The Problem With Religious Tolerance

October 02, 2015

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
Last week newspapers reported that the student union at Britain’s University of Warwick had banned Maryam Namazie, a secular human-rights activist, from speaking on the campus this month.

The reasoning was simple. Namazie, an Iranian-born former Muslim, routinely challenges radical Islamist beliefs and criticizes many aspects of Islam. That was determined to violate the student union’s policy, which forbids external speakers to spread "hatred and intolerance in the community" and says they "must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups." Namazie’s critical views, the student union concluded, could infringe upon the "right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on their university campus."

When I teach introductory courses in religion, I find my students are also unwilling to offer critical appraisals of religious beliefs, and for the same reason. Like Warwick’s student union, they think refraining from criticism is essential to religious tolerance. After all, if you claim that a religious belief is wrong, aren’t you being intolerant? Better to accept religious relativism than run the risk of bigotry.

That approach is fundamentally misguided. You can think a religious belief is wrong without being intolerant. Tolerance is not synonymous with "believing someone else is right." It is a virtue that allows you to coexist with people whose way of life is different from your own without throwing a temper tantrum, or a punch.

The potential coexistence of all religions is a seductive fantasy. In its service, popular authors and academics have preached the comforting delusion that religions are essentially the same, and therefore fundamentally compatible. As Boston University’s Stephen Prothero puts it in God Is Not One, "This is a lovely sentiment, but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue." Thankfully, the vast majority of modern scholars now side with Prothero, and the American Academy of Religion’s curriculum guidelines for public schools ensure that teachers at all levels will not irresponsibly homogenize the world’s religious traditions.

But the academy’s guidelines leave a crucial question unanswered: If religious people (and secular people) disagree on basic aspects of history, science, and ethics, how is it possible to maintain the truth of one’s own position while "tolerating" others? Educators like me can respond in two ways. By far the most common response is to teach that there are multiple religious perspectives, all of which are equally valid and deserving of respect. This not only feels good, it also feels legal. Wouldn’t I violate the Establishment Clause, thinks the terrified public-school teacher, if I implied that some religions are superior to others?

The result, however, is disastrous. Suddenly we are in the land of bumper-sticker postmodernism, where truths are perspectival and no one can be objectively wrong. Like the unity of all religions, the validity of all religions is a lovely sentiment (Coexist!), but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. Dangerous, because it means people will be less likely to fight against injustices and falsehoods that are underwritten by religion. Disrespectful, because authentic respect involves caring when others’ beliefs go wrong, not just letting them believe whatever they want. And untrue, because basic logic tells us that "God condones slavery" and "God forbids slavery" cannot be equally valid claims.

The other possible response, then, is to teach that there are multiple religious perspectives, which are not all equally valid and deserving of respect. If this sounds crazy or extreme, start by thinking in terms of historical claims: There are multiple perspectives on the age of the earth that aren’t equally valid and deserving of respect. Or maybe think about it in terms of ethics: There are multiple perspectives on child abuse that aren’t equally valid and deserving of respect. Now the next step: Acknowledge that religious beliefs include historical and ethical claims. No extremism here, just common sense — the same common sense that allows religious traditions to correct mistaken positions on the age of the earth, or whether God wants black people to be priests.

Some may fear that emphasizing the fallibility of religious beliefs will work against the possibility of interfaith dialogue. In fact, the opposite is true. Intellectually honest people, religious or not, care deeply about truth. They want to make sure their own beliefs are worth holding, and they think others are better off doing the same.

Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity not only to learn about other people’s beliefs, but also to challenge the basis of those beliefs and allow other people to challenge one’s own. Otherwise, interfaith dialogue becomes a middle-school art show, where people ooh and aah and praise the work without passing judgment on its quality, lest they hurt someone’s feelings. This version of dialogue cheapens religion by reducing it to taste, and disrespects the participants by treating them like children.

Which brings us back to Maryam Namazie and the right of Muslim students — or students of any religious persuasion — to be free from intolerance and discrimination. No doubt the question of how to engage with people whose beliefs we deem wrong is important and complicated. Tolerance can help. It calls on us to listen generously and seek, in dialogue, our own inevitable mistakes and blind spots. When beliefs we do not accept are part of someone’s religious worldview, the virtue of tolerance tells us to proceed with caution. It warns against making snap judgments about the quality of the person who holds those beliefs, which is the right way to be respectful.

But tolerance doesn’t tell us that just because the belief is religious, there’s no way to pronounce on its truth. It doesn’t forbid us to criticize falsehoods if religion is used to justify those falsehoods. And it doesn’t mean that people who challenge deeply held beliefs represent a threat. That’s complacence, not tolerance, and it’s time to start recognizing the difference.

It’s encouraging to see that Warwick’s student union reversed its decision this week following a public outcry, which included a petition in support of inviting Namazie that was signed by more than 5,000 people. But if students — and teachers — continue to conflate criticism and intolerance, similar issues are certain to arise in the future. Let’s do our best to make sure they don’t.

Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of religious studies at James Madison University.