Where should tolerance end?

Tolerance is often discussed as one of the grand issues, of which there could never be too much. That opinion speaks both of very little critical thought and too much “What would jebus do?” Tolerance may seem bland, like water, but regardless of how many times doctors tell us that water is good for us, no water at all is bad and 40 gallons a day is just as dangerous, if not more so. As with most things in life, tolerance needs a little balance.

The reigns of Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler are instructive cases concerning the extremes in tolerance. Millions tolerated the excesses of those three tyrants, some even cheering them on, while other millions died for their excesses. We need not even go that far. How many times should your child be beaten up at recess before you call the school? How many burning crosses on your lawn are too many?

Clearly, there can be too much tolerance.

Just as clearly, there can be too little. The seven-year-old says “damn,” a word he learned from his father. Should his father spank him? The dog can’t decide whether he wants to be in or out. Do you kick him? The teen across the street has his car stereo turned up too loud when he comes home at night. Should you shoot him?

Now that we have defined some of the outliers, we can begin to speak of balance in tolerance, a concept that will make many of you uncomfortable. But like every other concept, tolerance can be taken to extremes on both ends of the linear scale which describes it. Just because grandmother and the bible get all warm and fuzzy about tolerance is no reason to excuse it from the same rules we apply to other concepts.

For me, good points at which to place the upper and lower bounds of tolerance are at those points where any more drastic level of tolerance will violate a carefully-considered basic ethical principle. Since this is a Humanist forum, I am naturally going to apply this rule to religions and the religious.

In the case of formal religious bodies, I find that I have little tolerance at all. While those bodies are made up of humans, they are no more human than Standard Oil, another corporation run for the profit and power of the few. My reading of history has informed my view; organized religion has caused much more torment, trouble, and death than it has defrayed. Thus, I have very little tolerance for organized religion.

Religious people are an entirely different matter, not in the least because they are individual human beings. I may disagree with their faith, but they disagree equally with my lack of same. Most Humanists, and most believers, do not cross the upper or lower limits of any concept very often; that includes tolerance. Most of them are reasonable people, in the main, or as reasonable as humans can get.

So my objections are with the outliers and those on the very fringe of the Bell curve. If someone believes that the world is but 5,000 years old, my tolerance is nil. If someone believes that the bible is all that matters, and that worship of a god is paramount, my tolerance is more than greatly strained. On the other end, if a human believes that a person is inherently ignorant because they believe in a god, that goes too far, as well.

In the end, the Humanist and the believer have more in common than not. To paraphrase Stephen Roberts, Humanists just believe in one fewer god than do believers. That is a wide, but not insurmountable, chasm to cross.


Where should tolerance end? — 2 Comments

  1. Michael,
    Excellent essay.
    Like you, I get tired of people just preaching tolerance as an unexamined buzz word. -Much like religion, faith, inclusiveness, Jesus, etc. are so often used in an hackneyed, “language of reverence” manner. Gives me the heebie jeebies.

  2. Thank you, Timothy. Yes, I agree, of course. That sort of usage goes along with political correctness and all religions. They are all just ways to control us, and keep us from getting too uppity. It does, indeed, give me the heebie-jeebies.

    [ Michael ]

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