"I am only intolerant of intolerance."

I'm just trying to sum up the liberal point of view for Stanley Fish, who seemed to need to use quite a few more words than normal to get to his point today.

Granted, he needed to make it seem so complicated that he would look really smart for saying it, and he apparently needed to find a way to throw a seemingly-anti-atheist-but-not red herring on at the front -- my guess is that his atheism-related essays got him more reads than average, and he was hoping to duplicate the success: but it came off a bit like putting frosting on steak.

Or herring. He quotes one professor Berlinerblau (why does that sound like a name Voltaire would have conjured and used in Candide?) calling atheists “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse," and asking, “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth?” Voltaire would have used "Blunderbaugh," I'm sure of it.

Fish goes on to give us a strange sort of explanation. If I may boil it down: atheists are the "ultimate" liberals, and liberals cannot tolerate intolerance. Since "religious peoples" are by their very definition intolerant of certain things, they are, to the uber-liberal/atheist, the most abhorrent people possible.

Well I couldn't agree more if that's how you put it. But that can't be the whole thing. I mean, I'm an uber-liberal, and almost 100% of my friends and family are religious people, and I do far more than "tolerate" them: I love them and try to spend all my time in their delightful company. Furthermore I try to understand and respect their religions to the best of my ability. Fish has us covered here too:

The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces. A religion that accepts the partitioning of the secular and the sacred and puts at its center the private transaction between the individual and his God fits the liberal bill perfectly. John Locke and his followers, of whom Starr is one, would bar civic authorities from imposing religious beliefs and would also bar religious establishments from meddling in the civic sphere. Everyone stays in place; no one gets out of line. (emphasis mine)
Well, aside from the fact that in his description, "the liberal order" sounds like a jack-booted thug, he's mostly right. I say "mostly" because I don't see liberalism "evicerating" anything these days -- it doesn't have the claws nor teeth. But as far as the kind of religion acceptable to a liberal person: yes, it must have respect for its limits. I will not respect any religion that tries to take over the government or even tell women to "dress modestly" and sit at the back of the city-run bus, as the orthodox Jews in some neighborhoods of Jerusalem do.

Incidentally, that horror show mainly made the news because the orthodox men had physically beaten several women who refused to move to the back of the bus -- and my otherwise "liberal" Jewish aunt who lives in Jerusalem defends their actions to the death; why? Because since they were doing it for (her) religion, it must be okay.

But it's not okay. It's not okay for Hindus to throw widows onto pyres. It's not okay for Muslims to sentence the sister of a defendant to be raped to punish the defendant. It's not okay for Jews to bully women to the back of the bus. And it's not okay for Christian men to bully and dominate their wives. It's not okay because I'm a liberal, not because I'm non-religious. And if I see religion as being the root of a lot of trouble in this world, that's a rational determination, for sure.

The conflict of worldviews only comes because religious "rationality" is very different. For example, "if the prophet Mohammed said it, if it's in the Koran, we must do it," is religious reason, even if that means raping a woman for the sins of her brother. "If I touch the street-cleaner to help him, I will become unclean, therefore I will not help him" is a kind of rationality. "We must destroy everyone who does not agree with us," is another religious line of reasoning. "We should wreck this planet and everything on or in it, so that we can all get to that yummy rapture faster," is one more.

So as I said at the start: "I am only intolerant of intolerance." And imbecile, extremist, mentally deficient, fascist, anti-public good, crypto-Nazi religion is the biggest, most influential body of intolerance one will find on the planet earth.

As Fish puts it:
Closed-mindedness with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred is not a defect of liberalism; it is its very definition.
At the end of his essay, Fish asks, "what should we do?"

So secularism isn’t going to win by waiting for what it thinks to be its better arguments to carry the day (politics is neither rational nor Darwinian); and the military option holds out the prospect of more horror than hope. What to do?

Let me tell you about one of my pet peeves: "in the end" in the context of a political argument. Let me explain: you're discussing the rights of man with, oh, I don't know, your conservative aunt, and she says, "I have faith that in the end, it'll all work out." Now, leaving aside the "I have faith" part: when is this "end" you're talking about?

Fish isn't invoking the "end" here, but he is invoking the mind-set: there will be a "final resolution" in which one "side" will have won and the other "lost." Unless you're taking about the death of the sun (and we might escape even that death-sentence if we're wily enough), what is really being invoked is a convention of storytelling that has nothing to do with reality. In real life there is no "denouement." Gains made in one generation are lost in the next. Great societies crumble. Minor civilizations flourish. Languages spread. Technologies are lost. There is no "judgement day" when we tally up winners and losers: only the endless flux of mankind's adventures here on earth, defined by conflict and tension. No one idea gets crowned "right" and another guillotined "wrong": not in the long term. Our lives are marked by endless change. If that changed, we would no longer be human.

So the one change we cannot abide is the loss of our ability to change. And the one thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance.

So saith the atheist. Amen.

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