Tolerating Intolerance

by Amos Guiora

I travel a great deal, domestically and internationally. Like anyone who spends significant time on planes (250,000 miles in 2011) it is my preference to tune out the world, particularly the person next to me; I do so thanks to BOSE headphones, listening to music my kids have gathered for me (I would not know how to download music if my life depended on it) and reading, working, or looking out the window. Sometimes, however, the person seated next to me seems particularly interesting, and relying on instinct I engage in conversation. If I am truly lucky, such a conversation can be extraordinarily engaging and thought provoking. This happened on a flight from Atlanta, Georgia, to Augusta, Georgia. My partner in row 1 was a physician with a busy private practice in Augusta. After a quick exchange of pleasantries we, somehow, made our way to discussing religion and extremism.

I told him about my previous book, Freedom from Religion, and about my forthcoming book addressing the “Limits of Tolerating Intolerance”. He was clearly intrigued and shared with me that he and his wife adopted a child because of their faith; he explained that as they have means it is their duty to share with others less fortunate than them. In his own words, he is an evangelical Christian and faith is the most important guide in both his professional and personal life. I asked him how he resolves his deep evangelical faith with modern medicine; his response was a total surprise for me. Simply put, he does not believe in evolution, viewing it as physiologically impossible.

For him, creationism is the only possibility, and all efforts to explain evolution are nonstarters. I asked him how he resolves the tension, perhaps intellectual disconnect and profound contradiction are better terms, between modern science and creationism. His response was simple and clear: my job is to save peoples’ lives, and evolution plays no role in what I do. Simply put, it is God who decides. When I shared this conversation with physician friends, their reactions ranged from bewilderment to apoplexy; many expressed regret they did not have the chance to directly engage him in a science-based conversation—something I am thoroughly incapable and incompetent to do.

The second part of our conversation related to his family and homosexuality. He shared with me that he and his wife have six children. One of his children is a bachelor in his mid-20s regarding whom we had the following exchange based on a hypothetical—akin to a law school exam—that his son is a homosexual:

ANG: What would you do if that child were to inform you that he is a homosexual?

MD: My wife and I would seek to talk him out of it.

ANG: What would you do if your child wanted to bring his homosexual partner home?

MD: The partner would never step into our house.

ANG: Would you attend your son’s homosexual wedding?

MD: (After looking wistfully into space for a few seconds) No, my wife and I would not attend, and we would request that our other children also not attend.

ANG: But I thought you loved your son more than anything in the world.

MD: I do; but I love the Bible more than I love my son.

I found the conversation extraordinarily enlightening, perhaps painful, and certainly candid. There was one last exchange, which, for me, was of extraordinary importance.

ANG: Listening to you reminds me of conversations with deeply religious Jews and Moslems, for both are convinced of the absolute rightness and truth of their faith and path.

MD: Correct, but there is a difference.

ANG: What is the difference?

MD: I know the truth.

ANG: Funny, because that is what they say.

MD: I know; but I am right.

Perhaps, more than any other dialogue this last exchange neatly summarizes how a person of deep religious faith articulates his or her worldview. I would not define this individual as an extremist;however, his conviction that his truth is the absolute truth places him—whether he agrees or not—in the same camp as religious extremists. Although I assume my seatmate was not a man of violence, his refusal to accept that others may also believe they “know the truth” and that their faith is as valid as his suggests that this educated physician is a religious extremist. Not violent, but unrelenting in absolute conviction of the rightness of “my truth” and the total dismissal of others. In particular, I was struck by his conviction that he and his family not attend his son’s hypothetical wedding. Whether this is akin to “hate the sin, love the sinner” in that he is proving his love to his son by not participating in the son’s celebration is a valid question. Regardless of the answer, the father’s faith trumps the son’s hypothetical decision. This type of extremism, though, is not unique to religion and can also be found in the political arena. An example of this is seen in the defeat of six-term Senator Lugar in the Indiana Republican Party Senate Primary. In a statement shortly after his loss he explained what he believed caused it:

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years.[1]

Much like the stranger on the plane, it seems this extremism or conviction of rightness at the complete dismissal of other viewpoints has led to an ignoring of what is best for the public and entertaining only what fits a particular ideology.

 Amos Guiora is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah. Guiora who teaches Criminal Procedure, International Law, Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism and Religion and Terrorism incorporates innovative scenario-based instruction to address national and international security issues and dilemmas.


[1] Mike Zapler, Lugar Unloads on “Unrelenting” Partisanship, Politico Blog (May 9, 2012, 7:48 AM),