Conversational Intolerance

Religious belief is a unique case where truth claims are held immune to critical examination in a spineless appeal to “tolerance”. That religious claims ought to be tolerated on the basis of mere conviction is ridiculous. Religious claims are no different than claims in any other topic of discourse, either they are true or they are not true, and absurd claims in religion that are clearly false should be denounced as such, particularly if belief in the truth of these claims have clear negative consequences.

An overwhelming amount of the violence and conflict in the world today arises out of religious truth claims. It ought to be obvious that a critical analysis of religious claims should be the highest priority to global society. Instead, through much of the western world the concept of religious “tolerance” has lead to religious truth claims becoming exempt from critical scrutiny. It is time to challenge this special “tolerance” that insulates religion from criticism and promote what Sam Harris calls “conversational intolerance” against truth claims that either lack evidence or are in direct contradiction to established evidence.

The most basic function of academic discourse in a post-secondary institution is to critically examine all claims to truth. Religion makes some very potent claims indeed. They inform the political decisions and life trajectories of the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, and have deep consequences for the survival of global society. If a chemist claims that they have discovered the lost secret to alchemy and can turn lead into gold we do not respect their belief, we demand evidence. If a doctor claims she can cure cancer with leeches we do not “tolerate” her strong conviction, we revoke her license to practice. If a pilot attempts to clairvoyantly steer his airplane through mountain clouds without navigational instrumentation we do not judge his claim on the basis of how strongly he believes it, we ground him and send him to a psychiatrist. Lives depend upon us demanding evidence for these claims and marginalizing those who fail the test of evidence.

Religion is the only area where truth claims are treated differently. Lives depend upon these questions, and possibly even the survival of our civilization. Either condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa is a sin or not. Either the souls of unbelievers will be eternally tortured in hell or not. Either apostasy should result in beheading in this world or not. Either God promised Israel to the Jews or not. Either those who die in defence of Islam will get 72 virgins in paradise or not. Millions of lives hang on the truth or falsity of these claims. It is long past time for us to treat the truth claims of religion with the same rigorous scrutiny that we treat claims in medicine, engineering, chemistry, economics, and plumbing.

Further reading: The End of Faith, Sam Harris; Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett.

(edited version published in Sept. 6, 2007 edition of the Martlet)