For more than the first quarter of a century of my life, I was a practicing Roman Catholic. That means that I was a committed member of a church that required us to believe, under penalty of excommunication and potentially an eternity in hell, that certain teachings were infallible. That is, they were beyond question. They were absolutely true. For nine years, I was a Maryknoll sister, a member of an American missionary society dedicated to working with the poor primarily in underdeveloped countries.
But even in those days, there were many of us – perhaps in the order of which I was a member, most of us – whose mission was not to convert but to serve. To us, setting up schools and medical facilities were ends in themselves, not bribes to get people through the church door. Our goal wasn’t to convince people that our beliefs were right and theirs were wrong
By the time I was thirty, I was no longer a nun nor either a practicing or believing Catholic. But somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that a refusal to tolerate questioning certain beliefs or assumptions spreads far beyond Roman Catholicism.
Even more surprising was the discovery that this insistence is by no means limited to religious belief. Almost paradoxically, I found it just as active among scientists and even atheists. I saw, for instance, faculty not given tenure because they did not toe the party line, did not hold the assumptions of the particular professors holding decision-making powers at the time. The issues were not religious, but were just as contentious. “Is human behavior best studied and explained as a result of environment or genetics?” was a frequent disputed question at the time among psychologists, dividing faculty into divisive factions. Scientism or reductionism is another such issue in all branches of science.
Today, now that atheism is not socially quite as disreputable as it used to be in Western society and many more people admit to having no belief in God, I see a similar pattern. Many atheists, like many scientists and many religious believers, are highly tolerant of those who do not agree with them. But some are as vicious in their attacks on religious belief as any religious fanatic. Russian communism is no longer as vibrant as it used to be, but Chinese communism and communism in North Korea still offer serious opposition to religious belief. And there are Western individuals of some prominence and education whose writing suggests a disdain for those religious believers presumably naive or frightened enough to continue to believe in God.
So I find myself still wondering what the fundamental difference is between conviction and intolerance. It’s not content. Nor is intolerance simply disagreement. It isn’t even being convinced that I am right and you are wrong. It’s an insistence that you have no right to hold the beliefs that you do if you disagree with me. Conviction, on the other hand, reflects a willingness to live by certain principles, even to die for them. But it does not necessarily insist that everybody agree with those convictions.
I’m a psychologist, so I suppose my own hypothesis reflects that background. I think intolerance arises from a deep personal insecurity. It’s a defense against a black terrorizing fear that if I am wrong I am without worth, without respect, without any value.
I suspect it is the grip of a similar mesmerizing fear I sometimes feel in the pit of my stomach when I think I’ve just made a terrible mistake that is going to have some serious consequence. Or when I wonder if I’m suffering from some terminal, un-treatable disease like cancer. Or when I remember something stupid or insensitive that I’ve said or done and writhe in embarrassment or regret.
What if those fears were multiplied to the depth of my being? what if I could not look to anything I’ve ever done that seems successful or rewarding or worthwhile or truly loving? Would I feel quite as liberated as I do looking out at the mystery of life and of the entire universe, knowing that I do not understand?
Would I feel driven to grab onto some religious, scientific, or philosophical positions as if my life depended on it? Yes, I’m pretty sure I would.
Of course, even if my insecurity hypothesis is right, that still only answers half the question. It might indicate the source of intolerance. But it doesn’t really identify the bedrock of conviction that is life-sustaining without an accompanying intolerance.