefits, or whether I just think that because I’m still in a phase of adjusting to life without faith. It’s an open question for me. But at the moment I’m inclined to think that besides the social benefits mentioned in HMJ’s comment (which could easily be fulfilled by other things), faith itself can be beneficial.

    I think everyone wants what’s best for children, it’s just there are different ideas about what that is. The Christian might feel it’s in the child’s interests to warn against God’s wrath if they were to pursue homosexual relations. Who gets to say that that is wrong? I guess the issue I’m grappling with is that it seems like we cannot have a truly pluralistic society because in order to protect some freedoms you need to take away others. Freedoms are not all compatible. So there needs to be a decision about which freedoms are more worthy of protection. What is that decision based on? I certainly agree that religious beliefs should not be afforded any special respect or consideration in law or public life, but that is my opinion; it’s every bit as much an opinion as someone thinking religion should be respected or even imposed for that matter. Opinions, rather than sitting comfortably side by side in a pluralistic society, do actually clash on points and someone has to win and someone has to lose. Freedom of religion has its limits ultimately, I guess. I just bristle at the idea of a secular system limiting freedom of religion, it sounds just as intolerant and controlling as a theocracy, but I don’t think there is any alternative.

    In terms of the specific issue of foster parents with anti-homosexuality views, I guess it would be a contradiction if they were able to make a child feel OK about being gay, but then again, we all have contradictions in our thinking! Sometimes it is for the best. 🙂

  4. Valerie says:

    Great post, Sarah and very thought-provoking as always!

    The situation now is very different to how it was centuries ago. Four hundred/five hundred years ago with all the burning at the stake and Inquisitions that were going on there was a lot more danger in questioning the status quo. Those in charge were intolerant of any opinion other than theirs. This attitude still exists today in countries like China but in Western Europe there is much more free speech. This is definitely a positive thing, the more that people with intolerant views (like racism and homophobia) have their views challenged, then the more people will realise how destructive these views really are. I think personally that it’s ok for someone to believe something, like it’s wrong to be gay, as long as that doesn’t impact on how they treat people who are. I think it’s an issue that is enormously overstated. The Bible has a lot more to say about how we treat the poor, we shouldn’t love money, it’s wrong to be greedy, when do you ever hear about someone going to court because they weren’t allowed to tell someone about donating money to charity or helping the homeless!

    As far as religions go – it is true that religions do share common traits, for example belief in the divine, salvation and life after death but there are also a lot of differences!
    I don’t think these can be reconciled but I think if people have the right attitude they can learn to co-exist peacefully.

    • Sarah says:

      I think it’s important that we all have our views challenged by others. That’s the only way we make progress!

      “I think personally that it’s ok for someone to believe something, like it’s wrong to be gay, as long as that doesn’t impact on how they treat people who are.”

      I definitely think the way we treat others is what matters, and the law shouldn’t care what we believe. I think this couple were denied the right to foster children because of how their refusal to verbally condone a homosexual lifestyle would affect a gay foster child. That is what matters and not the underlying belief, although obviously it is caused by the belief.

      “As far as religions go – it is true that religions do share common traits, for example belief in the divine, salvation and life after death but there are also a lot of differences!
      I don’t think these can be reconciled but I think if people have the right attitude they can learn to co-exist peacefully.”

      Well said! It bothers me when people are not honest about the differences and the way religions exclude each other and view each other as a path to hell. Too often this does lead to conflict, e.g. the Zionists (Christian and Jewish alike) who support Israel’s bullying of the Palestinians, and Muslim unequivocal support of the “ummah” in any situation. But peaceful coexistence should be possible even despite these differences – perhaps humility is what’s needed? Just to admit that one’s beliefs might be wrong and be willing to consider the viewpoint of the other side. Unfortunately religions do not tend to encourage this type of doubting!

  5. susanne430 says:

    Interesting post and comments!

  6. HMJ says:

    Certainly humility is needed in relating to each other, whether or not we adhere to any form of religion or not. And humility seems to be a quality which is sadly lacking in all areas of life.
    In our personal relationships, lack of humility contributes to breakdown of marriage, frienships and family relationships.
    In politics, I think we are all very aware that clinging doggedly to ideals that only an individual leader, or party believes in, can cause hell on earth when it is put into practise as a war for example.
    And in religion, surely this is the area where a lack of humility is at its most obvious and destructive.

    My definition of humility would be something like: possessing both the will and ability to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others. To objectively listen to and consider the other persons views and feelings, and as a result of that, to allow yourself to question our own beliefs, and have the courage and magnaminity to adjust them if required.

    My (rough) definition of a religion would be something like: Taking on/ aligning to/buying into, a set of beliefs concerning a deity, along with which goes a whole load of religious writings, rules, way of leading your life. Whatever the religion, IT is claimed as the true and only way, and although none of these ‘true religions’ can be proven (this side of the grave anyway) people are told to keep these faiths always and forever, and, in former times, and in some religions and some countries to this day,adherents are both ready, and often do, lay down their lives in the name of their faith.

    Given the above, there doesn’t seem to be much room for humility in religion. How can a religious person empathise with a person of another faith, or a non-believer, when everything about his faith is telling him that his is the only way. It follows that , to him, all other faiths, or none, are at best misguided and at worst, the enemy.

    If, like me, you are interested in truth, and hate the fuzziness of the warm and woolly thinking that is happy to imagine that somehow we can and should be able to just get on together, then perhaps you might at least empathise with my conclusion of the way I look at these things.
    1. I really don’t think religion serves any useful purpose, and it is responsible for a vast amount of human suffering.
    2.As far as the potential existence of creator/spiritual being, agnosticism is the most honest position to take. I am happy to say that ‘I don’t know, but I am keeping an open mind. Hopefully I shall remain open and questioning to the end of my days’.
    (And in my opinion, this stance makes for the most alive and interesting people)

    • Sarah says:

      “people are told to keep these faiths always and forever, and, in former times, and in some religions and some countries to this day,adherents are both ready, and often do, lay down their lives in the name of their faith.

      Given the above, there doesn’t seem to be much room for humility in religion. How can a religious person empathise with a person of another faith, or a non-believer, when everything about his faith is telling him that his is the only way. It follows that , to him, all other faiths, or none, are at best misguided and at worst, the enemy.”

      All I can say is, yes, these thoughts have crossed my mind too! But it would be a mistake to imagine that all adherents of these faiths are so dogmatic and certain. There are liberal and progressive strains of thought, there are “critical realists” as Richard Holloway calls them, and there are also plenty of people that just nominally believe what they believe without really taking it as seriously as that. But both the Bible and the Qur’an demand unwavering faith and loyalty, they ask that you keep believing even when faith is “tested”. They do not say “keep an open mind and be willing to question and doubt what you think you know” – except perhaps to unbelievers!! Thank God there are humble religious believers, but I’m inclined to agree with you that religion in itself – at least the Abrahamic faiths – does not really encourage it. So there will always be a subset of fundamentalists who cannot find it in themselves to be anything other than arrogant. Classic recent example is John Piper tweeting “Farewell Rob Bell” after learning that his recent book takes an unorthodox position on hell. In Islam this is called takfir – outing someone from the fold – and it is the ultimate in arrogance, isn’t it? – effectively saying “without any doubt, you are wrong and you are now excluded (even though I can’t even remotely prove my views are right any more than you can)”.

      In fact the Biblical definition of humility seems to be that you recognise God’s ultimate knowledge and your own lack of it. You take what God has “revealed” on trust because who are we as mere humans to question it?

      The problem is this assumes there is a God with ultimate knowledge who revealed truths through scripture. From the humanist point of view it’s hard to see how you can make this assumption and stick to it tenaciously and still call it “humble”. Agnosticism is honest and it is surely also the most humble position to take.

      “I really don’t think religion serves any useful purpose, and it is responsible for a vast amount of human suffering.”

      I think it’s important to remember that religion arises from human nature, we seem collectively to have a penchant for over-simplified black and white thinking, dogmatic certainty, submission to authority, avoiding taking responsibility for thinking about things ourselves, etc etc. Religion is one way these traits can express themselves, but it is not the only way. I think if we want to combat these tendencies, we need to find some way of nurturing self-responsibility and basically faith in ourselves as humanity to solve humanity’s problems rather than merely attacking religion. I recommend this post on Humanism of the Sun – it really made me think a lot about these issues.

  7. Pingback: God Revised | Meaning and Truth

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