That’s What Happens in a Tolerant Society

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The only people who should be surprised by the chaos kicking off the 21st century — the surge in religious fanaticism, right-wing nationalism, and populism — are those who mistakenly conflated relative peace with an emerging unity. But the root causes of intolerance were never addressed, so why are we surprised?

Let’s not be naive. What’s happening right now is not something that started because of some president. Racism and bigotry didn’t start with a person: not Columbus, not Hitler, not Donald Trump. One dude did not start “hate.”

Those people in Charlottesville? They didn’t just appear. They didn’t become white-supremacists overnight. Those kids joining ISIS? Same story. It didn’t just happen.

You see, I’m not a historian and I’ll gladly defer to the experts on this, but I’m willing to bet a pretty penny that after the American Civil War, the two World Wars and the fall of Nazi Germany, and after all those great historical achievements of civil society (e.g., the Treaty of Versailles, the Civil Rights Movement, the establishment of the United Nations) that inspired us to believe that the Good will win the day – after all that, we somehow got comfortable with the idea that hatred simply faded away. We thought that generations of racism, intolerance, suspicion, and bigotry woke up the next morning to break bread with “strangers.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s what happened.

Hate didn’t go away. It simply took a break, regrouped, and waited until the right opportunity to resurface. It played along with those silly modern conceptions of tolerance where everyone plays in the same playground…just don’t touch my kid.

Oh Tolernation: where I can love a taco, but my daughter better not marry a Mexican; where Black people can come and go as they wish, just don’t walk towards me on the sidewalk; where Arabs have the right, but they better have their paperwork; where this is Native land, but I don’t understand why they can’t just forgive and forget.

See, I think that’s what happens in a tolerant society: we tolerate intolerance, then intolerance is enabled, then intolerance gets in a car and drives through a crowd of people who can’t figure out how things got so bad because…this is a tolerant society?

What was it that Karl Popper said?

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Face it, we’re still just a planet full of suspicious tribes. Tribalism is adaptive, and we’ve relied on its adaptive benefits to survive the fierce realities of our evolutionary past. Our tribe provides us with a source of identity, a sense of belonging, and a raison d’être. In the absence of knowledge and purpose, our tribe rallies to our aide and shows us the way.

But when you add tolerance to tribalism all you get are tribes tolerating other tribes.

No, what you’re seeing is not something new. It’s simply what happens in a tolerant society. Now let’s go back to the drawing board and rethink tolerance.

Everything is fine.

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Everything is fine. I’m fine.

I say as I wander aimlessly from distraction to distraction, trembling and loath to confront it.

But deep within me like a claw scraping at my guts, there is terror. There is despair.

It haunts me, “the end is nigh, you will fade into darkness, dust to the wind.”

“Silence,” I command it as beads pass between my knuckles, “Silence.”

Am I clinging to a hope? Enchanted by the warbling of a nightingale perched upon the twigs of a tree that grows betwixt certainty and emptiness. I grow weary.

This heaving and wrenching, it pains my bowels.

The others pity me and invite me to their games – distractions to occupy my angst and snuff out the soul with spirits, to cheer the spirit with revelry.

They speak of the moment, to seek pleasure in each breath – to pant like a hound seeking sustenance till overcome by frailty, then die like a stray upon the boiling tar.

But I am compelled towards purpose. My heart, as it throbs, gives life to my limbs and empowers my being to advance towards something — ascendence to goodness? And the nightingale intones melodious psalms, revealing truth to my heart; the claw is tamed by its gentle sermons.

The keepers of law summon me to reason. They strangle the nightingale and stem its sweet song, then pluck its iridescent plumes, exposing its flesh. The frailty of its form is revealed. Its power, subdued.

I am disgusted by their violence, unsettled by their irreverence…and I miss the warmth of the nightingale’s song.

But its song grows faint. I can barely feel its warmth.

Curled and quaking in the shadows I yearn for the nightingale that once perched in my heart. I fumble in the dark as the claw rakes at my insides, and wander aimlessly from distraction to distraction.

Everything is fine. I’m fine.

Not my Religion.

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A warning that the following might come across as somewhat inflamed and judgemental. I assure you that it’s not meant to offend. I’m just trying to speak honestly about something very personal. Discussion is welcome. 

Nothing can distance me from my religious convictions quite like a walk in the city. This is not a misanthropic statement. I’m not expressing frustration with humanity’s hopeless amorality or some apparent lack of purpose and common vision in the world. Indeed, such realizations could, in fact, ignite the flame of faith within me if I were so inclined.

No, it is not these things that evoke a sentiment of irreligion within me. It’s the insistence of the street-side missionary who, with shameless certainty, blocks my way to assert their own.

Gone are the days when these folks would brazenly, albeit honestly, stop you on the street to ask if you’ve found “your personal saviour.” Now, they simply look and smile, inviting you to what they would like you to believe is an open and inter-subjective dialogue regarding the essential verities of life. This must be premised on the assumption that i’m an idiot and unaware of the business behind it all. There is no dialogue. The only value I can hope to contribute is to offer cues that will trigger an unsolicited deluge of formulaic assertions and prescriptions for salvation, which I need. Apparently.

I don’t doubt that the necessity of their behaviour is internally justified. They have encountered a truth, a resonant truth, that has in some way triggered an inner transformation. This experience compels them to share their findings with the world. It’s not this part that bothers me. This is fine. If you’ve found a truth and feel compelled to share it, do so by all means. Just be aware that others also have something valuable to contribute – you are not the gatekeeper.

I’m talking to you. Any of you! Stand aside, you were not assigned the job of gate-keeping.

However, there is something more coercive and deceitful about the work of a street-side missionary that goes beyond one’s need to share Truth. It’s the self-assured single-mindedness of it. The mechanical delivery of words and ideas. The commodification of the sacred. The privileging of Truth to adherents, and eternal self-immurement to deniers. In this sense, I don’t really blame the missionaries. They’re the products of a contemptible system of religious zeal that died long before Nietzsche’s God.

Ironically, I’m flustered by all this because I too am an adherent. An adherent to a thing, which can only be described by the modern voice as “religion.” But it can’t be the same thing – so i’m confused.

In my youth I was indoctrinated with beliefs such as “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Regarding Truth, I was taught that although “the sun is one sun, its dawning points are many. We must not adore the dawning points but worship the sun […] We must seek the fragrance of the rose from whatever bush it is blooming […] Be seekers of light, no matter from which lantern it shines forth. Be not lovers of the lantern.”

I was nurtured to believe that “God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth,” and that of all the virtues humanity possesses, the power of Scientific inquiry is the “most noble,” and that “the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe” is the way “by which man finds a pathway to God.”

As an adult, I slowly learned to accept the futility of my quest for epistemic certitude. I was reassured to discover that this realization was supported by explicit text from the writings of my Faith:

Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God, the Day Star of unfading glory, the Ancient of everlasting days. This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.

In these same texts I learned that both religion and nature consist in the “essential properties and necessary relations inherent in the realities of things. And though these infinite realities are diverse in their character yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together. As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities.” That nature itself is “God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.”

From this framework, a conception of the Manifestations of the Divine Essence (e.g., Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Baha’u’llah) emerges as beings who are “fully informed” of the essential properties and necessary relations inherent in the reality of things, and who “establish them as the religion of God.”

This “religion” which collapses the natural and supernatural into a conceptual framework that embraces ambiguity, requires scientific inquiry, and promotes the earnest search for spiritual Truth, can’t be the same thing as what these street-side vendors are pitching at me.

My religion is not my anchor because it does not expect me to be stationary, but to advance and move forward. My religion is my mode of operation, my framework for action and inquiry. It is my motive force impelling me to be unceasingly vigilant of how I ought to be. My religion is a dynamic symphony of magnetic tones, not to be peddled and paraded by a chosen few, but to be experienced and embodied by all without judgement or coercion.

In fact, what I’ve experienced thus far in my religious life is not religion at all. That word is devoid of meaning to me. Today’s “religion” is stripped of its essence as “the principal force impelling the development of consciousness,” and the edifying  and transformative power expanding the scope of our regard.