The Ethical Dilemma: Should I Respect or Ridicule Religion?

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Is Tolerance Tolerable? I was raised in a religion where we were simultaneously taught to respect and tolerate other religions but that ours was the one right and true. Since becoming a non-believer and reading atheist publications, I’ve encountered everything from advocating deference toward all religions to emphatically ridiculing them. I also see people pitching battles over things like nativity scenes on public property, prayers at football games, and atheist billboards, with believers and non-believers calling each other everything from annoying pests to violators of religious freedom. I’m feeling thoroughly confused and wondering what the ethical, humanist view is.

—I Get No Respect

Dear Respect,

While the laws of our land protect every religion, including no religion, laws can’t legislate what’s in people’s minds and every facet of how that’s expressed in words and deeds. Every individual at one time or another must be confronted with the dilemma of how, or whether, to respect something he or she finds ludicrous or immoral. The most that can be required in such cases is tolerance, a concept that has negativity built into it. People don’t “tolerate” anything they embrace or like; tolerance is reserved for bitter pills and unavoidable irritations, like sharing an armrest on an airplane or allowing others to do things you think ought to be against the law but aren’t.

I recently attended a symposium with a panel discussion among author Susan Jacoby, National Organization for Women (NOW) President Terry O’Neill, and educator Nel Noddings. When the topic of tolerance came up, each had a distinct approach.

Jacoby is firmly, unwaveringly and powerfully outspoken in advocating her views and criticizing others’. While she’s happy to engage in discourse to change people’s minds, she suggests that it’s no use attempting to reason with the most extreme kinds of religious fundamentalists. She advocates simply finding other, more amenable people to communicate or collaborate with.

O’Neill, who emphasizes that NOW takes no position on religion but does support equality and the entire spectrum of reproductive choice for women, says the group welcomes anyone who wishes to enlist to further the cause, regardless of their ideologies. She explains that what matters is the support for shared goals, not the beliefs of the supporter, while acknowledging that only those already on board with NOW’s agenda will volunteer to help achieve it.

Noddings encourages making the effort to communicate with people whose views you don’t share, no matter how far apart you may be or how intractable they may seem. She recommends beginning by talking about anything except the disputed subjects, and moving on to those only after trust and areas of common ground are established. Becoming more familiar and comfortable with each other will in many cases bring about understanding and sympathy, a necessary precondition for changing attitudes and uniting to achieve shared objectives, even if not all objectives are shared.

There’s a place for all these approaches. You have to pick what feels the most genuine and appropriate to you, and that may vary depending on the specific situation as well as your personality and perspective. Collectively, nonbelievers need a core of fearless, forceful, articulate thought-leaders and advocates, not only to crystallize ideas and initiatives, but also to communicate them to supporters as well as opponents. We need watchdogs like the American Humanist Association, ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation and many others to bark whenever anyone ventures even a little bit over the line separating church and state, and voices who will be heard when people assert that the U.S. is a Christian nation, or that superstorms and deranged lone gunmen are sent by an angry deity to punish seculars and liberals.

And while we don’t want to bend over backward to accommodate others who may not reciprocate, or who will use each inch we yield to grab for another, we also have to beware of the kind of stridency that turns off even sympathizers and can preclude any possibility of friendly, constructive discussion. The “I’m right and if you don’t see that, you’re an idiot” posture can sometimes be wrong. Even if the substance is right-on, that attitude leads mostly to polarization, and to the kind of stalemates and dysfunction we see in our bruising red and blue (more like black-and-blue) political conflicts. One rarely changes anyone’s mind or gains allies by insulting and intimidating them. But if you can convince those you don’t agree with that you truly want to understand their views, and are patient, confident and open enough to explain yours to them, you can make strides toward defusing resistance and opposition, and gaining acceptance and cooperation.

The laws of our land protect a diversity of views. We all need to acknowledge, support and celebrate that. While everyone has the right and duty to stand up for truth and against injustice as he or she sees it, if humanists can’t be respectful or at least tolerant of the beliefs of others, how can we expect others to be respectful or at least tolerant of ours?


Persecution Complex? I was raped by judges in the local court house–told to my face that federal and state laws do not apply to my kind. I’m a white male, and my minority wife was allowed to file false statements against me, withhold information about her income when calculating child-support, and mentally and sexually abuse our young children. Minority judges and state-paid child psychologists were aware of the abuse yet refused to address these crimes. The minority-run social services organization told me to take my “complaint” to the assigned minority judge, who refused to allow me to talk and instead lectured me on a requirement to have a lawyer. So far no lawyer will take my case. How do I get justice when the justice system is committing a crime against me?

—A Raped Father

Dear Father,

From what you say, you could be a victim of a form of reverse discrimination, or just straightforward discrimination. I made an effort to get legal expert comment on your story but without success, since we have no information beyond your alarming accusations. Although you say no lawyer so far has agreed to work with you, perhaps you just haven’t found the right one. Try contacting the ACLU, local legal services organizations, referrals from friends who have dealt with divorce and child-support, or just Google family lawyers in your area and start calling them.

If officials are really telling you U.S. laws don’t apply to you, get proof: a recording, something in writing, or a couple of witnesses. Produce documentation of the income your wife is not reporting. Gather evidence that your children are being abused, perhaps by arranging a session with them and a psychologist of your own choosing. Present that information to the lawyers you approach. And if that fails, consider asking a local TV or newspaper consumer reporter to champion your cause (sometimes just threatening to go public will get you results).

But I’m concerned about not only what you say but also how you say it. You are clearly upset and angry, but people recoil when you use hyperbolic terms like “rape” when you have not literally been raped, or when you make jarring accusations that social service agencies are knowingly condoning child abuse and the justice system is committing crimes against you. It’s difficult to believe that these entities would all be conspiring to persecute you just because you are not a member of their minority group. Pointing out that representatives of these agencies are “minority” itself smacks of racism on your part. No matter how justified your complaints, and how teed off you are, you need to turn off the bombast or you’ll be written off as off your rocker.


Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.