What Are The Limits of Tolerance?

I have just finished watching the fourth episode of the BBC series, Around the World in 80 Faiths. (There is a Youtube video of Episdoe 1 in an earlier blog entry. You will find Episode 2 embedded at the end of this blog entry.)

I have had several responses to the content of this series. The one I want to focus on here concerns the limits of my tolerance for cultural/religious differences.

It is undeniable that the history of western interaction with other cultures has been heavily tainted by racism, arrogance, and disdain. Colonialism and missionary zeal often worked together to “civilize” the heathen of other cultures, destroying indigenous cultures in the process. Thankfully, in the 2oth century an appreciation of the relativism of cultural norms and practices began to emerge, often culminating in an avowed commitment to multiculturalism. I applaud this development. I am so glad that both my sons grew up in Toronto, a city that the United Nations designated a few years ago as the most ethnically diverse city in the world. They have grown up thinking and experiencing that it is possible for different cultures to co-exist peacefully and even to appreciate each other.

I have also long-believed, however, that culture is not sacred. Although it is not easy to develop and justify a universal ethic, I believe the task is worthwhile. The human race took an important step forward towards that goal in 1948 with the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While our species struggles to live up to the demands of that declaration, it at least said that, in principle, certain things supersede culture or religion, human rights being preeminent among them.

And that brings me to the BBC’s video series, Around the World in 80 Faiths. In episodes 3 and 4, a few different religious groups are filmed sacrificing animals during their ceremonies. Being an advocate of the right of all sentient beings to life and liberty, I obviously object to such a practice (as I object to their slaughter here in North America, their use in testing in our labs, etc.). Such practices exceed the limits of my tolerance for cultural/religious diversity.

And that gets me thinking, where are the limits of tolerance for cultural/relgious difference?

For example, I have tremendous difficulty with the idea that some children are being raised to believe that they have a divine right to a particular piece of the world’s geography and that it is God’s will that they defend it by force. I struggle with the fact that some children are taught — in contradiction to abundant, overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary —  that the world is only 6000 years old. I have great difficulty with the fact that some children are being indoctrinated with the belief that there really are witches who are controlled by demons and deserve to die. I have a problem with the fact that some children are being kept from learning the true history of how their ethnic group migrated to a particular place on the globe because it would conflict with the creation myths their group’s religion teaches. And I really have a problem with children’s bodies being mutilated and physically harmed as part of a religious ceremony without the possibility of their consent.

But do I have the right to interfere with the adults who believe, practice and teach such things?

When do we have the obligation to speak up and say that a certain practice is not merely culturally different, but wrong? How do we determine when our opposition to something is rooted in prejudice and when it is rooted in legitimate ethics? When do we intervene and put a stop to practices we judge unethical and when do we use reason and argument to seek change?

I would love to hear your opinions of what you consider to be the appropriate guidelines for dealing with cultural/religious differences that we find morally offensive.

Around the World in 80 Faiths – Episode 2



Filed under Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, social commentary

4 responses to “What Are The Limits of Tolerance?

  1. Jim

    It’s a good question, and one that I’ve asked myself.

    I’ve been an “extremely nice” person all my life. I’m always the one who gets along, is tolerant, etc. But when faced with this question, I’ve come to a conclusion that we should not be tolerant of any “system of values” that is irrational. I don’t think our intolerance should extend so far as to legislate against such people, or to even curtail their freedom to be irrational, BUT it is dangerous for a society to have in its midst any group who rejects rational thought in favor of something irrational. But since no society has every been free of it, we can never really know how effective a purely rational society would be.

    I sound like a terrible person, I know. The societies that have tried to rid themselves (by force) of irrational cults and groups, were in themselves irrational. So this cannot and should not happen by force. But I believe that rationalists should take an intolerant stance toward irrationalists.

  2. theformerfundie

    Jim, I don’t think you sound like an awful person at all! Your distinction between not tolerating something personally/societally and legislating against these things gets to the nub of the issue.

    Take smoking. Societally we have decided not to tolerate it. We have removed the right to smoke in a number of areas, without actually making it illegal (unlike other drugs, some of which are probably even less harmful — talk about irrational choices as a society!).

    My question is how do we make those choices. I think the issue of parenting is a key one. Certain practices we recognize as so harmful that we deem them criminal. My question regards clarifying the principles we use to determine whether something is merely culturally different, whether it is something we societally deem wrong but do not legislate against it, and where we deem it wrong and criminal. I still haven’t got all that worked out in my own mind.

  3. Russell

    This is the classical trap that liberals fall into when debating on these subjects: you must respect my beliefs. We want to respect them, and feel that we need to do so in order to justify putting our own ideas forward. But this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case and it helps to think about what “respect” is and what we are being asked to acquiesce to when we provide it. This might help.

  4. theformerfundie

    Thanks, Russell. I look forward to reading this article.

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