The Tolerance of Unbelief

There is a story floating around that intolerance is tied to religion. We moderns often look back at our ancestors and wonder how they could have been so intolerant, policing every person with a different opinion than them? Isn’t this the type of attitude that got people burnt at the stake? But, the narrative goes, the modern world is different. We are okay with people that hold different beliefs than us. Our public square has become secular, we meet together, agree, and then let everyone go home and practice their private beliefs. Now that we have cast off the chains of superstition, we are free to show tolerance and equality towards our fellow man. We live in the world of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” A world relatively without religion and a world where people generally respect differences would just love one another. 

But is the narrative that straightforward? I’m skeptical. I don’t think people have suddenly become more tolerant. Rather, I think that it is that people do not believe that other people’s beliefs will affect them. People are a self-centered lot, and we will generally let you do what you want to do as long as it doesn’t bother us. That is as true in 2020 as it was in 1420. But here’s the rub, when the general populace believed in God, and especially the fact that God may punish the community for unbelief, it served the public’s self-interest to make you believe. As Charles Taylor points out, “This is something we constantly tend to forget when we look back condescendingly on the intolerance of earlier ages…the deviancy of some would call down punishment on all“.  (Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, p. 42)

So what may look like tolerance is really unbelief. No one is giving you grief for your beliefs because they think your beliefs do not affect them. But what happens when we think that someone’s beliefs about something will affect everyone? Exhibit A is the Coronavirus. If you disagree with the majority about the severity of the pandemic, you will be taken to the side and very graciously defenestrated. The reason that people are starting to care about what you believe is because your beliefs will change your actions.

Your local Nextdoor app is a fascinating social experiment. If you don’t follow the social distancing guidelines, apparently the appropriate authorities need to be notified. Gathering in groups? A fellow citizen may threaten to call the police. Why? Because it affects (and more importantly, people believe it affects) the public good. So, was Lennon right in pinning intolerance on religion, or will intolerance come out whenever people feel threatened, regardless of the cause? Check your social media accounts.

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