This post is part of a series exploring the Atheopagan Principles proposed in my essay, “How I Became an Atheopagan.” To see the whole series, click on “Atheopagan Principles” in the tag cloud to the right.
Principle 7 is tolerance. It reads, “I celebrate diversity and am respectful of difference.”
Sounds simple, right? Don’t be a bigot, and you’re good.
Not so fast, friend.
From the time we are newborns, we learn to differentiate Our People from the Others. At first, it’s because they don’t sound the same, don’t smell the same…and then when our eyes begin to focus, it’s because Others don’t look the same as our parents and any other close family members who have been brought into the belonging circle in holding and caring for us.
The problem of the Other is an inherent human condition. It springs from a deep and primitive place in our brains, and leads us to experience suspicion—which, if encouraged, can be inflamed to outright hostility—towards those who seem to be Not Like Us.
Just telling ourselves that this doesn’t apply to us is not the work of Principle 7. Our work is to truly come to grips with the complex feelings we may confront in relation to people we view as different, and to deliberately, conscientiously respond to them with compassion and an adamant affirmation that humans are equal. That no matter the gender, color, sexual disposition, ethnic background or religion of another person, s/he is just as human as are we: just as feeling, just as sensitive, just as entitled to happiness and liberty and respect.
It’s not easy, and it’s not the work of a single episode. It is the work of a lifetime.
In the past 50 years or so, we have seen a great deal of improvement on the social equality scale. But there is still far to go. While sexual and gender minorities may be the cutting edge of anti-discrimination efforts right now, racism is very much with us. Sexism and religious bigotry are, too.
Tolerance doesn’t mean we have to agree with every opinion. Nor does it mean we have to treat all opinions equally; the position of the handful of fossil-fuel industry climate change deniers is not entitled to the same respect as is that of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. But it does mean we have to respect the person, even if we think their position is rubbish or was arrived at by an intellectually faulty process.
As Atheopagans, we’re trying to live an optimized life: a life filled to as great a degree as we can with kindness, happiness, integrity and devotion to the planet which sustains us. A core assignment in that effort is to batter against the structures of our own fear and suspicion of the Other—to push past the fear to welcome those who are different, to inquire with genuine curiosity about their experiences and viewpoints, and to include them in our lives.
Principle 7 urges us to be proactive in this pursuit. Though I have shorthanded the Principle “tolerance”, it’s not enough to “tolerate” difference. Our task is to embrace it.