Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Intolerant Tolerance

The headline refers to a particular Norwegian debate, but it is fairly relevant to the Atheist movement. I wrote a blog post about in Norwegian, but here's one for the international market!
A common criticism levelled at conservative Christians have been that they are intolerant, especially towards gays. This type of criticism generally comes from liberals, and it's not concerned with scripture. It doesn't really care about religion at all, just tolerance.
In 2004, a Norwegian political commentator and editor, Harald Stanghelle, then warned that this tolerance (that the liberals advocated) was getting increasingly intolerant towards believers, and writing a piece about this, he used the phrase "the intolerant tolerance". The case in question was about how politicians wanted to force a Norwegian missionary organisation called Misjonsforbundet to allow gays and unwed couples into their organisation. Stanghelle is by no means a religious conservative, so it was not a right-wing backlash or anything. He was merely preaching tolerance towards the intolerant.
Late in February, this year, a whole shit storm was kicked up because Aftenposten, the paper that Stanghelle works for(and where he's the political editor), awarded a local Islamist, Mohammed Usman Rana, 10 000 NOK for an op-ed called "The secular extremism" where he criticized that Norwegians are intolerant towards religion. (Rana had earlier said this "I disapprove of the death penalty for homosexuality, but I am not a theologian or an Islam scholar and so I will not answer to what they do in other countries.",(English) so you know the type.). And in a comment a few days after Rana's op-ed was published, and all Hell broke loose, Stanghelle wrote a piece to defend the decision. It was called "Triumph of the godless?" and again he wrote about "the intolerant tolerance",– three times.
Stanghelle is, however, missing the point. Not everyone who puts on their shiny armour is out to fight for tolerance, but justice –- for instance. For what is right, not for what is tolerant. I don't think it was tolerance that was on the minds of those politicians who wanted also religious organisations to abide by Norwegian law, I think it was a sense of justice, and a feeling that they were fighting for the rights of a minority.
Justice can mean that you instead of handing out tolerance in all directions, be it towards Nazis or EMOs, you actively support the group that is most deserving.
Justice is not a simple concept. Those who believe they know what is right and wrong can be seriously mistaken, and will occasionally walk straight into fanaticism. The road to Hell is truly paved with good intentions. However, tolerance is also a good intention. It is in fact quite rare to hear people not advocating something with some or another good intention.
The difference between the two types of arguments(justice vs. tolerance), is that the ones who are concerned with justice, and what is right and wrong make an ethical judgement, while the tolerant doesn't have to. This is not to say that tolerant people do not think ethically, but an argument based on tolerance alone does not need to be founded on any other foundation than "Who cares?"
When I tolerate something, it's because I don't care. I tolerate bad music and art, and I tolerate traffic up to a certain point but if I say that I tolerate violent crime and exploitation, then my tolerance looses its charm. Then it's merely laissez faire.
In Stanghelle's comment from 2004, he wrote about Misjonsforbundet denying openly gays and unwed couples to get membership. He wrote that their opinion is hardly original, that it's shared by religious organisations throughout the world. But that "it doesn't fit the Norwegian zeitgeist in 2004".
He may think that his argumentum ad populum works to his advance, but it's quite to the contrary. Yes, Misjonsforbundet does not represent a minority. Strong forces in Russia, USA, the Middle East, Africa and probably lots of other places, are pressuring to force the homos back into the closet once and for all. It means that Misjonsforbundet is merely a part of a larger international tendency, and we have an obligation to do our job here.
So then the question is: do we want justice or tolerance? If we choose tolerance, we will have to expect to be criticized for not being tolerant enough to those we disagree with. It's a sort of Catch 22. You may perfectly well be tolerant if you like, but once you work against intolerance, you're not any better yourself. In the 90s, in Norway, anti-racists made the error that they used "tolerance" as a slogan, even if they were not particularly tolerant when they met a racist on the street. Instead of saying that they somehow promoted tolerance, which they weren't, they should have said that they were against racism because its unfair. That would do it. I'm against racism. It's not because I'm tolerant. I'm against it because it's unscientific, it's unfair, and it's bad for society. I don't need to resort to "tolerance".
And when I defend gays against religion, it's not because I'm tolerant towards the gays, but because I think it's the only right thing to do and the antipathy against gays is hardly scientific. I don't do it unconditionally. I know my bible, and I know that it does not favour homosexuality. And if there are good scientific arguments against, say adoption for gays, I would be listening (so far there's only been religious ad hoc-noise). The point is: gays have the best case. Not necessarily to become members of a religious organisation, but by being a minority that religious people throughout the world are violently picking on.
I only have to chose between defending people who are the way they are because of biology and between defending people who are as bigoted as they are because of theology. I rank biology over religious bigotry any day.
Intolerant tolerance becomes a problem to Stanghelle as well, because he's tolerant to Islamists and he prefer that we are too. So it's another Catch 22: he is intolerant to our intolerance towards their intolerance. Might it not have been be better if he had merely said he was for or against gays in Misjonsforbundet, or if he was for or against what Mohammed Usman Rana wrote?
The problem with tolerance as an ideal is that it does not inform us, because all roads are just as valid. But if one point of view is reasonable and the other is hair-raising, it doesn't mean that a compromise between the two is the best option.
It is also far more interesting to hear religious criticism against Atheism than smartass "Everything is all right stop this arguing right now" from other Atheists or liberal religious people.
One argument is an argument you can answer, and maybe even agree upon. The other one is authoritarian, merely inviting you to shut up.
I'm by no means against tolerance. A liberal society is after all the best kind of society, and intolerance is a negative thing to me too. But tolerance and intolerance are simply very vague terms that don't mean anything. I mean, Stanghelle would never have said that it was unfair that Misjonforbundet could not bar gay and unwed couples from becoming members. It's not unfair at all, that they have to abide by Norwegian law. He just picked the buzz word of all modern democracies, tolerance, and pretended it meant anything at all, but even a liberal society has to be protected by the law.

Tolerance can also be self-exterminating when you're up against forces that are generally more intolerant than average, like Islamists. Tolerance can therefore not be absolute. You can be against violence, even if you retain your right to self defence.

"We have the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should tolerate even them whenever we can do so without running a great risk; but the risk may become so great that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury. Karl Popper, paraphrase by Richard Robinson, An Atheist's Values (page 215)
In Norway, there's a Neo-Nazi/Neo-Pagan group called Vigrid. I tolerate them. It's because there are not one or two billions of these morons in the world. But if Vigrid is awarded 10 000NOK for writing their opinions in Aftenposten, then I will have to protest.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I am an agnostic and I have noticed for some time just how intolerant atheists are of those who find a religion that works for them, or like me just keep an open mind.
There is something truly insecure and missionary about atheists. I might even argue that atheism is a religion and it wants converts. Look at Bill Mahr's smug and self-righteous "Religilous." If you don't want to be religious fine, it's a free country. But if others, in a free country, choose to be religious for whatever reasons, what is it to atheists?

And please don't respond with the claim that religion is responsible for all the world's suffering. The greatest pogroms were caused by atheists and atheistic social darwinists such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and more.

Live and let live. Treat people like adults who are free to find the meaning in life where they seek it.

Unknown said...

"The greatest pogroms were caused by atheists and atheistic social darwinists such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and more."

Hitler was not an Atheist. Really. Your entire post reads like a summary of bad christian "retorts", but at least get that part right.