by Regis Nicoll | In this country the bible was used to justify slavery and then segregation and today intolerance based on religion and the bible continues as fundamentalist Christians spew biblical tirades against gays (image: Public flogging of a slave in 19th-century Brazil, by Johann Moritz Rugendas).
On cue my recent article, “The Mercy of Intolerance,” prompted some, um, spirited responses outside the general Crisis readership. One gentleman, “Paul,” who was particularly exercised by the piece shot me an email (excerpt below) in hopes of educating me. My response follows.
Regis, you and I live in two different worlds. In my world tolerance is a virtue, not a sin. In contrast, intolerance is very easy, especially when based on religion and the bible rather than on facts and reason. History is full of religious intolerance beginning with the persecutions of so called pagans by early Christians and continuing to the brutal bloody crusades, conversions by the sword, slaughters of Jews, mass murders of heretics, burning of witches, and on and on.
In this country the bible was used to justify slavery and then segregation and today intolerance based on religion and the bible continues as fundamentalist Christians spew biblical tirades against gays.
I find that religion and the bible are frequently used when arguments cannot be supported by reason. It has also been my experience that when biblical arguments are shown to be absurd, people advocating them frequently resort to bitter anger and name calling. There are some people who no longer speak to me because of their inability to utilize reason in support of their intolerance. Nonetheless, being a tolerant individual I’m always ready to converse with them, basing my arguments on facts and sound reasoning, not on simple minded stories written by scribes thousands of years ago.
Practicing tolerance is difficult especially toward the simple minded and gullible; I do the best I can and hope that as people become more educated, realism and reason will eventually prevail.
Paul, you and I are, indeed, traveling in separate orbits. I am impressed that in such a short space you managed to mention just about every grievance against Christianity that has been leveled by critics over the last few decades.
What I found missing in your critique is the rational thought that you so highly prize. Instead, your caricatures and name-calling suggest an emotional response to a belief system you find personally distasteful. At any rate, I thought I’d address some of your major points.
First off, tolerance as a virtue is a very recent and flawed notion. Up until about forty years ago, the ideals that shaped Western Society were the Greek virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance augmented with the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. These were founded on the belief that there were immutable standards by which one could discern truth, beauty, and goodness. Together they formed a system of thought that led to some of civilization’s greatest achievements: the creation of hospitals, orphanages, universities, Western government, the rule of law, and modern science.
In contrast with true virtues, of which one can never have too much, tolerance has finite limits that make it self-refuting. For example, the “ethic” of tolerance holds that all viewpoints are equally valid, except for the one insisting that not all viewpoints are equally valid because of the rational conclusion that some beliefs correspond to the way things really are and others don’t.
What’s more, if there are no moral absolutes, as the sirens of tolerance intone, then there is no distinction between virtue and vice, making the whole idea of “virtue” meaningless, and “tolerance” nothing more than a personal “value.” Hence, morality becomes the sum-total of our personal values—an ever-changing cultural convention defined by the 51-percent vote in which “Power is Truth!” is the logical end.
As to the accusations about Crusades, Inquisitions, and witch burnings—standard fare among critics—I’ll not deny that Christianity has had its dark chapters in history. But there are two things that critics always overlook in these matters.
First is scale. Based on liberal estimates, those campaigns claimed the lives of thousands to ten of thousands of people over a period of two millennia. Reprehensible, for sure, but pale in comparison to the 100-200 million killed in less than one century by atheistic regimes. Tragically, the template for that century—a period in which more blood was spilled than all previous centuries combined—was laid back in 1792. That was when the Goddess of Reason was erected in Notre Dame Cathedral foreshadowing the Reign of Terror with the execution of over 40,000 people, mostly peasants.
Like you, it has been my experience that “when arguments are shown to be absurd, people advocating them resort to bitter anger and name calling,” and worse. That’s because all belief systems have their weak, hypocritical, misinformed, and misguided followers.
However, no one puts blame on science when a scientist publishes fraudulent research or develops a WMD. Likewise, nobody criticizes modern medicine for the incidences of quackery and malpractice by medical practitioners. So, neither should they blame Christianity when followers misapply the teachings and example of Christ. Clearly, strict adherence to the Sermon on the Mount or even the second tablet of the Decalogue would preclude all of the evil you decry.
Indeed, for two millennia, when Christian principles were rightly attended to they fueled the great social movements in history: abolition, child labor laws, suffrage, and civil rights. And the same is true about human rights injustices today: slavery in Sudan, sex trafficking, prison rape, religious persecution, and political genocide.
When earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods ravage communities around the world, it is not societies of “Brights,” rationalists, free thinkers, and secular humanists that rush to far reaches on the globe to help victims; it’s churches and faith-based organizations who are among the first to arrive and the last to leave.
By contrast, when materialistic rationalists ignore the “last” and the “least” or send multitudes to the gulag and work camps for “education” they are not going against their worldview, but carrying out its tragic logic.
For a more complete (and accurate) explanation of the Christian position on homosexuality, you can check out my article, “God Made You This Way – Not!”
In the end, you roll up all of the injustices in the world and place them on the doorstep of ignorance fostered by the religiously benighted. If only people would “become more educated, realism and reason will eventually prevail.” I always find this a curious hope for rationalists. For only a moment’s worth of reasoned thinking would reveal the quicksand upon which it’s built.
Consider that over the last few decades, books on diet and exercise have consistently topped best-seller lists. Yet, obesity and obesity-related illnesses—heart disease, diabetes—are at epidemic levels. The same is true for books on marriage, which despite their enduring popularity, have failed to reverse the soaring divorce rate caused by the Sexual Revolution and no-fault legislation.
No, Paul, the maladies of the world are not matters of knowledge and education, but matters of aligning ourselves with universal truths about ourselves and the world that are universally accessible and readily recognizable.
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As of yet, “Paul” has not responded back.
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.