On Tolerance, Empathy, and Religion

“We should try to create the society that each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be.” -Paul Krugman

It’s safe to say that the world is a bit crazy right now.  Over the past two years, I’ve tried to only write about things that resonated with me; things I’ve felt passionately about.  Lately, I’ve been feeling more and more that people need a reminder about how we should be treating each other.  About how not everything has to be us vs them.  About how regardless of your background or beliefs there’s no reason to turn to hate.

Before you read this blog post there are some things you should know:

First, I understand the sad fact that the people who need to read this the most and incorporate the ideas behind it into their everyday lives are the ones who will roll their eyes, insult me, and continue to be who they are, They are the extremists. The incorrigible. The narrowminded.  The lazy.  The war lovers.  The ignorant. The vocal minority. They are the people who think it’s better to yell then to find common ground.  They are the people who refuse to accept they may be mistaken or even listen to another point of view.   They are the cancer of the world and will never understand concepts like tolerance or empathy.  Be better than they are.

Second, I’m not a religious person.

The point of this blog post isn’t to deny or confirm the existence of a god. If you want to argue that, go someplace else.  The hope is that by the time you finish this, you realize that people aren’t much different from each other and that we should always do our best to accept people as they are.  Which means attempting to lighten their burden whenever possible.

My lack of religious belief isn’t because I wasn’t exposed to religion growing up. I was raised in a Christian home and attended a Catholic university.  I can quote more scripture than most regular Sunday church goers. I’m simply not religious because, for me, I don’t see the value in it.

I don’t think you need religion to live a moral life. I don’t think you need to believe in a higher being to help those around you.  I don’t believe that refraining from action in your own life is healthy because you’re waiting on a ‘sign from above.’ I don’t think trying to control how other people live their lives is a good use of my time, nor do I think following a dogma in the hopes of eternal reward (or fear of punishment) is a genuine reason for a person’s actions. (For a small thought experiment click here. My two cents- you should want to live a moral and just life because it’s right, not for what it may or may not happen after you die.

For me, with how I try to live my life, God’s existence is irrelevant.  If we woke up tomorrow and were able to prove the existence of a supreme being one way or the other, my actions and choices wouldn’t change.

I try to make good decisions for myself and those around me. I try to be as uplifting and helpful as possible.  I try to always reserve judgement and be open to learning more about the world一its people and its places.  I try to live a life based on morality, empathy, understanding, tolerance, and experiences. Do I always succeed? No. Am I perfect?  Not even close.  But I’ve found that those five things will take you far, teach you a lot, and give you a sense of peace.

Third, I’m an American.

What I mean by that is I was born in the States, raised in the States, and that’s the place that issued my passport. I love a lot of things about the States, but hadn’t realized how much living abroad had changed me and my way of thinking until recently.

I understand the things Americans care about and why, but since leaving I also understand that there’s more to the world than America’s interests or expanding the American footprint.  What’s best for the United States isn’t always what’s best for the rest of the world.  Nor do those two things need to be mutually exclusive. If I had to choose, I’d rather do what’s best for 7 billion people than 325 million.   I don’t care if that makes me sound un-American. As Vonnegut said, boundaries don’t interest me.

Also, understand that analyzing, having discourse, and being sometimes critical doesn’t mean you don’t care about something.  Quite the opposite.  Often times it means you care enough to not accept how things are or where you think they’re going.  Change and growth never happens through blind acceptance.

Lastly, I hate the fact that I felt the need to write this blog.

To interact with countless people who seem to forget that, like it or not, we’re in this thing together. People who preach hate. People who want division. People who honestly just don’t get it.  There is no reason in the year 2015 anyone should have to explain how important things like tolerance and empathy are.  Nor should anyone feel the need to remind people that (in theory) religion’s place in society is to improve it.

As we have seen our capacity to segregate, torture, and kill each other over the course of history, the importance of the first two should be ingrained in each of us the same way we know killing is wrong, the sky is blue, and bacon makes everything better. Religion should be a thing between you and your God that hopefully makes you a better person because it teaches you how important and vital the previous mentioned topics are.  But I digress.

Below are the thoughts I felt compelled to share. Reminders of concepts apparently forgotten in today’s world of me first, might makes right, and the belief that our differences have to result in hostility.


“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.” – Ralph W. Sockman

It’s no secret that each and everyone of us has an opinion.  That’s why practicing tolerance is vital. Other people listen when you listen to them.  If you want to be heard, first listen.  Understand that just because you grew up a certain way or think a certain thing doesn’t guarantee that you’re right. Remember when you thought storks brought babies?

People confuse tolerance with acceptance.  Tolerance doesn’t mean you completely agree with everything someone says or does.  Nor does tolerating someone else’s viewpoints diminish your own. It means that you respect their right to live their own life, have their own opinion, and make their own choices.  (Note: Sonder)  The world works because people have differing interests and opinions.  Don’t be so insecure in your own views that you fear a different perspective. If your views were never questioned, would they ever grow?  These differences are what allow us to move society forward and give you the opportunity to grow as a person.  How boring would the world be if everyone wanted to be a doctor, or how different would the world be if Copernicus had never questioned the status quo?  Often times, it’s the free thinkers, the people with unique views, who are agents of real change.

The question to ask is: who are any of us to pass judgment on each other?  In the end, aren’t we all just trying to do the best we can with what we have?  Why believe that your opinion or view on a certain subject is the absolute truth?  Haven’t we been proving ourselves wrong our since the beginning of time?  I have yet to regret an instance where I practiced tolerance.


“Only by examining our personal biases can we truly grow as artists; only by cultivating empathy can we truly grow as people.” Jen Knox, After the Gazebo

Realizing the distinction between luck and effort while practicing humility is key in understanding empathy. One of my firm beliefs is that you shouldn’t be arrogant (or feel shame for that matter) about things in your life you’ve had no control over.  Things such as your: gender, race, ethnicity, size, family, looks, nationality, etc.  Some people have been blessed genetically, or with where they were born, or who their parents are.  If you’re someone who fortune has smiled upon, don’t hold it against other people.  In the end, they had no more control over it than you did.

A common misconception about empathy is that only one person in a given situation needs to be willing to practice it.  However, that’s not how it works.  Understand that regardless of how good or bad things are going in life, everyone has a different set of problems to face.  The phrase about ‘the grass not always being greener’ is completely true. The best thing you can do in any situation is to approach it with an open mind and genuinely try to understand the other person’s motivation.  By asking yourself what you would do if you were in a similar situation, you create a link that helps you to truly identify and feel for another’s situation.

In the last 50 years or so, humans have greatly improved their ability to think in the abstract. In James Flynn’s TED talk called Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents, he says “We’ve gone from people who confronted a concrete world to people who confront a very complex world, where we’ve had to develop new mental habits.  We’ve learned to take the hypothetical seriously, meaning we’re wondering about what might have been more than what is.” (To watch the full TED talk, click here)

This is an important truth because it shows the development in our mental capacity has directly increased our ability to practice empathy with each other.  In the past, we weren’t capable of seeing things from another person’s point of view.  It was too theoretical.  We lacked the cognitive strength.  Now, the only excuse we have is a lack of desire.  So many conflicts could be avoided if we took a minute to truly consider, and empathize, with one and other.  At its most basic level, empathy is merely considering someone else’s situation and acting in the way that you’d hope someone would act if you were in their shoes.


“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad.  That’s my religion.” -Abraham Lincoln

I took an introduction to Islam class in college.  While in the class, I wrote a paper comparing death and the afterlife in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  Unsurprisingly, they share a lot of similar characteristics, not just in their approach to death, but overall.

I’ve never fully understood why comparing the main religions is such a highly contested topic.  Aren’t they all the dedicated to the service of the same God一of Abraham and Isaac?  Why do we feel the need for everyone to believe in and worship the same deity?  Just believing in a God isn’t good enough?  We have to all believe the same thing?  Does it go back to a feeling of insecurity and only feeling validation if we can all agree on which god is the right god?  How does someone else’s relationship, or lack of relationship, with God affect yours? Why should it?

When I was living in Melbourne, I was bartending with a guy who was born in Algeria, but grew up in Paris.  We met for the first time and started talking.  About an hour into our conversation he looks at me and said ‘Todd, there’s something I want to tell you, but I’m nervous because you’re American.” I looked at him puzzled and told him that I wasn’t a typical American and he could tell me anything. He smiled, agreed, took a breath and said “I’m a Muslim.” I looked at him and told him that I didn’t care, and didn’t know why he was nervous to tell me. He replied, “Americans hate Muslims, everyone knows that.”

I have never been more ashamed to be an American.  I’ve never felt more divided because of religion.

I admitted earlier that I don’t consider myself to be a religious person. Though in my limited understanding of the overall goal of religion, I thought it was to unite people not divide them. To lose yourself in the devotion to a higher purpose not isolate groups of people because they believe differently.  To teach love and acceptance because there is already plenty of hate and violence around us.

I don’t have strong feelings about religion.  What you do on your own time isn’t my business.  It becomes more of my business when I see the negative side effects all around, dividing us.  You don’t get to pick which rules you follow or when to apply them.  If your religion says love your neighbor, then that’s what you do.  If it says not to lie, then be consistent regardless of the situation. When something, whatever it is, shows inconsistencies when applied and divides the world, it’s something that needs to be examined, not blindly accepted out of fear or ignorance.

I fully understand that not all religious people are the same and it’s unfair to generalize based on a limited number of a group’s actions.  Please reread that sentence, because it’s something we’re all guilty of.  We meet someone who is part of a group and automatically assume we know the characteristics of the entire group.  That’s not right, fair, or remotely accurate.

This is why tolerance and empathy are so important when mixed with hotly debated topics such as religion.  We can only improve the world if we actually listen to each other and truly understand where each other is coming from.  Until we all decide that our similarities hold more value than our differences we can never truly move forward.

Stay Gold

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