Respect, not Intolerance

Let’s talk about religion for a minute. I know, I know, it’s one of those things that polite society tells us not to criticize, but I’m going to do it anyway, because there’s a lot that needs to be said. Religion, and the lack thereof, is obviously a major part of our society. Social events revolve around it, and people spend a large amount of their time thinking, reading and talking about it.

The problem is, we also spend a lot of time arguing about it. We fight, we point the finger when something goes wrong and we end up hating each other. Yet nothing good or productive ever seems to come out of the fighting.

From what I’ve witnessed, it seems that people with extreme religious beliefs can be exceptionally intolerant of those with moral compasses that might point in a different direction than theirs. We’ve all seen the Westboro Baptist Church picketers. What even happened to those guys? I haven’t heard any tales of them picketing military funerals in a while. The WBC and their outlandish, hateful signs have become a bit of a laughing stock in this country, but they aren’t the only group that spreads messages of hellfire and condemnation.

The Park Blocks that run through the middle of Portland State play host to a diverse number of street preachers yelling at students who may or may not be going to hell, depending on which preacher is currently yelling the loudest. The students oftentimes end up yelling back in an effort to defend themselves, and it quickly descends into a vicious cycle of shared contempt.

These hate-spewing street preachers and picketers represent the extreme end of the spectrum of America’s devoutly religious sect, but they are definitely not the only people widening the divide between devout and secular in this country. All over the U.S., religious politicians are using their personal brand of faith to influence their political decisions. Religious belief is one of the major reasons that same-sex marriage isn’t legalized in every state and why access to contraceptives is more difficult than it needs to be. It’s been used as a justification for war since the dawn of civilization.

The propensity for religion to spread hatred and judgment is unacceptable, but the nonbelievers on the other side of the religious spectrum aren’t always a sunny, happy bundle of tolerance either. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and author who spoke at PSU on Oct. 11, is one of the world’s most outspoken nonbelievers, and he often displays outright disdain for the world’s believers.

In his Reason Rally speech in March 2012, Dawkins told his listeners to “mock them, ridicule them…in public” when they meet someone with religious beliefs. Ridiculing someone for their religious faith is no better than the street preachers who condemn us all to hell. Dawkins is a brilliant thinker and scientist. He does a lot of good in this world, but telling people that they deserve to be ridiculed for their faith is not acceptable in just the same way is telling someone they are going to hell is not acceptable. It’s just plain mean.

I know I’m not the only one to put up barriers and get defensive when someone insults me. It’s a natural human reaction to fight back and shield ourselves from people who might hurt us. But if everyone walks around filled with contempt for others, we only end up building higher and higher barriers, making the differences between us deeper and wider than ever.

It may be idealistic—and frankly, quite ridiculous—to think that America will ever become one big, happy land of people who coexist harmoniously and love to politely talk about their differences of opinion without ever raising their voices. I know this. You know this too. That isn’t even what I’m advocating.

I just want people to think with open minds. I want us to work on creating an open dialogue about our differences of opinion and to learn to respect others. I want us to try to understand that those with different backgrounds are going to come to different conclusions about life, and that’s
perfectly okay.

Differences of opinion are imperative to a successful society, because it is our differences that allow us to speak openly about important issues and to grow and learn from each other. America would be a pretty scary place if everyone was exactly the same.

Instead of pointing the finger at the other side and spreading hate and intolerance, I want us all to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person for just a minute and learn to empathize. Spread a little bit of respect, not intolerance.