How Much is Too Much?: Tolerance, Relativism, and the Slippery Slope

The Buddhist ideal is the Middle Path. Although I am not a Buddhist myself, I respect and support this approach to reality. I have found that it can be applied to just about every aspect of our lives. When we exist at extremes, we cause trouble for ourselves. This holds true for attitudes and ideals as well as behaviors. Tolerance is a good example. For the most part, we exist in a society that does not practice tolerance nearly enough. The extreme of intolerance is the rule of the day. People are judged upon superficialities like appearance, hairstyle, and what music they listen to, not to mention skin color, gender, orientation, and beliefs. Many of us, as we come from marginalized minorities, have made a concerted effort to move away from intolerance and instead to accept a person for who and what they are – whatever that may be. This is especially true when it comes to tolerance of religious and spiritual diversity. However, all too frequently, in our quest to embrace tolerance of all ideas, practices, and ways of being, we overcompensate for the oppressive intolerance we face every day. With all the best intentions in the world, we swing wildly over to the other extreme and begin accepting every quirk and behavior no matter how outrageous or illogical it may be. This is seen nowhere more clearly than on the Internet. I have a good friend who runs a rather large Pagan-oriented elist. A wise and learned individual, he holds some very heady ideals. Because his own beliefs are little unusual, and have often been judged harshly by others, he upholds the right of each and every individual on his elist to make any kinds of claims about their spiritual experiences, their abilities with magick, and their relationship with spirits and divinities. No matter how ludicrous these claims may sound, no matter how deluded a person clearly may be, my friend will argue at length against anyone daring to question these beliefs on the basis that neither he nor anyone else can truly get inside that person’s head to see exactly what they see. Given this, he argues, there is no way for anyone to make a case that any belief or claim to an experience is invalid. Anything less than this all-embracing attitude of subjective truth is decried as intolerance masquerading in the guise of common sense, logic or rationality.

Staking Wild Claims

I’m not sure how many people have experienced the amazing variety of spiritual claims that one can encounter within the Internet. For me, it gets a little mind-boggling. I have encountered people who in all seriousness have proclaimed that they can cast a spell to allow themselves actual, physical flight. I have had more people than I care to count assure me that they own a copy of the legendary Necronomicon and that it is, indeed, bound in human skin. And that’s to say nothing of the folks who have told me of summoning demons in the flesh, drinking pints of human blood a week, and being the living incarnations of their deity of the week. I’d love to say that this is a phenomenon produced by the medium of the Internet, given how easy it is to masquerade as somebody else from the other end of a screen. However, in the days before the Internet, I had encountered similar claims. As I was dealing with people one-on-one or through limited written correspondence, the wild boasters seemed farther and fewer between. But the blessing and the curse of the Internet is that it puts us in contact with vast numbers of people. In this case, I think the percentage of wild claimants is a constant, but the sheer numbers of the Internet allow them more clearly to be seen. I will say that the Internet does seem to encourage attitudes of uber-tolerance like those of my friend. In the past, I had no trouble telling someone point-blank I thought they were trying to put one over on me. On far too many elists, when I voice such an opinion now, I’m suddenly attacked from five different directions as being judgmental and simply not understanding someone’s “different” point of view. Somehow the voice of reason gets drowned in a morass of political correctness and a misguided crusade to take freedom of speech to the limits of total intellectual anarchy.

The Trap of Relativism

There is a point where tolerance, practiced at the opposite extreme from intolerance, becomes something known as relativism. In relativism, there are no absolutes. Everything is subjective and relative to the experience and choices of the individual. From a relativist standpoint, I cannot argue that red is red because there is no way for me to adequately prove that my version of red is the same “red” being perceived by someone who may in fact perceive that color as blue. Relativism caters to minority thinking in the extreme, careening perilously close to societal fragmentation and the disintegration of the fundamentals of language and communication. According to relativism, the very fact that someone might have a different experience than me makes it impossible for me to assert any experience as valid and true. And here is the trap of relativism. When definition is based upon subjective opinion, how do we determine what is real and what is not? Concepts like “truth” and “reality” lose all significance, because meaning can and does change from person to person, depending on their point of view.

Relativism and Religious Diversity

Superficially, relativism seems like a good idea, especially where spiritual and religious beliefs are concerned. Acknowledging that experiences are subjective and that each person’s interpretations of reality are relative to those subjective experiences is a basic part of accepting a diversity of religious beliefs. Religious experience is exceptionally subjective. My vision of “god” is not a Muslim’s vision of God, and even within a single sect, each person will have their own unique take on the divinity promulgated by that sect. But relativism, taken to its logical extreme, eventually allows someone to declare that “god” is in fact a dog, and no one can argue this claim. Now, before I proceed any further with this argument, let me clarify my own stance on religion and spirituality. I am what I have often described as a Universalist. I believe that there are as many names for Divinity as there are people to speak those names, and even more still. Further, there are as many paths to Divinity as there are people to walk them, and again, even more still. Our experience of “god” and the universe is ours and ours alone, and it cannot help but be subjective, unique, and intensely personal, spoken in our own soul-language. But isn’t this relativism? And with such a tolerant worldview, how can one discern legitimate beliefs from psychological delusions? To quote my good friend and fellow writer, Jason B. Crutchfield, that’s a slippery slope.

Truth Versus Delusion

In an ideal world, tolerance should not be qualified. In such a perfect and ideal world, the acceptance of every person’s different spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices should be absolute. But we do not exist in an ideal world, and as too many experiences on the Internet have proven, some people are just lying or are deluded about their spiritual experiences. Most of us who have any experience in these matters have the ability to adequately discern a legitimate claim from a delusion or an outright lie. In most cases I’ve encountered, making this distinction is a no-brainer; we usually know on an intuitive level when someone is speaking from the heart about spiritual matters versus when they are shoveling a load of bull. However, if we uphold tolerance of individual beliefs as an absolute, there is no way we can really call these people out on their erroneous claims. There will always be that relativistic out that says, “Your experiences are not my experiences, so how can you know what’s right or wrong to me?” Usually there’s no need to wrestle with these sticky issues of right and wrong in regards to personal beliefs. However, especially on the Internet, I have seen erroneous claims do a lot of damage. When people use the widespread attitude of relativism to essentially claim that god is a dog, a lot of newcomers who have yet to develop adequate judgment get themselves really confused. In some cases, this just sets them back in their studies for a little while, as they have to backtrack from the misinformation and relearn the basics of things. In other cases, it may shatter a person’s faith in everything once they have accepted an erroneous belief and then learned that it was based upon lies or delusions. In the worst case scenario, people are misled into really dangerous territory, as in the Halle-Bopp Comet group who committed mass suicide to join alien saviors in outer space.

The Slippery Slope

I have been wrestling with these issues for many years now. Despite my efforts, I have yet to come up with any hard and fast rules for rating the validity of someone’s claims about magick or spirituality. Common sense is usually helpful, but within the Pagan and magickal communities, we are almost always dealing with uncommon experiences. I myself hold some beliefs that many would perceive as being “out there”, and from a rational-materialist perspective, anyone who believes in magick is “out there”. The best yardstick I have found is not a rigid one. It takes into account the fact that individuals do have radically different experiences and perspectives, and it further takes into account that my interpretation of reality may not be accurate or complete. Going from there, I usually judge a person’s validity based less upon their actual claims and more upon how that person presents those claims over a period of time. Credible people tend to present themselves rationally and consistently over the long run. They frequently lead up to the really wild claims, often qualifying them and acknowledging that you might not believe and are under no obligation to do so. I am far more inclined to believe the apparently delusional claims of someone who tells me, “This is what I believe,” than even the sober and reasonable claims of someone who says, “This is what you should believe.”

The Middle Path

. The very nature of spiritual experience means that much must be taken on faith. Of course in matters of faith, there is rarely an opportunity to provide cold, hard proof. When I do storm magick to end a dry spell, I have no way of proving that I was directly responsible for the ensuing thunderstorm. I just know on a level that often cannot be expressed in words. For someone coming outside of that sense of gnosis, the choice to believe is ultimately up to them – but at no time should a person feel obligated to believe simply out of a misplaced desire to respect my own beliefs. The extreme side of religious tolerance tells us that we cannot disbelieve in anyone’s experiences. The reality is that we should choose what we believe just as we choose which gods and goddesses to follow, or whether we follow any at all. Tolerating other peoples’ rights to their beliefs does not mean that we cannot make informed decisions regarding the validity of those beliefs. The Middle Path of tolerance is when we respect and encourage diversity but respect our own judgment as well.

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