It used to be said that our religion could be summed up in three words: freedom, reason and tolerance. To a great degree that is still true, but we have looked more closely at the terms and recognized some limitations. Freedom cannot be license, but must be defined in part, at least, as responsibility. If we are free we are entirely responsible for the choices that we make and must therefore choose carefully, thoughtfully and meaningfully. Reason, too, we have seen to be able to be used to rationalize some egregious errors, so though we honor it, we know its limitations. I'm not sure that the limitations of tolerance have received the same careful analysis. We Unitarian Universalists have prided ourselves on our tolerance in contradistinction to members of other religions who find other people's ideas not only untrue but so wrong as to lead the holders of them to damnation and the world to destruction. We, on the other hand, have argued that tolerance is the one requirement to live in a world where customs, ideas and peoples are so diverse that it is the basic requirement for living together. And we are so tolerant of religion, at least, as to say that any religion is fine if it makes the believer in it happy. Unitarian Universalism is what fits us best, we say, but that doesn't mean that it is one whit better than other religions. It always seems strange to me that after saying this with all sincerity we get so upset when our children grow up and choose to become Roman Catholics or fundamentalist born-again Christians, or members of the Unification Church. After all, if that's what is best for them according to their lights, why should we carp?
I was not as thrilled with Sam Harris's The End of Faith as were many of its readers. I found it a bit simplistic, even reductionist, in its critique of religion and even less compelling when he described his own faith (which he of course would not call that). However, when he talked about the dangers of the easy tolerance that he ascribes to moderates, I think he had a point well worth listening to.
When it comes to political ideals we often forget our vaunted tolerance. Those who do not share the prevailing wisdom frequently have it made clear to them that they are not only mistaken, they really have no place in our societies. In theory, of course, most, if not all of us, would agree that though means may differ in the attempt to gain the political goals of peace, equality and freedom, if the ends are the same, though one may criticize and argue with the means chosen, as long as they do not contravene the ends themselves, they must be tolerated.
However, we are right when, forgetting our rhetoric of tolerance we reject certain ideas with loathing. We do not and should not tolerate, for example, those who believe that one race is intrinsically better than another, that the worst white-skinned person is better than the best black-skinned one. We do not, and should not, therefore, tolerate the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party. That does not mean that we can use bad means to exterminate them, simply that we must not give them support, comfort, or a platform. That, I think, is easy enough to decide. Those ideas are clearly evil - an evil which we must combat. It's a little harder to decide who else might belong on that list of the intolerable, or how we might combat them.
First we might ask what ideas are evil by their very nature, thus inevitably leading to evil action. I've already mentioned racism, the idea that some people are better than others, not because of virtue, education, power or position, but because of ancestry. This leads immediately to oppression of everyone who was not lucky enough to be born into the preferred group. Any idea that denies to others the opportunities to grow and learn, to seek plenty and happiness, is an evil idea. Included in that are, for example, homophobes or even anti-abortion fanatics. To insist that someone bear an unwanted child is, in my opinion, precisely that sort of oppression. Included also would be those who imagine that it may be all right to start a war - even a war against oppression - as war itself is the worst kind of oppression. We must combat the intolerable, but not through intolerable means. How do we combat the racists, the warmongers, the greedy, the oppressors, without becoming oppressors ourselves?
Unitarian Universalist societies often rent out their buildings to various groups. In Sharon, MA, the UU church was the First Parish Church; it sat right in the middle of town on the green, and was traditionally a meetinghouse for groups in the town. A right-to-life group asked for permission to rent the building. You can imagine the consternation among the Board of Trustees! Firm believers in the right of free expression and of assembly to a member, they were nevertheless unanimous in their belief that this group was propagating an evil idea in quite evil ways, using distortion and outright lies as well as harassment and violence to achieve an end that was wrong in itself. The decision made was probably worthy of Solomon. They agreed to rent the church building to the group and wrote two letters to the editor of the Sharon Advocate on church stationery, one from me, one signed by all the board members, stating the position of the Unitarian Universalist Association and of the Sharon church members on the question of the right of choice in abortion. On the day of the meeting, both the wayside pulpit and the signboard, which usually listed the Sunday topic, were to carry freedom of choice messages, and certain members of the church agreed to picket the meeting in shifts. The group was informed of what we planned to do, and decided to meet elsewhere. We may have done more for our cause of freedom than by refusing to allow them the meeting place, and avoided oppressing them ourselves.
Many years ago I went to a pot-luck supper at church and listened to a woman boasting that she had been to an important pro golf tournament and had intentionally made noises when Gary Player was about to putt, because he came from South Africa. Apartheid was intolerable, but so was her behavior. She was forced to admit that she had no notion what Mr. Player's opinion of apartheid was, so together with the injustice of her harassment of a man who had little to do with the system into which he was born, she added the injustice of deciding that everyone is equally guilty of the injustice under which he or she lives. Human injustice is beyond the limits of toleration, both as ends and means.
Let me get back, though, to the point at which I started, where it may be even more difficult to see and to do the right, the question of religious toleration. One of the original bases of this country was religious freedom. The Constitution guarantees it: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This has been hedged about with safeguards that remind me sometimes of the technique of Jewish religious laws. To avoid the possibility of seething a kid in its mother's milk as the Torah forbids, Jewish people not only do not eat meat and dairy products at the same meal but even have different sets of dishes. So it has been, except for the few egregious exceptions like governmental prayers, with the establishment of religion in our country. That gives religions a great deal of freedom from government intervention, and properly so. It also, of course, occasionally leads to abuses, as when religion's non-taxable status is used to line the pockets of individuals. I think, besides the TV evangelists, of the $10 ordination companies. Anyone could buy one of those ordinations, declare the family a church and start deducting church expenses from personal income tax. The IRS finally got involved in investigation of those kinds of things, which seemed not to be a serious problem for the issue of religious toleration, as they have no real religious basis, unless the worship of money can be called religion. However, it gave the IRS a foot in the door, and the UUA found itself acting as a friend of the court on behalf of Sun Myung Moon at his tax trial.
There are some real religions that we might agree should not be tolerated. Think of Jim Jones who led his followers to Guyana, and when his paranoid delusions reached their peak, ordered them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Even the children were given it by their parents to drink. Can we or should we tolerate the kind of religion which allows a leader to murder his entire following? And yet, I have heard many UUs say that any religion is fine if it fulfills the perceived needs of its believers. Jim Jones's followers certainly felt that their needs were being served by his religion.
Many of us have quite oppressive religious backgrounds. Others of us, even without pressure from our own families and/or church, have had to endure proselytizing from many of our neighbors. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I encountered a good bit of salvationism from friends as well as door-to-door evangelists. One of the less important reasons for my beginning to attend a UU church was so that when my children were asked what church they belonged to, they would have a response, however unacceptable, for their peers. This kind of thing makes us sometimes overly sensitive to the issue of toleration. We wanted so badly to be left alone ourselves about religion, that we respond by saying that all religions are fine so long as they fulfill the needs of their believers. This isn't really tolerance. It's an abdication of critical thinking.
I once got in serious trouble with a fellow UU for what she considered my intolerance in religion. How dared I say that Unitarian Universalism is better in any way than other religions? Our truth is just as partial as that of others - as indeed, of course, it is. All I could legitimately say, she felt, is that Unitarian Universalism is better for me than other religions are. However, I take religion more seriously than that.
I have gotten in equal trouble on occasion for saying that people - all people - should take their religion seriously. If they really believe something, it should translate to their whole lives. If their religion tells them that abortion is evil, they must do their best to eradicate it. If it tells them that their salvation is dependent on bringing others to the true faith, they have the responsibility to do that. If their religion tells them that one set of people are not children of God but devils, they have the responsibility to try to eradicate them. If they don't put the teachings of their religion into action it isn't really their religion. If you object to the Catholic Church's efforts to eradicate birth control and abortion, you are saying that their church teachings are wrong, and at least in this area, your religion is better than theirs, because it teaches freedom of choice and the responsibility that goes with freedom. If you object to Jehovah's Witnesses trying to spread the word that the world is going to end on a specific date (the last one was Sept. 8, 1987) on the basis that they don't know what they're talking about, you are saying that your religion which teaches that the world will end either when human mistakes destroy it, or when the destruction of the solar system takes place naturally in a few billion years, is closer to the truth than theirs.
Unitarian Universalism is based on the freedom of the individual to come to his or her own religious conclusions, a basis which builds in toleration of other religious beliefs. However, it also requires of us that we refuse to tolerate oppression - the refusal to allow that freedom to others. There is the limit of toleration. It is not, on the other hand, the limit of criticism. I think we tend to confuse legitimate criticism with intolerance. It is important to be willing to make a distinction between toleration and approval, to choose between the bad and the good, the better and the best.
My daughter was asked to go with a Pentecostal, evangelical group to an amusement part, and I found myself saying half in jest and wholly in earnest, "Don't let them convert you." She said, justly, "Mom, don't be dumb! I'm proud of being a Unitarian Universalist." Well, I was proud of her and proud of myself for conveying that pride in our faith. I am proud of it. I really do believe that Unitarian Universalism in its emphasis on freedom, equality, love and reason is nearer the truth than most other religions. If I did not I would not have dedicated myself to its practice. We are often in agreement with others on many issues, but we may disagree on others and must take responsibility for that disagreement. Tolerance is good and necessary in this shrinking, diverse world we live in, but we must not give up our freedom to judge wisely in its name.