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Volume 7, Issue 2: Disputatio

Peace, Hatred, and Tolerance

Douglas Jones & Timothy Madigan

Amid a wide array of cultures and faiths, questions of political tolerance continue to arise in a variety of pressing contexts. Some advocate a tolerance based on values that all or most worldviews hold in common. Others deny any place for tolerance whatsoever, and still others seek to remove any domination by one group over another.

In the following interchange, the managing editor of Credenda/Agenda , Douglas Jones and Timothy Madigan discuss the topic of political tolerance. Timothy Madigan is the executive editor of the national secular humanist magazine, Free Inquiry, and co-editor of the Secular Humanist Bulletin.
DJ: In discussions of religion and society, secularists regularly seek to blunt Christian comment on social issues through accusations of intolerance and hatred. They object that any Christian interaction in social matters would involve imposing a particular religious ideology on everyone. Though biblical Christianity forbids a political imposition of Christianity, the consistent secular response is far from being the epitome of tolerance that it claims. "Tolerance" and "neutrality" always involve the negation of something. For example, humanistic "neutrality" in social affairs assumes that Christianity is false. Such "tolerance" could succeed only by precluding Christians (and others) from voting and thinking about social issues in accord with Christian principle. "Humanist tolerance" is a contradiction in terms.
TM: Douglas Jones presents a false dichotomy between Christianity and Humanist "tolerance." Just what sort of "Christianity" is he referring to? Methodism, Mormonism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc.? While members of these different sects can today sit down together cordially and discuss doctrinal differences, such differences were the cause of much bloodshed and hatred in the past. The Western notion of "tolerance" came about largely as a way to bracket these metaphysical disputes, and allow for a common ground for political interchanges. A secular government is in the interests of all members of society. The claim that biblical Christianity forbids a political imposition of Christianity sounds very nice, but even if it is true, there have been far too many sincere Christians who have proved willing to use the arm of the government to impose their version of the faith on citizens.
DJ: "Secular government" could work "in the interests of all members of society" only if you assume all other worldviews are false. That's tolerance? If Christianity, for example, is true, then we would be fighting reality and everyone's interests by legislating in accord with some other standard. In short, secular "tolerance" demands that everyone "obey" a secularist worldview in the political realm. Neutrality is impossible. Let's be more honest and call your view "secular imperialism" but not tolerance. And, if you want to do an historical body count, I would think that secularists would be the very last group to stand up and accuse others of bloodshed. Stalin almost makes Richelieu look like a Christian.
TM: I don't know whether Cardinal Richelieu was a Christian or not, but I didn't mean to get into a contest of who's killed more people, Christians or secularists? Stalin was an atheist who led a repressive regime that denied people their basic rights. One of the first to point out the horrors of Stalinism was Sidney Hook, another atheist, but also a democrat who strongly supported the rights of free speech and liberty of belief. These rights in his view, and the view of most secularists, are best protected in a civil society that takes no official position on ultimate worldviews, but which allows people to argue and discuss these issues in the public square.
DJ: Your point on "ultimate worldviews" is exactly the question at issue. Society can't escape taking a position on some ultimate worldview. A society that took "no official position on ultimate worldviews" would assume that Christianity and other views are officially false. If you say some form of secularism is true, and someone else, being more "neutral," says "no one knows whether anything is true," that person is saying that your claim is false. Similarly, your pluralism is itself a worldview full of claims about reality. I can understand secularists openly seeking to impose the ultimate worldview of "Secular Pluralism," but it doesn't seem, in principle, any more tolerant than Muslims seeking to impose their worldview.
TM: A distinction needs to be made between secularism and secular humanismor, if you prefer, atheism. The latter does indeed deny the validity of Christianity and other supernatural belief systems, but the former does not. It is true that secularism is not value-free, but those values (which include toleration) are not inimical to religions. The secular state is based on compromise another value, to be sure. Are you proposing instead that our society be explicitly Presbyterian in its governmental positions? Or Buddhistic? Or Rastafarian? What other than pluralism would allow so many ultimate worldviews to thrive on their own, and also interact peacefully with each other?
DJ: My argument has been against generic secularism, not atheism per se . The former is far more worrisome for its facade of innocent neutrality. If a Christian explained tolerance as permitting secularists to thrive as long as they assumed Christian principles outside of their private, inner life, you wouldn't describe that as tolerance. So why call secular pluralism tolerance? Even now, the "mild" egalitarianism of secular "tolerance" aims to silence Christian pulpits and deny us freedom of association. Such pluralism is far from a peaceful compromise and has historically laid a trail of Christian blood. If our only options are an intolerant pluralism or a Protestant decentralism, the choice should be easy. But neutrality isn't possible.
TM: Just how "decentralized" should Protestantism be? I consider atheism the ultimate Protestantismit protests against having any religion at all. What actual examples are there of pulpits being silenced or Christians denied the freedom to associate? In a nation where not one national politician is an avowed nonbeliever, and where the stated religiosity of leaders from every spectrum is constant, this claim seems pretty farfetched. Bear in mind that the nonreligious like myself often feel like we are second-class citizens. When we read of the recent attempts of conservative Catholics and Protestants to forge common ties to combat secularism, we too fear for our civil rights. How might such rights be protected under a religious shield?
DJ: Christians and others are all now coerced into subsidizing opposing worldviews embedded in the government schools and other federal departments. Similarly, tax and welfare codes and "antidiscrimination" legislation increasingly constrain Christian speech and association. Beyond abolishing all such intolerances, we should adopt a very liberal attitude toward real freedom of association. If any community, Muslim, atheistic, Catholic, New Age, etc. wants to peacefully govern themselves by their own code, we should let them, instead of sending in the BATF types. Given secularism's track record, I would expect Protestant communities quickly to become havens for refugees from secular enclaves. After all, secularism can't philosopically justify a moral framework necessary for civil rights. Can it?
TM: A touch of hubris heredo you really presume to speak for all Christians? Most whom I know (and some of my best friends are Christians) don't feel coerced at all. Like myself, they grumble over the amount of taxes they are expected to pay, but they still support the public school system, the social safety net, and other state and federal programs. Are you proposing that every group enter its own enclave, refusing to interact with those who don't share its particular ethical code? And while you may not agree with the arguments, there are plenty of secular justifications for moralitylet's debate those in another forum.
DJ: Coercion isn't determined by emotions. You can't really be suggesting that if someone were robbed or enslaved but didn't feel that way, then they weren't. Now that you've openly opposed tolerating the beliefs of others in "less serious" concerns, how can secularists expect to be taken seriously regarding tolerance on weightier issues? We can't just shrug off foundational ethical questions when they determine the whole discussion. Can we at least agree that if a worldview cannot provide a framework for moral rights, then a society embracing that worldview will catch on in time and start to act more consistently with that worldview by rejecting rights and tolerance? Robespierre's secular reign of "tolerance" comes to mind.
TM: What leads you to assume that foundational ethical questions determine this whole discussion? Robespierre certainly had his foundational views on virtue, as did Torquemada and John Calvin. Those who differed with them met an unfortunate end. Just as you deny Richelieu Christian status, I would point out that Robespierre attempted to foist a religion of Reason on Francehe would not consider himself a secularist. "Secularism" is not a worldview, but rather the means by which people of differing worldviews attempt to live together harmoniously. All groups are prone to reject the rights of nonmembers, which is why defending a secular state is so important.
DJ: If you still really think that secularism isn't a worldview, despite its assumptions about truth and value, then you should be able to supply a standard of harmony that all worldviews can embrace without surrendering their basic loyalties. What neutral standard can harmonize all the right to life and property issues (abortion, euthanasia, education, redistribution)? No such standard exists. A neutral state is a contradiction in terms. So, a secular state, too, will tend to "reject the rights of nonmembers," those who reject the secular standard. You need to supply an answer to this pressing contradiction. Your concluding thought seems to supply the answer to your opening questionsecularism's foundational values count, others don't.
TM: You are right that a true harmonization of differing ethical views cannot be achieved. Secularismat its bestshould adhere to what Isaiah Berlin calls "a negative liberty." That is, it provides a freedom from coercion, allowing people to pursue their own ends. "Positive liberty"which the Stalins, Torquemadas, Calvins, and Robespierres have advocatedattempts to direct all people toward one common goal, and woe to those who don't accept it. "Secularism" remains an ideal. Its values of tolerance and respect should correspond to values found within the worldviews participating in the experiment. It's not the foundations but rather the ends that are important.
DJ: Whoa, a few steps back I appealed for negative libertiesfreedom of association and freedom from being forced to support opposing worldviews, but you opposed so much tolerance. Are you now willing to give up all your egalitarian goals and allow Christians to hire whomever they want, speak without IRS threats, and use their money "to pursue their own ends"? Or do you still harbor some Robespierre in your heart? Since our cultures disagree on the foundations and the ends, secularism can't serve as an ideal. By the way, propaganda aside, Calvin's tradition specifically developed our notions of church-state separation, freedom of conscience, and our Revolution, that "Presbyterian Rebellion" as the English called it.
TM: I'm afraid you haven't put propaganda asideMichael Servetus could attest to Calvin's willingness to tolerate those who differed with his worldview. But the Presbyterian Rebellion did indeed help foster the ideals which secularism, in my view, best serve. Your version of negative liberty, with incommensurable groups living apart, with no neutral ground between them, differs from Berlin's notion of a government which takes no sides in ultimate matters, but allows for open discussion and intermingling of positions. You may be right about the government's overbearing nature regarding taxation (I am sympathetic to a libertarian approach) but, at least so far, the framework of the founding fathers has allowed us to avoid the internecine doctrinal battles of the pastand allowed for the mutual give-and-take of disputatio such as this.
DJ: The ancient Justinian code that had already condemned Servetus in multiple locales was widespread in Europe and hardly unique to Geneva or Calvina man who never held any political office and struggled long to separate Genevan civil and church authorities. More importantly, the rather Protestant liberties of early America can't be sustained in a vacuum. The more consistent secularistsresurgent fascists and their postmodern bedfellowswill continue to ask "Why is intolerance evil?" They more clearly recognize the inconsistency of a secularism parasitically trying to maintain Christian liberties without a Christian framework. Secularism's devotion to evolutionary, naturalistic mythology forever keeps it from supplying the "oughts" requisite for liberty, and more and more people are realizing this.
Though when the dam finally breaks, Tim, you will always have a sincere welcome in the Protestant havens. Thank you so much for participating in this discussion.

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