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December 2, 2006

Irreligious Intolerance?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest, now that athesists are for the first time in my memory getting some attention, to fret that they are guilty of irreligious fundamentalism:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?

What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?

And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 2, 2006 1:53 PM


It is ill-advised to raise the issue of violence here; the first issue is persecution.

We would contribute to the revival of religionists if we persecuted them socially or politically for their beliefs.

After all, we should be concerned about defending freedom of thought for the religious as well as for ourselves. Therefore, no personal attacks, nor vicious ut-downs. Be tolerant but confident in the enlightened scientific approach.

Posted by: Cheryl Stephens at December 3, 2006 3:59 PM

Anyone who insists that their beliefs are RIGHT is wrong and that is all there is to it! ?

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 3, 2006 4:54 PM

People have seen the parallel between those who consider themselves to be believers in god and those who believed in the war in iraq.

People who rely on faith as their test for veracity, were also the ones who had faith in the existence of invisible WMD.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at December 3, 2006 7:07 PM

"Anyone who insists that their beliefs are RIGHT is wrong and that is all there is to it! ?"

Isn't that a self contradictory statement?

It seems that the only voices we hear on the news or even blogs represent a false dichotomy on any given issue. Reality is much more nuanced. Quite honestly, I fear both the judgemental right and the judgemental left. Both proclaim the rightiousness of their point of view. In reality, neither point of view satisfies most of the rest of us.
Many of us believe in a god, yet have a healthy and fierce belief in science and scientific methodology. We understand that all answers can not be offered by following one path. We also realize that science can be adherents to what they purport to be a scientific point of view can be as blind and non critical in thought as those who claim divine guidance. I also find in both extremes an underlying misanthropy. Subtle though it is, it leads adherents to dismiss thoughts, desires, morals, what have you, of others. The belief that their position is essentially right is very seductive.
I'll end this ramble. In short, it is very easy to be a non believer, an atheist if you will, and be intolerant to the point of denying rights to another point of view. The same is true of the believer who espouses love for his fellow man. Belief in science is no more guarantee of goodness, rightness or tolerance, than belief in an all loving son of god.

Posted by: Frank at December 7, 2006 12:34 PM

Would it be fair to say that the various controversies surrounding veiling in Western Europe are being carried out, if not by atheists, then in the name of secularism? There certainly is a strand of militant secularism that seeks to ban at least some public displays of faith; although, I think such positions are motivated more by Islamophobia than by advancing any sort of well thought out secularist agenda.

Posted by: James at December 7, 2006 11:48 PM

The Western European debate on religious dress in public schools is indeed a difficult one for secularists. Is there indeed a "well thought out" position on how or when to tolerate the intolerant available to those who believe in tolerance? Or, more precisely and fairly in this case, how to tolerate the aggressively anti-secular in an institution founded on secular values.

Posted by: mitch at December 13, 2006 8:23 AM

Given that religious faith motivates some very strange and, all too often, violent behavior, I feel I have an ethical obligation to point out the irrationality of faith. It's kind of like telling someone they've got something stuck in their teeth. Just kidding -- sort of. It's really more like telling someone, no, red does not mean go, it means stop. If you know someone who believes that two plus two is six, shouldn't you tell him before he gets a letter from the bank?

Posted by: Christopher at December 13, 2006 10:43 PM

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