What religious tolerance really means

Sam Harris has a post today on his Facebook page where he asks his fans to compare an op-ed from Christopher Hitchens over at Slate to the apparently way-too-sissified prose on tolerance from Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. I read both articles and I encourage you to do the same, but here's the gist of each: the Hitch tells us that Islam is fundamentally a dangerous religion, and that it must either be eradicated or conform to the inexorable forward march of secular modernism; Kristof reminds us that being respectful of those who hold different opinions, traditions, and values is a central part of what makes America the land of the free.

Sam Harris derides Kristof's essay as "pablum", and to an extent I think he's right. But I think that fundamentally, both scribes are correct. Hitch is right to say, regarding Islam, "Some of its adherents follow or advocate the practice of plural marriage, forced marriage, female circumcision, compulsory veiling of women, and censorship of non-Muslim magazines and media." I'm not a fan of the weasel language "some of its adherents", but it's not by any stretch an insignificant number of Muslims who support these practices. Islam, like any religion, is full of dumb ideas; it should be roundly criticized, and its feet held to the fires of rational inquiry. But Kristof is correct to point out that allowing people to be weird or different, even if we don't like it, is fundamentally an important value.

I suppose that frames my outlook on the construction of the mosque. I don't have a problem with it from a civil point of view – people do, and should, have the right to propagate whatever silly ideas they want, and we should be careful not to brand all or even most followers of any religion with the actions of extremists. But being "tolerant" of different ideologies doesn't mean exempting them from criticism, because the public dissemination of ideas is a fundamental American and human right.

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