The Humanist Dilemma: Is It Intolerant Not To Tolerate Intolerance?

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Drawing the Line at Demons: Being open-minded to other people’s beliefs is genuinely important to me. That’s part of being a humanist, in my mind. But is there a point at which it’s okay to not be accepting of someone’s belief?

Here’s my situation: My spouse and I have a teenager who has been dealing with depression. Thanks to therapy he’s doing much better, but a while back he was having suicidal ideation and we wound up taking him to the hospital. This was a terrifying ordeal for all of us.

We didn’t share this with my spouse’s family at first because they are very religious Christians. I was afraid they would blame us for the depression because there’s no Jesus in our lives. We finally did tell them, in part because we felt we could really use some family support. Then, when I was away, my mother-in-law came over and told my spouse that according to her belief system, our kid is literally possessed by demons, and she gave my spouse a written prayer to use to combat said demons.

From a logical perspective, I understand that in her mind these actions were an act of love. However, the reality is I am just plain not okay with her belief that my beloved child is possessed!

Since then I’ve had as little contact as possible with my mother-in-law, saying little to her at family gatherings. I’m sure she’s aware I’m angry, although I haven’t confronted her. My spouse is also unhappy with his mother. Everyone I tell about this is shocked that someone would say such a backwards thing about their own grandchild, including friends of mine who are Christian.

You give such good advice about these things. What do you think I should do? Like I said, logically I know that I should be open to the beliefs of others. I can handle my in-laws’ rejection of evolution and climate change, their belief that we’re all going to hell, and even their support for Trump… but this is my kid! Is it acceptable to go on having an extremely superficial relationship with my mother-in-law? Should I confront her? Should I suck it up and be the “better person”?

-Shutting Down On Being Open


Dear Shutting Down,

As I was reading your question the first time and I got to the part about your in-law believing your child was possessed, I was afraid the next thing you would say was that she was arranging an exorcism. And that illustrates why it’s not always advisable to just go along with what others believe. It may just be a prayer for now, but if that doesn’t work (and, really, when does it?), very likely she will summon some holy man to cast away the demons, and that would certainly not be beneficial (and very likely quite counterproductive) for your child.

What we refer to as tolerance can often be misapplied or misguided. Although we don’t always agree with other people’s views, and we often can’t—and in many cases, shouldn’t—challenge those views, there are plenty of other times when we need to take a stand. While there is no absolute line of demarcation, it’s certainly crossed when the exercise of someone else’s beliefs directly impacts the exercise of yours or other people’s. For example, we should let others practice their traditions, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to us, if no real harm seems to be resulting (which is sometimes a very subjective evaluation).

But should we look the other way when those beliefs involve things like denying medical care to children who will die when simple antibiotics could save them, or allow circumcision practices that expose male infants to herpes and young women to genital mutilation? Surely, beliefs that lead to serious harm to oneself or others must not be tolerated.

Another way to look at it is in relation to the Golden Rule: you wouldn’t interfere with other people’s beliefs because you wouldn’t want them to interfere with yours. Letting people shun reproductive options for themselves? Fine. [Note: all the “fines” are debatable.] Allowing them to prevent you or others from accessing contraception? Not fine. Permitting people to pray in their houses of worship? Fine. Forcing everyone to stand for “God Bless America” or recite “under God” or prayers at secular events? Not fine. Not personally approving of same-sex marriage? Fine. Trying to prevent same-sex couples from marrying? Not fine. Allowing people to practice their own faiths? Fine. Killing other people because they don’t practice that faith? Not fine.

In your case, your in-laws aren’t just expressing their own beliefs, they’re also imposing them on you and your child, and you shouldn’t tolerate that. When your mother-in-law first presented the thesis that your child was possessed of a demon and needed a special prayer, you would have been perfectly justified in saying you don’t believe in such things, and neither does medical/psychiatric science—and to have made it clear that no anti-demon prayers would be performed in your home or in the presence of your child, end of discussion. Now that time has passed, it may not be necessary or helpful to bring it up—unless, as I said before, you fear they may take further action to address your son’s “demons.” If the topic does come up again, please speak up. (You can also express your political views any time your in-laws express theirs to you—or declare political discussions off-limits.)

It’s your call, and your spouse’s, whether to continue the relationship at arms-length with gritted teeth, or explain to your in-laws that you can no longer tolerate the intrusion of their dogma in your life. And then all you’ll have to tolerate is the knowledge that they’ll be praying for you.