Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, November 22, 2004

THE PARADOX OF TOLERATION

MaxedOutMama links to a thread from Democratic Underground that calls Condi crazy for being religious and adds:

The Constitution is constantly reinterpreted on the basis of people's beliefs and ethical outlook of the time. I have no faith that the Bill of Rights will not be reinterpreted as excluding those with religious beliefs from public political life. This very interpretation is gaining grounds as we speak.


Some remarks from Garrison Keillor illustrate this trend even better:

Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Keillor proposed a solution to what he deemed a fundamental problem with U.S. elections. “I’m trying to organize support for a constitutional amendment to deny voting rights to born-again Christians,” Keillor smirked. “I feel if your citizenship is in Heaven—like a born again Christian’s is—you should give up your citizenship. Sorry, but this is my new cause. If born again Christians are allowed to vote in this country, then why not Canadians?”


Keillor was joking, but... Well, anyway, these guys lost the election, so I wouldn't worry too much. I agree that constitutional provisions can get re-interpreted: a dramatic example of this is the way the intra-Protestant religious neutrality that the founders intended in the public schools was hijacked by secularists as a pretext from rigorously excluding God from the education system. But freedom of speech is pretty entrenched in this country, and religion is pretty strong. We shouldn't get too easily spooked.

In the comments, Nato adds this puzzling retort:

I'm too busy working on what I perceive as the much more intrusive flip side here in the US [i.e. intolerance from the right]. I mean, my brother still can't get married in his state, there are still a lot of elected officials who want to [b]an abortion in one way or another and so on.


Now, what do gay marriage and abortion have to do with a discussion on tolernace? Oh, yes: to some people it's intolerant to prevent the taking of the lives of the unborn, and/or to decline to mimic the ceremony which marks the union of man and wife on behalf of homosexual men or women. Now, whether allowing abortion and gay marriage are good ideas is one question; but to consider this in any way related to tolerance or toleration strikes me as odd. To ban abortion simply combines the well-accepted prohibition of murder with the controversial belief that the fetus is a person. As for gay marriage: isn't toleration a negative right, the right to be left alone? Yet Nato is demanding a positive action on the part of the state, namely, recognizing and protecting a certain legal status.

With all due respect, I think MaxedOutMama and Nato are illustrating how problematic toleration really is. Nato wants to impose certain policies on the public in the name of toleration. MaxedOutMama feels threatened by the view that religious people are crazy and should be excluded from public life-- but the paradox of toleration is that even intolerant views must be tolerated. To suppress intolerant views in the name of tolerance is a new form of intolerance. And these Doppelgangers of tolerance, too, must be tolerated. Confused? A lot of people are.

Toleration makes sense as a particular phase in the continuing historical quest to build the Christian res publica. As an answer to the Catholic Church, Protestants came to emphasize the pure voluntarism of faith. Coercion was abandoned, not rationally but from religious zeal, in favor of persuasion. During the Great Awakenings, a clamor of competing religiosities dissolved the constituency of the established churches into a sea of toleration. Voltaire's dictum-- "Though I loathe what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it"-- is clever, and useful, but the French revolutionaries, who reverenced Voltaire, did little to honor it. And indeed, can Voltaire's statement be believed as other than a rhetorical flourish. Imagine a Norwegian libertarian charging the prison gates with a gun fighting to the death for the freedom of the disgusting homophobic pastor. A hero? Or a freak? People fight and die for the sake of their own beliefs, not those of others. Toleration occurs when the people who win in the fighting and dying hold the strange and quixotic belief that one must sit still and take it as you are endlessly abused and hated.

3 Comments:

  • Hey! The blogger deity is letting me post over here again. Yesterday it kept sending me in an endless loop back to log in.

    No, I don't feel threatened by the view at all that religious people are crazy. I don't feel threatened by the knowledge that there are people who really are working legally to get religious expression banned. I posted that example because Nato seemed to suspect that there was no possibility of that occurring, and I think there is. Also, it sort of makes your point about the logic of those who see religion as harmful superstition - it seems rational to many of them to ban it as a harmful practice.

    Nato conceded that the religious right wasn't irrational for having some concerns, because Nato truly is a rationalist and reacts to evidence. I have no idea how he's going to react to the next extension of my argument. It should be interesting. Because most people aren't rationalists, and he's going to have to concede that.

    And btw, Nato did comment that he thought even truly offensive speech should not be banned - he is willing to be EXTREMELY tolerant of differing views by most people's standards. Leaving aside the issue of abortion, it is not the "ceremony" that he wants to "mimic", it is the legal rights and legal status he would wish for his brother.

    To him it is an issue of legal discrimination, because he is concerned about his brother. And I think he is being consistent there - he is willing to defend a person's right to express their dissent to the appropriateness of same-sex marriage or civil unions, as long as that dissent doesn't extend into restricting the legal rights of others. He is, I think, arguing consistently.

    The problem is, to defend religious freedom we must acknowledge differences in religious precepts, and so we must work out a civil way to deal with those differences. Otherwise it does fail, and we have reestablished a secularly enforced church of the majority - and logically, Lancelot, that might work out to be about the same thing as the path Europe is taking. I think we've done pretty well as a country, but that doesn't mean we can simply assume that it will proceed blindly on with no more than our passive participation.

    I love your blog.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 4:20 PM  

  • Actually,I think we have every cause to tolerate intolerant speech in a legal sense, but in no way do we have to socially tolerate it. In fact, I think it's more or less our responsibility to fight it as best we can, given our resources and position. But the laws are there to keep us from silencing them and that's a good thing. I beleive there's plenty of middle ground between turning the other cheek and scorched earth.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:29 AM  

  • Which is to say that MaxedOutMama has every cause to be worried about and even take countermeasures against secular bigotry.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home