Tolerance of Religion Scale

September 25, 2010 | By | 10 Replies More

In The God Delusion (at page 50),  Richard Dawkins presented the following spectrum of theistic probability:

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’
3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’
4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’
5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.’
6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’
7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’
Incidentally, Dawkins placed himself at a “6″ on his 7-point scale. See also here.

This above scale is quite useful. How sure are you that there is no “God”? Now you can rank your own confidence level based on a scale that quantifies your beliefs; you can then compare your degree of beliefs to that of others.

Unfortunately, the above scale tracks only one dimension of many that bear on one’s attitudes toward religion. With other types of scales, we would need to track other aspects of one’s personality and belief system. For instance, we could create a scale to designate the extent to which people believe that the “God” they are discussing or arguing about is sentient. On this scale, a rating of “1” would designate that one considers “God” to be a sentient and caring God, whereas a “7” would refer to the people who believe in Einstein’s God (“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me that can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”).

Another scale could be used to consider the extent to which those discussing “God” (this could pertain to every type of person found along Dawkins’ scale) have a clear conception of “God” in their own minds. “1” would mean that the person believes that he or she can describe “God” with confidence, whereas “7” would correspond to those who define “God” nebulously in their own heads (Note: Some people describe themselves as “ignostics,” claiming that they can’t discuss “God” because there is no meaningful term “God.”

Image by alphababy at (with permission)

There are yet other dimensions we could track in order to develop a meaningful idea of the attitudes and beliefs of non-believers. Below, I have offered a scale that describes the various degrees to which non-believers exhibit patience and tolerance toward those who claim to believe in God (as opposed to scoffing and ridiculing believers). There is a pitched debate going on among non-believers: Does it help the cause to ridicule believers? It might inform this debate to designate the degree to which particular non-believers are patient or tolerant with believers.

[Certainly, one could construct a parallel scale tracking the degree to which believers are tolerant (or whether they ridicule) non-believers. I’ll leave that scale to others.]

This is my first attempt. I suspect that it could certainly use the input of others. My attempt is to simply describe (and not prescribe) the illustrative behaviors. What follows, then, is a scale that describes the degrees to which non-believers are tolerant of believers:

1. Extreme tolerance. This sort of non-believer bows her head and recites the words of the prayer out of politeness when the host of a dinner leads a group prayer prior to a meal. She loves that fact that 90% of her neighbors believe in God. She celebrates this fact as a good example of diversity. Seeing “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t bother this kind of non-believer.

2. Very high degree of tolerance. This type of non-believer almost never attempts to engage believers in discussions or debates regarding religion. He finds it uncouth to read purportedly sacred writings critically. He thus finds it impolite to point out contradictions in purportedly sacred writings. If this kind of non-believer could go back in time, and Martin Luther King invited him to march with King for civil rights, he would happily march with MLK based on shared civil values, and he wouldn’t be tempted to lecture King that King’s belief in “God” unfounded (even though he believes it to be unfounded).

3. Leaning towards tolerance. When someone earnestly says Merry Christmas, this type of non-believer is sometimes willing to respond by saying “Merry Christmas.” When visiting a close friend who is dying, and she says “God will take care of me in heaven,” this kind of person listens in silence, but doesn’t encourage any sort of religious talk. When a friend invites this kind of person to attend her church, she usually refuses but usually doesn’t lecture the friend on religion. When an elderly neighbor is appreciative of a kind act this kind of believer has done, and says “God created someone wonderful and special when He created you,” this kind of person says “Thank you,” perhaps adding “But I’m not religious.” When criticized by a believer for not believing in God, this kind of non-believer will assert reasons for his non-belief without attacking the believer personally.

4. Ambivalent. This type of non-believer is both aggravated and appreciative when someone tells him “God bless you” when he sneezes. Sometimes enjoys debating believers on the topic of religion, and might even look for opportunities to debate the issue. When a Christian fundamentalist announces that he is working to pass a law to ban contraceptives, citing scripture as the basis, this kind of believer explains that she will fight the bill because it is an assault on individual liberties, and strongly criticize believers for trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. When people come to her front door to preach Christianity, she agrees only if they give her equal time to discus the fact that there is no “god.” Attends Christmas celebrations, but feels irritated almost every time someone makes a claim that Jesus was God or that Mary was a virgin. When someone suggests to this kind of non-believer that people can’t be moral without a belief in God,” this kind of non-believer doesn’t get irate, though she might say something like “I know that your faith is important to you,” but then makes strong arguments in opposition.

5. Leaning toward intolerance. This type of non-believer is inclined to reject an invitation to Easter dinner with good friends because she doesn’t want to encourage belief in “God.” When someone earnestly says Merry Christmas, this type of non-believer will not respond by saying “Merry Christmas.”

6. Barely tolerant. This kind of non-believer wants to make Blasphemy Day a national holiday. When a quadriplegic claims that he survives day-to-day thanks to his faith in “God,” this type of person points out to the quadriplegic that there is no “God.” This kind of person might feel compelled to explain to a crying child that her recently deceased mother isn’t in heaven, contrary to what her dad tells her. He never misses an opportunity to tell believers that they are wrong, lecturing them at some length. If this kind of non-believer were transported back to the 1960’s he would not accept an invitation to march with Martin Luther King, because he is irritated by King’s strongly expressed belief in God. He actively tries to find opportunities for debating believers about religion, in order to set them straight.

7. No tolerance. At the church funeral of a religious friend’s mother, this kind of non-believer would pointedly tell his friend that religion is bullshit, that there is no “God” and that the dead person will get eaten by worms. This kind of non-believer would be glad to vote to ban all religions, including Unitarian Universalists. He considers all religions to be diseases of the mind. He despises the fact that 90% of his neighbors believe in God. Considers belief in God to be idiotic, and doesn’t enjoy associating with theists, who he considers to be stupid. Seeing “In God We Trust” on coins makes this kind of non-believer irate.

It should be assumed that every one of these types of non-believers could lie anywhere along Dawkins’ scale. In fact, those who rank “7” on Dawkins’ scale could fall into any of the above categories.

It is my thought that using a tolerance scale such as this one, in combination with Dawkins’ scale, we could better describe a person’s attitude toward religious beliefs and toward believers than to rely solely on Dawkins’ scale.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    Some people may disagree, but I try to be around 3.5.

    Less that three is simply ignoring my own viewpoint, my own interpretation of evidence in favor of 'accommodation'. (I hold the same attitude towards other ares of accommodation – politics and works-place behavior are two where I won't tacitly accept what I see/know is wrong)

    More than four is approaching the belligerent and (dare I say it) anti-social end of the scale. We are social animals, and regardless of our personal thoughts and ideals, we need to find some way to live together.

    I'll note, in passing, that the vast majority of current right-wing rhetoric seems to be towards the upper reaches of the tolerance scale. Perhaps that's just me being a 'damn librul'. 'nuf said.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: I think you've captured it well, describing it as a contest between A) standing up for what one believes, versus B) functioning as a social animal.

      The mass media loves conflict because it attracts (stirred up and concerned) readers. Thus, it might appear that there that there are more 4+ non-believers than there really are.

      Being aggressive against believers could also serve as a badge of group membership, meaning that many non-believers might be ramping up their disdain for the way that they are treated by society at large to display that they are frustrated with this bigotry against non-believers (and I do believe that society at large treats non-believers with disdain).

      Yet most of the believers and non-believers I have met are still willing to live and let live when they are dealing with each other on a personal level.

  2. Karl says:

    I think I have personally experienced and/or witnessed behaviors similar to 3.0 to 6.5 from Tony during interactions over the past two years.

    That's more of an average of 4.75. That would be a bit more intolerant than he is claiming.

    But as of late, he has somewhat chilled out.

  3. Danny says:

    Thought-provoking, as usual. Understanding this metric is just a tool and point-of-entry for figuring out your beliefs, I affectionately smile at the idea of quantifying such a complex and dynamic aspect of our being. I've come to accept category as a mental construct that we all need and use, while accepting that being (and by definition possible super-natural or transcendental experience) exists outside convention. One of my favorite quotes… "All reality is iconoclast." The Real is constantly revising my conception of it.

    Let's see, you might I say I speak as if I'm 2, behave as if a high 4, have had moments of spiritual ecstasy that feel like a 1, and comparable moments of doubt that feel like a 6… and all that oscillation within a day.

    Erich, I echo your thoughts about badges of group membership and the ability of most people to live alongside each other.

  4. Ben says:

    I consider myself about a 3, however I am comfortable displaying as low as level 1 and up to level 4, depending on the company I am in.

    I'm not sure if "tolerance" is the right name for this scale, maybe "ambivalence" would make more sense. For example, I feel like I can still be highly "tolerant" of religion while still engaging in the practice of pointing out what I think are flaws.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Atheists have declared war on Christmas with a new Billboard with three wise men on camels. The text: "You know, it's a Myth – This Season Celebrate Reason!"

    To me, this ranks as a 7 on the 7-point scale, at least in the United States it does.

  6. Mike M. says:

    Without the heroic task of trying to actually operationally define and agree to what we mean by "God", it looks like I fall into a Level 5 on the Dawkins scale, and a Level 3 (leaning towards tolerance) on the Vieth-Tolerance Scale.

    But I do get annoyed when someone says "God bless you" when I sneeze. I find it totally rude for others to comment on my bodily functions. Afterall, no one says anything or "blesses" me when I cough, yawn, hiccup or pass gass- and I appreciate that.

    I'm not certain, but I believe the 'god bless you' response to a sneeze is an archaic artifact left over from the Middle Ages when people feared that the soul may leap out of the body during a sneeze, or a demon may leap in. It's 2010 people – let's stop the "God bless you" nonsense after a sneeze. When people sneeze in my vicinity I politely ignore it, and wish others would do the same for me.

  7. Blamer .. says:

    This is great, Erich. Thought provoking.

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