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What a Tolerant Society Should Not Tolerate

Here at Mind Matters, we aren’t big fans of militant atheism, or any other doctrine that prefers to explain away other views, rather than engaging them. I’m convinced that rhetorical chauvinism—the view that arguments that convinced you must convince everyone—is poison to civil society. Now and again, though, comes a reminder that it’s impossible to politely engage everyone on this earth. And that no tolerant society should ever try.

My most recent reminders were, first, this video of Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, calling for the swift punishment of the Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari for tweeting too casually and heterodoxically about the prophet Mohammed a couple of weeks ago. (Stunned by an outpouring of calls for his death, Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia. Reportedly on his way to New Zealand to ask for asylum, he got as far as Malaysia, where the authorities detained him on February 9 and put him on a plane back to his country.) Here is a grown man, a graybeard, weeping uncontrollably in the fear that God will rain down disaster on his country, because of some tweets.

Then came Maureen Dowd’s interview with Father Gary Thomas, a California priest who has performed 75 exorcisms, with the full backing of the Vatican. Apparently, in 2004, John Paul II directed his bishops to establish exorcists in their dioceses. Thomas believes that he fights demons. Not metaphorical ones—real beings who are faster and smarter than we are, and have “a much keener sense of free will.”

I am very much in favor us non-believers respectfully engaging religious believers in the public square. But we secular moderns want a society based on tolerance in politics, and on science in its understanding of the world. On what basis can we even start a conversation with clerics like these? How can advocates of a society based on knowledge even have a conversation with promoters of fear, that great enemy of knowledge?

Some years ago Stanley Fish pointed out that tolerance has limits—in fact, that it must have limits, if it is to make any sense. His guiding star is John Milton’s Areopagitica, which I remembered from high school as a majestic argument against censorship, in favor of pluralism. Which it is, as long as the pluralism is confined to different sorts of Protestants. “After all those wonderful praises of tolerance and freedom of the press,” Fish writes, “Milton turns around and says ‘Hey, but of course I didn’t mean Catholics. Them we burn.’ ”

What Milton saw, Fish adds, is that “if conviction is not simply a component in an endless liberal debating society, there is always going to be some point at which you are going to say ‘Not X; them we burn.’ ” Milton, Fish continues, imagines “a better life for himself and for his fellows. But he knows that such an imagination requires the equally strong imagining of what actions, what agents, will have to be excluded from that better life, or else it won’t be any better.”

The boundaries change through history, as do the methods. You could even argue, as do John Horgan and Steven Pinker, that history is a record of progress away from mind-numbing fear and violence. After all, Protestants today have expanded their circle of proper Christians to include Catholics, and it’s not respectable theology nowadays to settle debates with a public pyre. But any expansion of the world’s supply of open-minded calm has come by denying, frustrating and fighting the kind of clerics who promote fears of demonic possession, or of a God who replies to tweets with earthquakes. It didn’t come by meeting them halfway. With people who insist on a a society governed by unchallenged tradition in its ontology and unbridled fear in its politics, there simply isn’t any ground for mutually respectful conversation. Fish was right: A society that values tolerance must accept that some beliefs, and some people, must simply be defeated.

If you want to speak up for Hamza Kashgari, who could well face beheading for his tweets, you can get information here.


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