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ToleranceTalking about Religion

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with some people I had never met before. We were at a conference and we ended up at the same table. These people were very friendly and conversation was very interesting. Suddenly someone asked if I believe in God. I was surprised about the intimate question. I said I did not. People looked at me with some discomfort. Someone said that life is incomplete without God. I replied that I could understand that, but that I didn’t need religion to try and be a good person, to be the best version of myself.
A bit later someone challenged me again by saying that I could not deny the evidence from the Bible. I kindly replied that to me the Bible is a story that people created a long time ago to create meaningfulness and that I could relate to the values that were described in that book. But that I did not see proof of any kind about the existence of God in that important book.
Why do I tell this story? I tell this story because it’s an example of how two opinions may diverge and never come together. The others could not convince me and I could not or would not convince the others. Yet, the discussion was civilised. We listened to one another and we were mutually astonished. Maybe these people felt pity for me, but I hope not. I did not feel pity for them. I respect every conviction as long as it does not harm others and as longs as nobody wants to impose it upon others. That is called tolerance.


Tolerance is not the same as indifference. I wanted to understand why they thought what they were thinking. Tolerance is a very empathic and kind way of being. And in a complex and ambiguous world I think tolerance is a useful and necessary skill or attitude. If you cannot tolerate ambiguity, you are in trouble. And I guess we are.
I see people defending their values and identity with passion, with conviction, but also with contempt for everything that does not comply to those values or identity. Religion, science, politics, … they seem to be drenched in the potion of identity. Yes, even science. And the result is that we start living next to one another, losing interest to talk to people who are unlike us. We start living in mental and social silos. We are closing the gates of dialogue one by one.

  • I see it in politics. What president Trump is doing in the USA does not show great tolerance. But also in Turkey, Russia there is growing intolerance. And maybe the Brexit was an expression of intolerance too?
  • I see it in religion. People who believe, seem to accept less that there are other convictions. This leads to fanatic extremism, radicalised youngsters, terrorism.
  • I see it in science. There was a call on LinkedIn to charge consultants using non-scientific models with malpractice. I hope it was a joke. Sometimes people are very religious about “their” science and are unable to see the flaws.
  • I see it in social relations. There is less tolerance between neighbours. There are more law suits. Increasingly people have a difficult time living peacefully together.

Tolerance does not mean we have to accept anything. Neither does it mean we have to agree to everything. It does not mean we can accept that one opinion or belief harms someone. It also does not mean we have to be tolerant for anything. Too much tolerance is often indifference or negligence.  Tolerance means that we accept that there are differences. And that we do not judge people on those differences. As the number of people is growing, as communities become more diverse and as the world gets more crowded, tolerance will be a key characteristic within communities. It is however dwindling.


What can we do? The key to tolerance is education. The more we know about the world and about its intriguing cultural and social variety, the more chance to have more tolerance. But in an intolerant world, education is mimicking the views of intolerant leaders. They impose their view of the world upon others and instead of building smart people, people are forced in a one-sided perception of the world. He who controls education, has power. And therefore education should be an independent force, like justice is independent from politics.
It’s OK to believe God has created the world. It’s not OK to impose genesis on everyone. And it’s not OK to deny scientific evidence about how the world evolved into what it is today. It’s not OK to deny evidence that human civilisation has been developing over many millennia. Ands it’s not OK to hide that information from children, just because it does not confirm certain beliefs linked to an identity.
Identity is good. Intolerance is not. In an ambiguous world we see difference as a threat. And then we become intolerant for differences. As Rabi Sacks tells us: we can learn more from people who are unlike us, than from people who resemble us. But, in an intolerant world, we shut people who are unlike us out as they are a threat to our identity.

It happened in the past, leading to atrocities in Europe. It’s happening now, leading to atrocities in Syria and other countries. It’s happening in France, in the USA, … Intolerance is a kind of mental apartheid. The world has never benefited from division. We thank the relative prosperity of today to a period of tolerance, collaboration and peace, that has not been seen before. But this tolerance was also guided by democracy and law. Today we seem to regress towards intolerance.
And more than digital skills, tolerance should be high on the agenda of any educational system. People should learn to think about differences and see them not necessarily as a threat, but as an opportunity. We should learn not to fear the other. And if we combine tolerance with competence (asking the right questions, checking trustworthiness, listening, …), we can create wonders within organisations, societies, the world.
And for those of you who might think I am naïve. Tolerance is a way of looking at the world, with interest and with trust. But one should always take into consideration that the other is less tolerant, less open. So as long as nobody imposes their views upon others, respects the often evolving values and laws of the community they are living in, we can live together and learn from one another. Let’s trust but verify. Let’s be tolerant, with skill.
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David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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