The assumption of these criticisms is that proselytization is the antonym of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.
But the American idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; it presupposes it. Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they have a right to change those beliefs — and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one’s convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion….
The root of the anger against Hume is his religious exclusivity — the belief, in Shuster’s words, that “my faith is the right one.” For this reason, according to Shales, Hume has “dissed about half a billion Buddhists on the planet.”
But this supposed defense of other religious traditions betrays an unfamiliarity with religion itself. Religious faiths — Christian, Buddhist, Zoroastrian — generally make claims about the nature of reality that conflict with the claims of other faiths. Attacking Christian religious exclusivity is also to attack almost every vital religious tradition. It is not a scandal to believers that others hold differing beliefs. It is only a scandal to those offended by all belief. Though I am not a Buddhist or a Muslim, I am not “dissed” when a Muslim or a Buddhist advocates his views in public.
Hume’s critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized — not, apparently, just in governmental settings, but on television networks. We must not only have a secular state but a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn’t religious issues naturally arise?
How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it — removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?