Independent Online keeps reinforcing stereotype about ‘intolerant’ religious people

The Independent Online article, "Atheists are less tolerant than religious people, study finds", re-promoted on Facebook on 9th January 2018

“Away with the Atheists,” declaimed the second-century Christian martyr Polycarp when ordered by the proconsul to recant his faith in Jesus Christ.

I couldn’t help being reminded of this famous remark as the Independent Online yet again recycled a story via Facebook claiming, “Atheists are less tolerant than religious people, study claims.”

“According to the study of 788 people in the UK, France and Spain, […] certain aspects of closed-mindedness were more prevalent among those of no religious faith, contrary to the stereotype that is often voiced in Western society about religious people.”

The disappointingly brief story in the Independent Online was originally published on 2nd July 2017 and recounted the findings of a new study by the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium’s largest French-speaking university, that religious people are more tolerant of different viewpoints than atheists.

According to the study of 788 people in the UK, France and Spain — a mixture of atheists and those of various religious faiths — certain aspects of closed-mindedness were more prevalent among those of no religious faith, contrary to the stereotype that is often voiced in Western society about religious people.

So according to the Independent Online article,

[The study] concluded that atheists and agnostics think of themselves as more open-minded than those with faith, but are actually less tolerant to differing opinions and ideas.

Religious believers “seem to better perceive and integrate diverging perspectives”, according to psychology researchers at the private Catholic University of Louvain…

Quoting a statement by the co-author of the paper, Filip Uzarevic, the article continued:

“Somewhat surprisingly, when it came to subtly measured inclination to integrate views that were diverging and contrary to one’s own perspectives, it was the religious who showed more openness.”

Dr Uzarevic’s paper, called “are atheists undogmatic?”, states that “irreligion has become normative” in some Western countries.

He inspected three aspects of mental rigidity in 445 atheists and agnostics, 255 Christians, and a group of 37 Bhuddists [sic], Muslims, and Jews.

The study claims that non-believers measured lower than religious people in “self-reported dogmatism”, but were higher in “subtly-measured intolerance”.

Dr Uzarevic said: “The idea started through noticing that, in public discourse, despite both the conservative/religious groups and liberal/secular groups showing strong animosity towards the opposite ideological side, somehow it was mostly the former who were often labeled as ‘closed-minded’.”

That, as a group, the self-proclaimed ‘open-minded’ atheists may be actually less tolerant than those of religious faith is certainly an intriguing idea, and goes against the common perception in UK society that sees religious people as generally ‘closed-minded’ and ‘bigoted.’

“The [Louvain] study claims that non-believers measured lower than religious people in ‘self-reported dogmatism’, but were higher in ‘subtly-measured intolerance’.”

Independent Online, 2nd July 2017

Right or wrong, this perception surfaces all over the place. On 15th June 2017 I wrote a complaint letter to the BBC following an interview by Nick Robinson on the Radio 4 Today programme that morning. In his interview with Liberal Democrat former deputy leader Sir Simon Hughes to discuss the resignation of Tim Farron as party leader, Nick Robinson made the remark that a profoundly-held (small-c conservative) religious belief on issues such as gay sex or abortion “is bound to colour your attitude to public policy, to law, to tolerance” — the insinuation being, of course, that one cannot have such religiously-motivated views and at the same time tolerate the differing views of others.[1] This despite the fact that Tim Farron himself was a model of doing precisely that.

I am not here going to argue either for or against the position that religious people are more tolerant than atheists. Indeed, it’s almost certainly unhelpful even to make such categorical statements. Before one can begin to speak coherently on the subject, one must surely first define what exactly one intends by the terms ‘religious believer’ and ‘atheist’ (between the fervent religious believer and the fervent atheist there is, after all, a continuum of positions); and by the terms, ‘open-minded’, ‘tolerance’, ‘intolerance’, and so on.

“The word ‘tolerance’ […] is often taken to mean accepting the views of others. But this really isn’t what it means. To ‘tolerate’ is really to agree to live with views with which we disagree […]. Disagreement is actually implied in toleration!”

The word ‘tolerance’, for example, is often taken to mean accepting the views of others. But this really isn’t what it means. To ‘tolerate’ is really to agree to live with views with which we disagree (for a dictionary definition see here). Disagreement is actually implied in toleration!

One could make the point, therefore, that religious people are by definition more tolerant, in so far as their views on all sorts of issues are in a minority in Western society — and therefore they need to do more ‘tolerating’ of others in order to live as good citizens in society. Contrariwise, when it comes to religious people, there are fewer of us to be ‘tolerated.’

Besides, if one were to take the misconceived idea of tolerance as accepting the views of others: well then, the atheist is by definition as intolerant of the religious person as vice versa.

Intolerance itself can take many forms and degrees. At the extreme end there is the wholesale murder of Christians, such as took place in yet another deadly attack on Christians attending a church service in Cairo on 3rd January.

This kind of thing doesn’t generally befall Christians in the UK today; but there can be other, lesser forms of intolerance towards religious faith. Hence the report’s reference to “subtly-measured intolerance.”

“When you’re talking about whether this or that group is more tolerant, it is helpful not to talk in broad categories.”

I am not, by all this, arguing the case that religious people are more tolerant of others; I’m merely making the point that when you’re talking about whether this or that group is more tolerant, it is helpful not to talk in broad categories.

Which is why I have to question the Independent Online’s repeated promotion of this story on Facebook.

As mentioned earlier, this story was first published in June last year. I remember seeing it promoted via Facebook at the time (as one would expect). But then I remember seeing it promoted again later. And on Tuesday it was re-promoted via Facebook, in spite of being a six-months-old story:

The six-month-old story promoted on Facebook. Screen capture taken on Tuesday 9th January 2018.
The six-month-old story promoted on Facebook. Screen capture taken on Tuesday 9th January 2018.

Each time the Independent Online has promoted this story, it has appeared with the caption, “Sound right to you?”

Now whenever the Independent Online promotes a story warning its readers to stop eating this, or drinking that, or using such and such an app — no matter how unscientific or fabricated the ‘story’ is — it almost always wholeheartedly endorses the story, using the words “Immediately.” “Stop doing such and such… Immediately.”

Some examples of the Independent Online’s penchant for exhorting its readers to act “immediately.”
Some examples of the Independent Online’s penchant for exhorting its readers to act “immediately.”

A friend of mine calls this the ‘Independent Online Drinking Game.’ You take a drink every time the Independent Online tells you to do something “immediately.”

“Every time this story is promoted and re-promoted, it’s an invitation to the social media trolls to flex their intolerance.”

Yet when the Independent Online promotes this story it explicitly questions it upfront: “Sound right to you?” This is simply going along with, and reinforcing, the lazy stereotype that religious people are intolerant.

And every time this story is promoted and re-promoted, it’s an invitation to the social media trolls to flex their intolerance.

One commenter on Facebook remarked, “Find me an aetheist [sic] that burned people at the stake or crucified someone.” Hardly helpful or insightful.

Another commenter on the article page itself posted the comment: “Believing there is a Big Daddy in the sky who created everything and cares for everyone on Earth isn’t having an opinion, it’s a mental illness.”

“What about [Polycarp …]? Was he being ‘intolerant’ when he spoke those words, ‘Away with the Atheists?’ Far from it.”

And what about the venerable second-century bishop of Smyrna whom we mentioned at the beginning? Was he being ‘intolerant’ when he spoke those words, “Away with the Atheists?”

Far from it.

As is clear from a reading of the contemporary account of his martyrdom, in the Asia Minor of the second-century Roman Empire, it was Christians who were popularly termed ‘Atheists’ because of their refusal to worship the gods and goddesses of the Graeco-Roman world: the Zeuses, the Athenes, the Dionysuses, the Artemises, and the rest of that innumerable cohort.

“In the Asia Minor of the second-century Roman Empire, it was Christians who were popularly termed ‘Atheists’.”

When the proconsul, before whom Polycarp was brought up for trial, urged the aged bishop to say, “Away with the Atheists,” it was the Christians whom Polycarp was being asked to deny.

But Polycarp turned this on its head: he turned to the baying crowd and said of them, “Away with the Atheists.”

And then he uttered the immortal words:

“Eighty-six years have I served [Christ], and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”[2]

Far from being intolerant of others, in the events leading up to his trial and death, Polycarp had even prayed for the men arresting him.

Well, for his intransigence Polycarp was sentenced to be burned alive. The account of his death is a moving tribute to this towering early Christian saint.

Who was intolerant of whom in that situation?

 

If you would like to know more about the Christ in whom Polycarp trusted, you can find out more from Glen Scrivener here, or indeed about what Christians believe from my own explanation of the gospel here.

 

 

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[1] The link to the Radio 4 Today programme for 15th June 2017 can be found here, although it is no longer available to listen to. The interview took place at 0720 (see running order on the page).

[2] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. IX. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iv.iv.ix.html. I have slightly adapted the quotation into more modern English.

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