The Art and Science of Religious Intolerance
To fully address tolerance, I believe we must look carefully at the substance of intolerance. I used the term “art” in the title, not implying a positive trait, but how we work creatively to dress up or decorate our intolerances to make them more palatable. Within the variety of intolerances I’m discussing religious intolerance. Of the many forms of religious intolerance, toward other religions, races, etc., I have chosen specifically the religious intolerance, specifically evangelicalism, toward homosexuality. I know I am a glutton for punishment. I suspect I will further piss off evangelicals during this conversation . . . and disappoint those within the gay community. But it is an intolerance that is easily identified and therefore makes a good example.
The Psychology of Intolerance
I’m sure there’s a plethora of papers, books, and lectures on intolerance by people more qualified than me. I write because . . . well, I’m a writer, or at least an aspiring one. Carpenters build. I am also quite curious about the world and spend much of my time thinking about these things. If I bring anything to the table, it is that I love to approach a topic with the upmost candor and my desire to deconstruct our thoughts and behaviors to their basic intent.
I have thought long and hard about the psychological motivation of intolerance. Intolerance can raise its ugly head in any situation where there is a difference between two groups.
In the small, conservative, Bible-belt community where I grew up, deep within the folds of Appalachia, we had a few gay people, probably many more that were too afraid to “come out”. They were treated as a circus sideshow and fuel for Satan’s furnace, at worst. Boys in my school who appeared to be gay had the crap beat out of them . . . and often. The rest of us were in fear of getting beat up for accidentally doing something the bullies would interpret as “gay-ish,” such as wearing a shirt that had pink in it. Homophobic slurs were as common as normal speech, at least boys around boys. Don’t be mistaken, our town was not unique, at least in the south, and it wasn’t full of bad people. Some of them were very kind and tolerant of gay people, like Jack our Baptist Sunday School and music director.
Dad: No Lisa, God does not have a penis or Y chromosome.
Lisa: So then, that makes God the first non-binary person in the universe.
Dad: Don’t you ever say something like that . . . that’s a sacrilege and God will be angry with you. He finds non-binary people disgusting!
We are not born into a heliocentric solar system … but an egocentric one. As babies, we are the center of the universe . . . so we believe. That model is quickly shaken as we interact with siblings, pets, parents, and eventually the world. The so-called “terrible twos” is part of that transaction, going from being the center of the universe to competing with others for value. But then it becomes a lifelong process. The fundamental motivation to much of our behavior is the search for significance or value. That’s why we try to do a good job at work. We want praise (or raises) which helps us to feel more valuable. That’s why we try to be wonderful parents, or good people. It’s even why we like those little “Like, Love, Laugh” icons that people can attach to our FB posts. Those who come up short in this area of self-confirmation (we called it “stroking” when I studied psychology in the 1970s), can feel worthless, carry a sense of low self-esteem … and even take their own lives.
The most common way that our value is threatened or enhanced comes within that area of comparisons to others. I call it “creating contrast.” The thinking goes like this, “They are smarter than me, better looking than me, more successful, healthier than me, or younger than me. Therefore, they are more valuable in society . . . and that’s threatening.” You can turn that on its head, imagining where you come out ahead in those areas, and feel more intrinsic value.
Anytime we encounter someone who differs from us, different skin color, different religion, different sexual orientation, different anything, it appears as a challenge to our value. To enhance our security in our own state, we often attach strong negative value to the areas where other people differ from us to create contrast to our own “good” selves.
Religious intolerance is one of the most common corporate manifestations of intolerance along with brands of political nationalism. Just this morning I was listening to the news about the pro-Taliban group bombing and killing 80 schoolgirls. They say, and I’ve spoken to pro-Taliban people myself, that they are doing Allah’s will because if they educate girls, exposing them to western ideas, they become more rebellious and less desirous as wives or members of their society. But I believe the psychological factor is that the Taliban men see women as a threat. They want to feel valuable (and unfortunately; they don’t), so they must imagine that they are worthy in Allah’s economy, men greater than women. Assigning the moral blame to their Allah, as if he would want the girls bombed. It is a simple psychological cover.
I know the evangelical paradigms well. I think I can speak of the Islamic perspective because, while not a scholar in the matter, I have spent a lot of time talking to Muslims. I can say less about eastern religions because I don’t know them so well. But I will share one story about them before I move back to evangelicalism and their intolerance of gays.
I had a conversation with a young man (mid-20s) at a party and he told me how he had just left Michigan and moved to India because he wanted to be a student of Hinduism. I asked him why he chose that path. His answer intrigued me. He said he was sick of the Christianity-inspired racism in America and wanted to embrace a more just system.
“Really?” I asked with my mouth gaped open. “The Hindu caste system is the most blatantly racist social system in the world. Where the tone of your skin dictates your value in society, and you cannot change your place via hard work or education. If you are at the bottom, the untouchables, you are so devalued that the only thing you are fit for is shoveling shit out of public latrines. But to decrease the moral responsibility of the system, the practitioners of it, say that it is the behavior of the individual in a previous life that makes them born with a darker skin and lower class.”
But back to white American evangelicals, who like the pre-mentioned groups, reinvent intolerance as a religious discipline. Evangelicals have selected two major issues of their cause in their culture wars with the secular American society, sanctity of marriage (meaning anti-homosexual), and sanctity of life (meaning only anti-abortion, not really about the general sanctity of life). If you listened to and observed the political and public statements of the white evangelicals, who claim all their views originate in the Bible, an outsider would assume that the Bible is filled with prejudicial statements and commands from cover to cover about those two topics. It is not.
If you were to pick up the Bible and read it for yourself, looking for these prejudices, you would be shocked to learn that of its 783,137 words, the writers devoted zero to abortion and about a dozen to homosexuality, a few more if you have a vivid imagination and a determination to see what’s not there through inference. More so, Jesus himself never said a single word about either topic, even though both issues were present in Jesus’ contemporary society. He had three years of ministry and he made his priorities clear. He certainly did not share the priorities of the American white evangelicals. In contrast, Jesus spoke continuously about the holistic sanctity of life, all life, and the love thereof. He preached against greed and religious pretentiousness as his key message, and that we should not seek political kingdoms but the invisible kingdom of God, where people from all spectrums come together in mutual love and respect. The issue that Bible, including Jesus, prioritized was truth. Not some religious truth, as it is now defined. Every church has their “truth” or doctrines that you must believe to be part of that group. This was not what the Bible was talking about, but truth in the classical definition, that which is consistent with reality. As I’ve said before, if God exists, then the more in touch we are with reality, the better the chance we have of seeing God.
I have written before and will say it again. The further you live from Galilee (Jesus’s homeland), the less you really know about the historical figure. I think the American white evangelicals, while boasting knowledge of Jesus, know him the least of all the Christians in the world. Here he is a franchise, an ego-centric mystical experience, a hobby, a political power source, and nothing more. This became blatantly apparent in 2016 when, in the blink of an eye, the white evangelicals threw any remains of a historical Jesus far under the bus to grasp that shiny gold object, Donald Trump, who is the very embodiment of the antithesis of the real, historical Jesus . . . and they did it for the lust of power.
I will pause here before I go down a long twisting rabbit hole and give a link about the scriptural support for an anti-homosexual position, and scriptural support of homosexuals (I’m not breaking this down into the whole spectrum of transgender, queer, gay, and non-binary but using an old term for simplicity’s sake). I will not, nor am I qualified to get into this substantive debate about what does scripture really say or doesn’t say but it is not a slam dunk like evangelicals want you to believe. But my focus here is the true basis of intolerance, not specifically about homosexuality or any other specific topic. But a good neutral jumping off point for your own research could start with this New York Times “debate” on the topic: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/05/us/samesex-scriptures.html?.?mc=aud_dev&ad-keywords=auddevgate&gclid=CjwKCAjwhYOFBhBkEiwASF3KGZJ0Phg4ZOhKKzKAZdaziw240h6YG-FJKus1XXn2LEfPQq_Z_PrcihoC8MAQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds
When I was an evangelical, we used to say, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” That is a farce, religious bullshit. There was no question we hated gays. I cannot count how many times in church, or among Christian friends in a social setting, that I heard a story where the evangelical friend found out that someone renting an apartment from them, or doing business with them, took a same-sex partner. So, for the evangelical landlords, they had “no choice” but to evict them, throwing them out on the curb with their suitcases. They said that they did it in love, because by them (the evangelical) obeying God, homelessness may force the gay couple to repent and turn to Jesus. The evictor was received as a hero in that evangelical context. That’s loving the “sinner?”
I also cannot count how many times I heard evangelical men talk about seeing a gay person (effeminized man) and it “made them sick to their stomachs . . . wanting to vomit.” Is that loving the “sinner?” Taking it back to my childhood in the Bible belt, I heard men say that they would like to “hang” or “behead” gay men . . . you know, in the name of Jesus’s love. Do you see why I say “bullshit?”
But what is really behind this hate? The evangelical will argue until they are blue in the face that it is because their Bible says its sin, and they are on God’s side.
But here’s the question. If the Bible hardly mentions homosexuality, yet speaks constantly about love, justice, truth, materialism, adultery, why do these same evangelicals almost never talk about those issues and certainly not with the fervor as they do homosexuality or abortion?
Homosexuality has faced hatred around the world in a wide variety of societies, some religious and some not. But clearly, in this age, the Abrahamic religions persecute homosexuals the most. It is a capitol crime in many Muslim countries and sub-Sahara Christian countries.
But even secular societies have persecuted homosexuals. I saw a news clip of a group of white evangelicals in 2016 who said that they welcomed Russia interfering in our elections to get Donald Trump elected because they have more in common with the Russians, who arrest gays, than they do with American Democrats who tolerate homosexuality. But the Russian intolerances toward gays is not rooted in any religious conviction. To them, Orthodoxy is just a memory, a formality, in a society that functions on an atheistic-communist foundation. My point is this hatred toward gays is based on psychological factors, not commands of a religion.
So, the reason I believe evangelicals hate homosexuals is in this area of personal self-esteem of the haters. They draw contrast because they have never been tempted in same-sex romantic love. Having now many friends who are gay, I can say with confidence that they are wired differently from me. That wiring is most likely from birth. The evangelical paradigm is that gays are the way they are because they made immoral choices. We enhance our self-esteem the most when we identify someone who differs from us and we believe they are different because of bad moral choices, meaning that we made the right moral choices, and this contrast between them and us strokes our egos. It props up our delusion that we, our tribe (white evangelicals or whatever) are superior to those who are immoral.
But this is not the genuine case. If the evangelicals were really concerned about morality, they would be concerned in the same proportion as their Bible is. They would be anxious about the loss of truth, rather than filling their minds with bullshit conspiracy theories. They would be about injustice, materialism, infidelity in marriage, the poor. Just read the historical account of what Jesus emphasized. But the reason they don’t make those “sins” a priority is that they are tempted by them.
It goes like this. Because I’m tempted to be materialistic, unjust, selfish, hateful, unfaithful, etc., I prefer not to think about those things because it hits too close to home. As a heterosexual man, I am tempted by other women, but never by a homosexual relationship. So, I feel superior to focus on those who have homosexual relationships . . . because I’m not tempted in that area and it is quite convenient for me to condemn those people.
Donald Trump makes no excuses for being known as a sexually promiscuous man, even while married. If he were a woman, you would call him a slut. But the white evangelicals love him because they are tempted in the same areas. If they were really interested in the morality of the Bible, his materialism would have appalled them as his lies, and infidelity. But enough about him.
I will rest my case here. I want to finish this series next time with a shorter and simpler ending, relativity. I hope I was clear in this article and I’m sure it could be a spring-board for many other discussions.
3 responses to “Pluralism, Tolerance, and Relativity Part II; Intolerance”
Thank you Mike! I’ve often referred to God as a perfect blend of the powerful Eagle, and the gentle Hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. As the father of a non binary child I had not connected the two quite obvious parallels before, as you have done so wisely here. Beth and I have also been deeply troubled by the hypocrisy of bashing the two “big sin” groups (abortionists and queer people), while ignoring the “common” (and much more destructive) sins, and for the same reasons you’ve cited: straight white men cannot be tempted in those realms so it’s a safe target (that is unless their girlfriends or mistresses get pregnant). That alone drove us out of the church. Such feelings of superiority, and the quickness to hatred rather than love and understanding, have made American Christianity not just indifferent, but to me repulsive. Unfortunately, it is so lacking in true love that no one would be drawn to it like actually being drawn to Jesus. It’s darkness rather than light. John 13:35 states “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Now Christians are primary known for what/who they hate. It’s very heartbreaking.
Love you brother!
That’s interesting that you think evangelicals have targeted queerness and abortion because they aren’t tempted by those “vices”. I often suspected the opposite, that those most vocal against homosexuality are those who are trying to hide the fact that they ARE tempted by it. Ted Haggard and many others seem to demonstrate that often the most vocal anti-queer voices are but just hating on the other, but hiding or suppressing something in themselves too.
I think both cases are true.