By Alan Levinovitz
Last week newspapers reported that the student union at Britain’s University of Warwick had banned Maryam Namazie, a secular human-rights activist, from speaking on the campus this month.
The reasoning was simple. Namazie, an Iranian-born former Muslim, routinely challenges radical Islamist beliefs and criticizes many aspects of Islam. That was determined to violate the student union’s policy, which forbids external speakers to spread “hatred and intolerance in the community” and says they “must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups.” Namazie’s critical views, the student union concluded, could infringe upon the “right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on their university campus.”
When I teach introductory courses in religion, I find my students are also unwilling to offer critical appraisals of religious beliefs, and for the same reason. Like Warwick’s student union, they think refraining from criticism is essential to religious tolerance. After all, if you claim that a religious belief is wrong, aren’t you being intolerant? Better to accept religious relativism than run the risk of bigotry.
That approach is fundamentally misguided. You can think a religious belief is wrong without being intolerant. Tolerance is not synonymous with “believing someone else is right.” It is a virtue that allows you to coexist with people whose way of life is different from your own without throwing a temper tantrum, or a punch.
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