Taking tolerance too far

Last time we talked about Unitarian Universalism, I was explaining how — in my experience — UUs tend to refrain from criticizing the beliefs of others, no matter how implausible or even disproven they are, in the name of respecting each person’s search for truth. The reason usually offered for this attitude (and the occasionally-explicit instruction in this attitude) is the importance of “tolerance,” “celebrating diversity,” or “being accepting of differences.”

Certainly, one of the big selling points of liberal religion in general is that it is tolerant, or even accepting, of differences. I want to be clear that I agree this is an important, positive value. But while I am as eager to celebrate diversity as the next privileged white person with a guilty conscience, I think there is a point at which accepting differences should take a backseat to attempting to figure out what is actually true.

It’s good to respect people of all different religions. But respecting people and respecting ideas are not the same thing. Some unfounded or mistaken beliefs may indeed lose out once we discuss all alternatives openly and exercise our “free thought,” but thoughtful dialogue is not disrespectful to the people involved. Sometimes, the best way to show that you respect someone is to help them understand why one of their beliefs is incorrect and damaging to themselves and others. Friends don’t let friends waste their lives worshipping imaginary deities.

It’s strange — but this misguided understanding of “respect” and “tolerance” is something that UUs share with groups at the opposite orthodoxy extreme. Consider the fundamentalist Christian parents who feel they are not respected because creationism is not taught as science in public schools. Consider the Muslims who feel they are not respected because a non-Muslim decided to draw the prophet Muhammad in an editorial cartoon. I’m sure you can think of many more examples; those are just two off the top of my head. These people do not feel they are being respected unless you agree with them.

UUs try to have it all ways — as the image at the top of this post so wonderfully illustrates. That’s a sticker for sale in the Unitarian Universalist section of a store called Northern Sun. (I laughed to see that the UU and the Pagan sections are cross-linked with each other.) What I was actually looking for as an illustration was a flag that we had hanging in the church I attended growing up, with a chalice in the center and other religious emblems surrounding it. I couldn’t find that flag, but I did find a photo of this stained-glass window now in (at least) two UU churches. The caption offers this description (emphasis mine):

The REHNBERG MEMORIAL WINDOW created in 1974 in Rockford, Illinois by artist, Frank Houtkamp. The interlocking of the six circular representations of the six major religions of the world indicated that they all share in the same quest for meaning. The central symbol of the Flaming Chalice represents Unitarian Universalism’s willingness to accept whatever insight each of the major traditions may offer – as well as a determination to explore all new claims to truth and understanding.

What it seems like UUs are trying to say is, “Yes, we respect you! And you! And you! You’re all correct, okay? Let’s all get along.” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I think this is a very incoherent approach. These different belief systems are mutually exclusive with each other. They make different factual statements about the nature of reality. Many of them teach that people who believe in others of them are evil or at least deeply and horribly wrong; some advocate punishing these evil people as soon as possible, and others teach that these people will be punished in an afterlife or a subsequent life. Anyone with a basic understanding of logic can see that they cannot all be correct here.

I understand that many UUs, when they talk about “truth” or “whatever insight each of the major traditions may offer,” are thinking about the sort of way we can learn about “human truths” from fictional literature — but I still think this is counterproductive. We don’t need to study world religions to come up with the idea that compassion is important, yet citing religious belief as the source of this understanding just gives cover to religion’s many atrocities. And we must remember that even this watered-down understanding of “truth” is not universally shared by UUs. Many find it appropriate to celebrate the holidays of other religions, recite the prayers of other religions, or make other religious observances according to different traditions. I have attended multiple Passover seders held in UU church multipurpose rooms. We could have learned about the insights Judaism has to offer without pretending to be Jewish.

Their hearts are undoubtedly in the right place. But when UUs practice religious tolerance by deeming all religions equally true, they’re missing the point of being a freethinker.

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23 Comments

  1. Another fabulous post.
    Do UUs celebrate mediocracy? A blue ribbon for everyone, no matter the quality of what they contribute!
    Hmmm.

  2. Agreed.
    In Buddhist circles you can see the same. But lack of discrimination should not be confused for tolerance. And as you said, tolerating a person not confused with tolerating a dogma.

  3. “Friends don’t let friends waste their lives worshipping imaginary deities.”

    Hurry up and get this on a bumper sticker and tell us where we can buy it!

  4. christianPeper

     /  September 1, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I respect all beliefs but I dislike organizations that CONTROL and MANIPULATE their members. I encourage the spread of information regarding the physiological methods that are used by cultic organizations. At this site, they discuss the techniques that some “religions” use to control their members: http://www.freeminds.org/psychology/mind-control/mind-control-or-brainwashing.html

  5. Interesting post, but it reminds me a little of my father, who is a die-hard atheist. While he is demanding that I get angry about other religions because of some of the (truly) terrible things they preach and do, I would rather be out helping others and improving myself. I feel that in a lot of ways this is the heart of UU – the understanding that we can’t change others, only ourselves, and that working for social justice and personal realization is more effective than condemnation. Just my two cents (and I’m still working on getting my dad to volunteer rather than rant!)

  6. It’s good to respect people of all different religions. But respecting people and respecting ideas are not the same thing.

    Well said.

    These different belief systems are mutually exclusive with each other. They make different factual statements about the nature of reality. Many of them teach that people who believe in others of them are evil or at least deeply and horribly wrong; some advocate punishing these evil people as soon as possible, and others teach that these people will be punished in an afterlife or a subsequent life. Anyone with a basic understanding of logic can see that they cannot all be correct here.

    Certainly, but at the end of the day, I think Hilary’s approach seems the most conducive towards actually improving the world we live in. I agree that “working for social justice and personal realization is more effective than condemnation,” and if (a)theist blog discussions are any useful indication, we know that condemnation tends to inflame the condemned, perhaps as much or even more than the rational reconsideration it often aspires to.

    …when UUs practice religious tolerance by deeming all religions equally true, they’re missing the point of being a freethinker.

    I wonder how many actually “deem all religions equally true” as opposed to simply respecting people of all different religions, which we both seem to endorse?

  7. I think Hilary’s approach seems the most conducive towards actually improving the world we live in.

    Then it appears you are operating from a notably partisan notion of what does and does not “improve the world we live in”—one that simply dismisses the outlook and ideas of our hostess (among millions of others) out-of-hand.

    NFQ made this point on Thursday in response to a similar comment on her more recent post on the Foundation Beyond Belief and its support of religious organizations:

    If all you care about is that more schools get built, then go ahead and give money to “Lutherans for Building Schools.” I care that schools get built and that groundless superstitions don’t cloud the minds of people who deserve the chance to make rational evaluations of the world around them and that more people in our society realize that atheists aren’t angry misanthropes (as well as a number of other things, obviously). I’d prefer to support “People for Building Schools” or “Atheists for Building Schools” over the Lutherans any day.

    It’s simply a matter of fact that a non-negligible number of us believe that reducing the status and prevalence of religious faith, and reducing the power of religious privilege, is a vital goal that we cannot leave un-addressed.

    Institutions like the Unitarian Universalist Association, meanwhile, frequently impede efforts to weaken the power of religious privilege and help to keep the virus of religious faith alive in the body politic. As a result, from our perspective, they are frequently not worthy of esteem, and it is not at all self-evident that their net effect on “improving the world we live in” is positive.

    I hope you can understand why your decision to blithely dismiss and/or ignore these concerns, declaring UU/Hilary-ish approaches to be the ones that are “conducive towards actually improving the world we live in” comes off as irritating, thoughtless, and arrogant. (“Actually” is a nice touch, emphasizing as it does how superior you are to your opponent and her empty-headed ideas about dealing with the world.)

    if (a)theist blog discussions are any useful indication, we know that condemnation tends to inflame the condemned

    We do indeed know that: when powerless, despised minorities dare to question and challenge the privilege enjoyed by overwhelmingly powerful majorities, that always has tended to “inflame” the majorities. One merely wonders about the priorities of folks who prefer to (1) worry about the poor unfortunate “inflamed” members of the supremely powerful majority rather than (2) give the slightest thought to whether those unfortunates have any just cause to be “inflamed” in the first place.

    As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said, “Well behaved atheists rarely make history.” (Or something like that.) Surely it’s a tragedy that she didn’t worry about inflammation, huh?

    I wonder how many actually “deem all religions equally true” as opposed to simply respecting people of all different religions, which we both seem to endorse?

    Having spent seven years as a UU, I can assure you that large numbers of UUs do very much “deem all religions equally true”—not that nearly any of them engage in serious analysis to arrive at that conclusion.

    I, meanwhile, wonder if you are in fact the least bit interested in getting to the bottom of the issue you’ve just highlighted—or whether you’re actually just casting snotty aspersions down your nose.

  8. I tend to have a “live and let live” philosophy, personally, so for me, it doesn’t so much matter what somebody believes, so long as they aren’t forcing that on me via public policy.

    Hey Rieux I think you’re kind of coming across like a dick. Cl didn’t “blithely dismiss” anything. Cl first complimented and then agreed with parts of NFQ’s post, then just stated a preference for a “less condemning” position. In fact your approach pretty much supports Cl’s point – that when people overuse condemnation, it tends to inflame others instead of rectifying what you’d probably call their irrational beliefs. I’m willing to bet Cl’s response won’t be along the lines of, “Oh, gee… I see the logic of your superior ways, allow me to apologize and be more rational.” Your response rubbed me the wrong way and it wasn’t even to me. You’re coming across like a high-and-mighty atheist and nobody needs that.

  9. Hold on now.
    Let’s stop pretending we know for sure what the immediate and long term consequences of “making nice” or “making waves” would be — in the intended target or in bystanders or in ourselves. In the world at large. It’s complicated.
    Me, I don’t consider being thin-skinned a virtue. It can create emotional log-jams to progress.
    How do we help people become thicker-skinned? It seems to me that some level of abrasiveness is necessary. Heck, I’m still developing thicker skin. For my own good. And I get helped along not by those that coddle me.
    Also, as I explained in my own blog post, “Freethought Musing: Refusing to Accommodate Religion (or, Why to ‘Be a Dick’),” there are at least three good reasons to upset the “tolerate religion” status quo.

  10. Aristarchus

     /  December 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

    As fun as the “be nice” vs. “be confrontational” debate is (and I have sympathies for both sides), I think the more important point is that neither side actually results in being UU. This is what I don’t understand in Hillary’s comment. Sure, you don’t like your father’s angry atheism and don’t want to spend your time trying to convince other people to become atheists. That all makes sense to me. So you shouldn’t go door-to-door trying to convince people to be atheists. You shouldn’t pick arguments with your friends. Maybe you shouldn’t even start an atheist blog. Volunteer/donate for charities instead. That kind of decision not to bother other people about it is totally reasonable and I’m completely behind it. What I don’t understand is how you get from that logic to “I’m going to join a church.” Join the local PTA instead. It is entirely possible to be an atheist and not be aggressive about it. You can even work to improve your community and yourself too. NFQ’s problem with UU is that it seems to think that “respecting” a religion means not believing for yourself that it’s definitely wrong. UU gives religious traditions a lot of prominence in its teaching and implies that there is some sort of special wisdom in religious traditions. I don’t see any reason why even the most fervent supporter of the “be friendly” side of the debate has to actually join a religious organization in order to be nice.

  11. I notice that someone seems to have fixed my stupid HTML error in my first comment above. I suspect divine intervention; thanks, Ms. God.

    Now then, Jackson:

    Hey Rieux I think you’re kind of coming across like a dick.

    Well, Mr. Plait, I think I’m showing cl‘s superior thoughtlessness the scorn it deserves.

    NFQ’s style, among others’ here, is more good-cop than mine (though more bad-cop than still others’ styles, such as Dale McGowan’s). I think that that diversity is a great strength; different approaches work on different audiences, and there is far more value to both ridicule and a broader good-cop/bad-cop approach than critics like yourself generally appreciate.

    cl‘s comment is saturated with religious privilege and with a refusal to take seriously the issues that NFQ has raised on this blog (and that numerous other atheists have raised in other fora). I think such heedless behavior deserves a little open censure—and clearly it does not deserve to be treated with kid gloves.

    Cl didn’t “blithely dismiss” anything.

    Oh, didn’t (s)he? Then I suggest you bother to actually address the points I made in my previous comment, in which I explained in some detail what it was cl did indeed ignore. “Nuh-uh” is not a rebuttal.

    when people overuse condemnation, it tends to inflame others instead of rectifying what you’d probably call their irrational beliefs. I’m willing to bet Cl’s response won’t be along the lines of, “Oh, gee… I see the logic of your superior ways, allow me to apologize and be more rational.”

    As Mr. Plait has been told before, that totally misses the point of what ridicule is for:

    Two points. First, Plait’s opening question was ludicrously loaded, biased to produce the answer that would gladden his accommodationist heart. “How many of you changed your mind because a skeptic screamed in your face . . . and called you an idiot and a retard?” Well, obviously, if you put it like that there is only one possible answer. But suppose he had said, “How many of you changed your mind because you saw your beliefs being devastatingly mocked, ridiculed, surgically taken apart with razor-sharp wit . . . ?”

    As Jerry [Coyne] said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people’s face. I don’t think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

    My second point is that Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.

    Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

    Richard Dawkins

    Your response rubbed me the wrong way and it wasn’t even to me.

    Then I suggest you grow up and try to worry a little less about other people’s tone at the serious expense of the substance of their arguments. There are in fact points being made here, ideals being asserted, and you’re missing them.

  12. Andrew:

    How do we help people become thicker-skinned? It seems to me that some level of abrasiveness is necessary. Heck, I’m still developing thicker skin. For my own good. And I get helped along not by those that coddle me.

    Well said. (I resisted the urge to express my agreement with a hearty “fuck you.”)

    For interested lurkers, the blog post by Andrew (“Freethought Musing: Refusing to Accommodate Religion (or, Why to ‘Be a Dick’)”) that he mentioned in his comment is here. At the distinct risk of coddling Andrew, it’s very good.

  13. Well, Mr. Plait, I think I’m showing cl‘s superior thoughtlessness the scorn it deserves.

    I bet you do, because of course, in the mental world you live in, you’re the rational atheist and Cl is obviously the religious dumbass. Well guess what: there are thousands of other pricks out there just like yourself and they come from all walks of life.

    …there is far more value to both ridicule and a broader good-cop/bad-cop approach than critics like yourself generally appreciate.

    Oh, because you know enough about me to reliably infer what I “generally” appreciate. Gee, that’s not presumptuous.

    cl‘s comment is saturated with religious privilege and with a refusal to take seriously the issues that NFQ has raised on this blog (and that numerous other atheists have raised in other fora).

    Maybe if you’re being hypersensitive, sure, but when I read it, I saw two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach. From that, you infer that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously. Are you taking logic seriously?

    Then I suggest you bother to actually address the points I made in my previous comment,

    That’s just it smarty-pants: you didn’t make any worth addressing. You just wrote a lame screed to somebody who was more or less cordial to NFQ’s points and simply stated a preference for a less-condemning stance. Great job, you defender of reason you!

    Then I suggest you grow up and try to worry a little less about other people’s tone at the serious expense of the substance of their arguments.

    Good. I suggest you go grab another Dawkins book and jerk yourself off some more, then pat yourself on the back for confirming a common stereotype of atheists as arrogant, condescending assholes. How’s that for ridicule? Is it workin’ for ya? Oh, wait – ridicule isn’t to prompt the abandonment of irrationality. It’s for the “third parties” that are reading. In that case, you still failed, because I still think you’re a dick.

    But go ahead. Keep confirming Cl’s point if that’s what gets you off.

  14. I bet you do, because of course, in the mental world you live in, you’re the rational atheist and Cl is obviously the religious dumbass.

    Utter nonsense. I neither know nor care what Mr./Ms. cl‘s religious beliefs are. I do, however, know quite a bit about his/her approach toward criticism of religion—and, no matter how doggedly you refuse to consider the problems with that approach, they continue to exist.

    …there is far more value to both ridicule and a broader good-cop/bad-cop approach than critics like yourself generally appreciate.

    Oh, because you know enough about me to reliably infer what I “generally” appreciate. Gee, that’s not presumptuous.

    Well, I did think you were a competent enough reader to understand that my adverb “generally” obviously applies to (and exists to prevent overgeneralization about) the broader category of “critics like yourself,” rather than just to you personally. But I stand corrected; you missed it.

    [W]hen I read [cl's comment], I saw two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach. From that, you infer that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously.

    Wrong. I explained quite clearly what inferences I drew from cl‘s comment, and why. Again, you can close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears all you’d like, but they don’t make the actual reasoning I have provided disappear.

    That’s just it smarty-pants: you didn’t make any worth addressing.

    How adorably cowardly.

    How’s that for ridicule?

    Penny-ante. Just as Dawkins doesn’t expect or intend to change the minds of young-earth creationists, ordinary atheist ridicule isn’t (ahem) generally aimed at thoughtless tone trolls who have neither the interest nor the inclination to spend the slightest thought on the matters actually in controversy.

  15. Oh, how cute, you called me a tone troll. Does that make you the hall monitor?

    Me -> [W]hen I read [cl's comment], I saw two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach. From that, you infer that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously.

    Smarty-Pants -> Wrong. I explained quite clearly what inferences I drew from cl‘s comment, and why.

    Yeah, no shit, for example here:

    cl‘s comment is saturated with religious privilege and with a refusal to take seriously the issues that NFQ has raised on this blog

    So, when I said you inferred that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously, I was right, not wrong, but it’s clear to me you have no concern for whether you’re right or not so long as you accomplish your goal of demolishing “religious privilege” by asserting your superiority over others.

    Again, you can close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears all you’d like, but they don’t make the actual reasoning I have provided disappear.

    Like I said, you didn’t provide anything worth calling “actual reasoning.” That some believer agrees with a few of NFQ’s points but has a different take on how to go about things — those premises do not support all the wild conclusions you jumped to. Take your confrontational atheist glasses off and you might be able to see a little more clearly. If you’ve got an actual argument then make it; else I have no need to repeat my opinions.

  16. My goodness, your reading comprehension is poor.

    [W]hen I read [cl's comment], I saw two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach. From that, you infer that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously.

    Wrong. I explained quite clearly what inferences I drew from cl‘s comment, and why. Again, you can close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears all you’d like, but they don’t make the actual reasoning I have provided disappear.

    Yeah, no shit, for example here:

    cl‘s comment is saturated with religious privilege and with a refusal to take seriously the issues that NFQ has raised on this blog

    So, when I said you inferred that Cl didn’t take NFQ seriously, I was right, not wrong….

    Ah, but you see, you’ve now conveniently forgotten what your earlier claim was: you have carefully rewritten it to omit the assertion that it was “from that“—from the mere posting of “two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach”—that I had drawn the inferences in question. That—”from that“—was your assertion, and that assertion is wrong, as my initial comment on this thread demonstrates. The bases for my inferences bear no resemblance to your heedless misrepresentation of same.

    Again, you can close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears all you’d like, but they don’t make the actual reasoning I have provided disappear.

    Like I said, you didn’t provide anything worth calling “actual reasoning.”

    And as I said, that laughable assertion of yours is merely a cowardly refusal to address the actual arguments I offered in my initial comment, ones you appear to have neither an answer for nor the guts to even examine.

    That some believer agrees with a few of NFQ’s points but has a different take on how to go about things — those premises do not support all the wild conclusions you jumped to.

    Those are not my premises, and your continuing refusal to waste a single thought on what is actually at issue here is a notable embarrassment to (what would constitute considerable flattery to call) your argument.

  17. That—”from that“—was your assertion, and that assertion is wrong, as my initial comment on this thread demonstrates. The bases for my inferences bear no resemblance to your heedless misrepresentation of same.

    No, genius, that assertion was correct. Talk about reading comprehension and omitting relevant facts: the “from that” referred to the totality of what Cl said, smarty-pants: two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach. There is no “anything else” that you could possibly have inferred from, other than perhaps your own hypersensitive tendencies or some other irrational source. Besides, you’re being quite the pedant: did or did you not claim that Cl showed “a refusal to take seriously the issues that NFQ has raised on this blog?” The answer is yes, but you’ve not shown any premise or evidence to support that. If you think you have, state it again because I still don’t see shit. You made an invalid inference given the data. Like every other hypersensitive Dawkins-quoting atheist, and there are far too many out there, you saw a “theist” and then got your panties in a wad over some imagined “saturation of religious privilege” where there was no legitimate call for it. AND you were an asshole about it.

    that laughable assertion of yours is merely a cowardly refusal to address the actual arguments I offered in my initial comment, ones you appear to have neither an answer for nor the guts to even examine.

    Nice King’s English there buddy. Nah, you don’t sound pompous one bit! Really though, WHAT actual arguments? That Cl left two instances of agreement, a question, and a stated preference for a less-condemning approach doesn’t entail either a) that Cl ignored anything NFQ said, or b) this “saturation of religious privilege” you yammered about. So genius smarty-pants logic and big-words atheist, now that you’re giving the more tolerant atheists a bad name, do you have an argument that isn’t easily shown invalid?

    your continuing refusal to waste a single thought on what is actually at issue here

    Who the fuck are you to tell me what’s “actually” at issue here? You have your issues, I have mine. Like I said, my issue was that you had no grounds for assuming Cl “refused” to take NFQ seriously based off the comment Cl left, or going on your screed about “saturation of religious privilege.” Besides the obvious superiority complex, what’s your issue? Really. What is your actual argument here? State it. If not, like I said: another Dawkins book and some more wanking for you. You might just relax a little and learn how to tolerate people of differing opinions.

  18. All right, cats and kittens. When we’ve gotten to a place where someone’s good grammar is cause for complaint, I think we’ve passed the point of no return. Maybe it’s time to let it go.

  19. Just wanted to respond to Aristarchus’ post above: “What I don’t understand is how you get from that logic to “I’m going to join a church.” Join the local PTA instead.”

    You’re totally right; lots of ways to do the same thing. This just happened to work for me right now. I’m a recent college transfer to a new town, so was looking for some community and a way to meet others. When I move on I may join something different or another UU fellowship, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve just grown to like the emphasis of this particular fellowship, and it reminds me think of others more and how fortunate I am, which is always a good thing :)

  20. Freya Vass-Rhee

     /  September 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    UU’s do not “deem all religions equally true.” They deem all quests for spiritual truth equally valid, and stress the importance of informed and questioning search for such truths.

  21. Freya: That may well be your perspective on it, which is better. (I’m still not sure what a “spiritual truth” is or how one would go about questing for one, so I admit I’m still not thrilled.) In this post I’m writing about my — fairly extensive — experience with UUs, and I would describe them as treating all religious conclusions to be equally correct.

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