Sincerity is Not Enough

Alan Wolfe has a new book out, in which he apparently says something very silly.

As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.

Well, I for one don’t put ‘tolerance’ at the center of my politics or my belief system or whatever you want to call it, precisely because of statements like that. Depending on how one defines ‘tolerance’, of course. If it means simply non-interference, live and let live, equality before the law, and so on, that’s one thing. But if it means, as it is so very very often taken to mean, never ever breathing a word of criticism even in general terms, even in public media like books and newspapers and websites – then that’s quite another. And that seems to be what Wolfe means by it.

And his analogy is a very bad one. ‘Inequalities of race and gender’ are not the same thing as ‘difference in the sincerity of belief’. Obviously. Blindingly obviously. One is born a given race or gender. Yes, ‘race’ is a social construct that doesn’t really mean very much, but being stuck with it is certainly part of that social construct. There’s a lot of cultural pressure around these days to try to construct religion the same way – to convince us all that we’re born Muslim or Hindu and can’t possibly change it. But that notion overlooks the fact that religions have ideational content, religions make truth claims which can be accepted or rejected, religion is a cognitive matter. If we demand immunity from criticism for religion, what other set of ideas will we claim immunity for? And if we start demanding immunity for any set of ideas that people are ‘sincere’ about, what hope is there that we can analyse and judge and criticise all ideas impartially?

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