Is a Lack of Vomit the Best We Can Offer?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | June 4, 2012 | 4 comments

Did I ever  tell you about the time my husband told me hated the word tolerance? I was sure I’d misheard him. I was all, like, what? Huh? You can’t hate the word tolerance! Everybody LOVES the word tolerance. Simon Wiesenthal and the Museum of Tolerance and all that. Remember?

Yes, he assured me, he did remember. But he still hated it.

See, in my husband’s view, tolerance was a word used to relate something bad, not good. A guy ate a piece of rancid beef but was able to tolerate it; that is, he was able to barely not vomit. A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction. An Arizona sheriff tolerated illegal immigrants; he left them alone, but anxiously awaited the day he would be allowed to arrest and deport them. A liver transplant patient tolerated his new organ; he may have been in a lot of pain, but at least he didn’t die.

Tolerance isn’t something to aspire to, said my husband. Barely not vomiting just isn’t good enough. Hard to disagree with him there.

In my Survey of Nonreligious Parents, I asked people what tolerance meant to them. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said tolerance meant “regarding religious people with respect, even when their religion is not respected.” About 35 percent said it meant allowing people to have their own religious beliefs.” And the highest percentage — 38 percent — defined tolerance as “embracing all people and all beliefs, as long as those people/beliefs are not hurting anyone.”

This struck me as somewhat encouraging.

It shows that, to many, tolerance signals a sort of conditional embrace — where the “conditions” are based on whether an actual harm is being committed. Now embrace — that’s a far nicer word than tolerance, isn’t it? Embrace makes you think of warm hugs, peaceful acceptance, even love.

But now we must ask ourselves: What do we allow to constitute actual harm? After all, if we define harm too broadly, there’s not a shred of room for tolerance, much less embrace.

Are all Roman Catholics committing harm by being members of an organization that has harbored pedophiles? Are all Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Jews responsible for things done by sects of their own religion? Define harm too broadly, you see, and pretty soon we’re vomiting all over everyone.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to define harm or tolerance or anything else. But I do think that, as parents, we owe it to our kids to aim as high as we possibly can — so that they might aim even higher.



  1. milton says:

    This makes me want to vomit. In fact a little came up in the back of my throat. But I’ll still tolerate you, but barely.

  2. bobo says:

    “A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction.”
    That, itself, nearly makes me vomit. Yes, it happens, but a better statement would have been:
    “A spouse tolerated an abusive partner; the spouse hated the abuse but was terrified to the point of inaction.”

    Spousal abuse does not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual preference.

    • Wouldn’t “spousal” be an issue, as well? Not all abuse victims are married.

      But, seriously, I’m not suggesting that heterosexual women are the only victims of abuse anymore than I’m suggesting that only men eat rancid beef, or that all sheriffs in Arizona are racist. I was just being specific in my examples. Writers do that sometimes.

  3. Chris Bartley says:

    I totally want to high-five your husband right now. …And I don’t do high fives (I’m with Seinfeld that “slapping hands is the lowest form of male primate ritual”).

    In the same boat for me: those “Coexist” bumper stickers with all the religious symbols on them.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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