(The following editorial first appeared in the October 1989 editorial issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
When you consider the head start religion itself has in getting a grip on human minds and emotions, the concept of religious tolerance seems one of the more remarkable accomplishments of civilization. Rather than being shocked when either individuals or institutions display in tolerance, perhaps we should be surprised that it doesn't happen still oftener. After all, to truly devoted believers in any religion, that body of beliefs constitutes nothing less than the most important truth in the universe. Why should they tolerate disbelief or contradiction? To tolerate different beliefs in others would seem to require admitting either (a) that there is room for doubt about the validity of the beliefs; (b) that the subject of the beliefs is not very important, so it doesn't matter what people think; or (c) that other people can hold different beliefs from mine without endangering me, and I am not responsible for the trouble they're risking with my deity or deities.
Options (a) and (b) are untenable for any true believer, and nonbelievers need to realize just how literally true that is if they are to have any hope of achieving understanding with people of faith. These are matters beyond life-and-death importance. If you know the ultimate truth about life, the universe, and everything, why should you tolerate behavior which is obviously wrong by those who haven't been enlightened? If you're in that position, option (c) may seem downright irrational. Religious tolerance probably tends to come easiest to people who are not particularly religious themselves, since they can easily accept options (a) or (b). For devout believers, no matter in what, things aren't that simple.
The problem is, as Mark Twain said, "Man is the only animal with the True Religion several of them." What do you do when you have lots of groups, each of which believes it has the ultimate truth, but none of which can prove its version's validity in a way satisfactory to the others? They can't all be completely and literally right, since they contradict each other in at least some particulars and particulars that look trivial to an outsider may be of the utmost importance to the doctrine of a particular sect.
The solution is tolerance. In many parts of the world, tolerance of other faiths (or lack of faith) has gradually come to be regarded as a hallmark of civilized behavior. It would be tempting, but naïve, to assume that this has come about through the widespread and rational recognition that since none of the religions can present objective proof of its beliefs, each should give others the benefit of the doubt. It seems far more likely that the real cause is a pragmatic recognition that it's usually impossible to convince anyone else of the validity of any faith but his own and it's dangerous to try (unless you're bigger than he is). We've all seen plenty of demonstrations that devotees of some religions would love to convert everyone else to their own beliefs, if they could. Most don't try terribly hard because they've learned that while they're trying to convert others, someone else may try to convert them, with potentially lethal results. Religious tolerance has evolved as a peacekeeping device, to enhance everybody's chances of survival.
But exactly what does "tolerance" mean, and how far should it extend? Does it mean merely that religious groups should be free to live according to their own faiths' teachings, without interference from other religious groups or political authorities? Does it mean that no one, within or outside a particular religion, should be able to criticize or question any of its beliefs? Whatever the level of protection extended to religions and their adherents, must it be applied categorically to all religions, or might some exceptions be justifiable or even necessary?
What, if any, are the limits of tolerance?
The automatic response, among people who think of themselves as open-minded and virtuous, is likely to be an indignant, "None! No limits or exceptions to tolerance can be tolerated!" It's an easy position to defend, and even to sincerely believe, as long as no one's feathers are being ruffled. But when they are being ruffled, and more . . .
It's fairly easy for most of us to admit that the forms of worship used inside somebody else's church for example, whether instrumental music is allowed in services is no legitimate concern of ours. (It's even easier to admit that what goes on in ours is no business of theirs and some of us are fortunate enough to understand that it works both ways.) Most of us can accept, and perhaps even admire, a religious group whose members form a self-sufficient community that maintains its own ways and shuns those of the larger culture that surrounds it as long as they don't bother anyone else.
But what about a religious leader who persuades hundreds of disciples to follow him into an isolated community and then commit mass suicide in the name of faith? What about religious leaders who use political and economic pressure to dictate what should be taught in public schools, not just to their own children, but to everybody else's? Or people who use the tenets of their faith to justify bombing clinics where people who don't share that faith go for medical procedures which are not forbidden by either the patients' religions or the law of the land? What about those who demand that a movie be banned because they find it offensive to their own religious standards? Or even urge their followers, with the promise of both earthly and heavenly rewards, to murder the author of a book they find offensive along with anybody involved in publishing and distributing it?
All of these things have happened in recent memory. All of them have seemed to a great many men and women of intelligence and conscience to go well beyond reasonable and proper "freedom of religion." Such actions raise a fundamental, and understandably disturbing, question.
Must we tolerate anything and everything that is done in the name of religion, merely because it is done in the name of religion?
I think not. A fair case can be made for allowing any religious group to educate its own children as it sees fit (even though a fair case can also be made that this may sometimes be detrimental to the long-term welfare of those children). A good case can be made for the right of anyone to refuse to have a medical procedure which is forbidden by his or her religion. I could hardly argue with the right of anyone to avoid a movie or book he expects to find offensive; or even the right of a religious leader to forbid those who belong to his group to view, read, write, or produce such material. A member who wants to remain one can follow the decree; one who finds that unacceptable can cease to be a member. (Or can he? There's at least one case on record, not many years ago, of a person who did leave the religion he grew up in, founded a new one, and was assassinated under orders from the leaders of the old. . . .)
Different standards may apply to a willing adult member of a religion and to a nonmember as long as the option of freely becoming a nonmember exists. Most religions expect special things of their members, and the things they give in return are profoundly valuable to a great many people. Freedom of religion is freedom for any adult to agree to that exchange with any religious group he chooses or none. That freedom needs to be protected, for people of all religions, as well as those not subscribing to any.
Stated thus, it allows a great deal of leeway to both individuals and religious organizations. It would seem reasonable, for example, to allow religious leaders to forbid their followers to write or read certain kinds of books, and to allow individuals to join (or leave) groups that impose such requirements. A case can even be made for allowing groups to impose quite serious penalties for violations by members, as long as they want to remain members. Excommunication is a reasonable response for a group built on a certain ideological foundation to take against one who claims to belong to that group and yet writes a book attacking or ridiculing its fundamental tenets. An official call for his murder is another matter entirely, and much harder to justify. Calling for the murder of others associated with the publication of his book, who never claimed to be affiliated with that religion, is way beyond "hard to justify."
It is intolerable.
Please note: I have said nothing, and do not intend to say anything, about the merits or faults of any books or movies which have prompted such actions. Chances are I haven't seen them, and their merits or faults are irrelevant to my argument. Nor am I attacking or criticizing any religion or religions. I respect everyone's right to believe anything he or she chooses to as long as actions inspired by that belief do not infringe on people who don't share it. Furthermore, I'm well aware that the actions I've described do not represent or reflect on major religions in their entirety. They are the actions of specific individuals or subgroups within those religions, and have been explicitly disavowed and deplored by others.
I do not endorse or recommend gratuitously insulting people's religions. But the fact that I or anyone else does not practice or approve an action does not give us the right to forbid anyone else to do it. It is essential to the preservation and continued growth of civilization that all ideas be open to examination and discussion by anyone who wants to examine and discuss them. That means all ideas, not just those which have not been declared off limits by some religious group or other. Any religious group can impose such limits on its own members, and any individual can agree to accept them. But religious groups must not be allowed to impose such limits on anyone except willing members, or to demand that anyone else observe them.
Vandalism and murder are vandalism and murder, no matter how piously they may be performed. Neither has any place in a civilized society, whether it is done by a garden-variety thug or by a widely recognized religious leader. Freedom of religion is important and needs to be preserved. But it must be clearly understood that that freedom applies only to what is done inside a religion. As soon as a religious group takes actions which affect people outside it, those actions must be subject to the same limitations as if they were done by any private citizen.
And those limits have been succinctly summarized in a well-known old saying: "Your freedom to swing your arm stops where my nose begins."
Even for religions.