Defining Intolerance


I’m not a religious or faith driven person, and for the most part, I don’t mind those who are. Everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs. I say this to emphasize that I am not a militant atheist; I have no desire to destroy other people’s faiths. This being said, I also have no qualms with challenging other people’s faiths.

The other day a friend of mine told me how she admired her roommate sacrificing “sweets” for Lent. I glibly retorted that it was incredibly convenient this roommate’s “sacrifice” for Lent could also double as a healthy diet—my logic being that it’s not really a sacrifice if what you’re giving up ultimately benefits you. My friend admonished me, saying that I should be more tolerant of other people’s faiths. Her admonition got me thinking about tolerance; more specifically, it made me question whether my critical comments on other people’s faiths could be considered intolerant.


This was certainly not the first time I had questioned someone else’s faith, and it wasn’t the first I was accused of being intolerant as a result. But what does it mean to be intolerant? Certainly there are the extreme examples of intolerance–the various pogroms throughout European history, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Africa—but intolerance also takes on far less horrific and far more common forms. I’m reminded of pre-Civil Rights America where African Americans were barred from certain establishments. That was certainly a proprietor being intolerant of a customer’s race. On an even more minute scale, I think of the schoolyard pariah being excluded from playing with the other kids because he in some way looks or acts different. That is certainly his peers being intolerant of his differences.


So was my comment about this roommate’s Lenten sacrifice intolerant? I won’t deny it was rude; I probably could have articulated the same point without being so smug. But was simply raising an issue with her faith intolerant? I don’t think so. All of the examples of intolerance I listed above included an element of active discrimination. They involved certain people taking away the rights of others, whether that be the right to live or the right to play basketball with all the other kids. When I criticize someone else’s faith, I am not taking away his or her right or ability to practice that faith. I wasn’t saying that this girl couldn’t participate in Lent or receive Holy Communion. I just questioned whether her “sacrifice” could actually be considered a sacrifice. Even if my comment was insulting, does being callous make me intolerant?

Given how touchy the subject of religion can be, I think it’s better to look at this in the context of a political debate. If, for example, my political opponent of the day tells me he believes welfare recipients are spending taxpayers’ money inappropriately and I ask him for proof of this, am I being intolerant of his beliefs? No, because it is a legitimate question. Maybe I don’t have to ask it, but I don’t think asking it interferes with his ability to have those beliefs. Now, if I tell him to step down from the podium and discourage him from expressing those beliefs, that is intolerance.

I don’t think questioning another person’s faith or belief, no matter how aggressive or rude that questioning may be, is intolerant. I do, however, think that creating a culture where one can’t criticize or comment for fear of being labeled intolerant is just that, intolerant. It is true that everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs, but no one is entitled to a belief unchallenged.


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