I’ve recently noted our society’s increasing loss of true tolerance, as well as the dangers of the current orthodoxy working to suppress other ideas. But what I have not yet considered is whether tolerance is even a good thing. To simplify things, let’s simply focus on tolerance of different religious beliefs.
Most people in the West simply assume that tolerance is good, but in many parts of the world and at many times in history religious tolerance was viewed negatively. So why should people be tolerant? In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Murray and Michael Rea (New York: Cambridge, 2008), the authors offer two common arguments for religious tolerance.
The first is a pragmatic argument: the state and religions have different interests, so it is best to allow them to pursue their different interests independently of each other (unless the state has a compelling interest). Further, if the state were to not allow religious tolerance, it would require some means of coercive force to either compel people to adopt a particular religion or keep them from adopting any religion (which would seem counter to the idea that religious beliefs should be genuine and from the heart).
The second kind of argument put forward is epistemological: we have greater certainty that it is good to allow religious tolerance than we do that a particular religion should be forced on people, and we can never have the level of certainty for any particular religion that would be necessary to override religious tolerance.
The above arguments may seem more or less compelling to you, but they are certainly not compelling to many in the world who do not already believe in religious tolerance. If you tried to use these arguments on the leaders of ISIS you would probably not get very far: they believe the interest of the state is dictated by their religion, which should be imposed on people. And they have the certainty of supposed commands from God and the example of their prophet. Thus, Murray and Rea conclude: “The available arguments for toleration all seem to rest on principles that defenders of intolerance are unlikely to accept.” (257)
So, why does the idea of tolerance (if not the actual practice) seem so obviously good to people in the West? As with many parts of western culture, our appreciation of tolerance flows from the Christian beliefs that helped shape our societies. We think tolerance is good because we agree with at least some Christian teaching. Our appreciation of tolerance is borrowed from Christianity. Christianity provides several truths that serve as the soil out of which tolerance grows.
Existence of Truth
For many in our day, tolerance is valued because they believe there is no truth. But if there is no truth, there is no reason for tolerance. The phrase “tolerance is good” would have the same value as “Mawiki is kiddle” or even “intolerance is good.” But the Bible is clear that truth exists and it can be known. That then allows us to even consider the value of tolerance.
Separation of Church and State
In this period of God’s dealings with man, there is a distinction between the church and the state. Christ made this truth clear in His statement: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Thus, some things belong to God directly—including our worship—while other things are given to the state (under God’s general rule)—like taxes. The church is not to exercise corporal punishment, while the state has that duty (Rom 13:1-7). However, it is wrong for the state to punish people for holding wrong beliefs. While the church does have a duty to oppose false religious belief, her options are limited to personal/corporate verbal confrontation and excommunication. The Christian teaching on the separation of church and state paved the way for religious liberty.
Discovering Truth by Means of Persuasion
Ultimately, the best means of discovering truth is through special revelation. But some things in the Bible are not as clear as others. Further, God has also revealed truth through general revelation. When dealing with truths that are not as clear in special revelation or truths from general revelation, the best way to move forward is humble, thoughtful consideration of various views. God has given minds to people and encouraged them to use them to arrive at truth (Is 1:18; Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4). The only way to be able to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints is to allow them to be presented. Thus, in order to best work toward truth at least some false ideas have to be tolerated.
Inherent Value of People Made in God’s Image
One of the main reasons to tolerate people is because it is wrong to oppress, harm, and murder people. Tolerance flows from a belief in human rights, and human rights are practically impossible to defend apart from a recognition that people are made in God’s image. If humans have no value, why not stamp out everyone who stands in the way of getting what you want? But if the person standing in front of you is made in God’s image, then it would be wrong to harm him for holding a view that you do not support.
Reality of Forgiveness
One reason people struggle to tolerate others is their own pride. They view themselves as better the person they do not want to tolerate—this person with such backward ideas and values. But Christianity emphasizes the universality of sin and the importance of forgiveness. When we recognize how sinful we are, and that we live only by God’s grace, we are much more willing to offer forgiveness to others. We allow love to cover a multitude of sins rather than keeping a record of wrongs (1 Pet 4:8; 1 Cor 13:5).
Reality of Judgment
At first the reality of judgment might seem to discourage tolerance. If Christianity teaches that God is going to punish all wrong, wouldn’t that make us more oppressive? Only if we fail to understand what the Bible actually teaches. One reason we can tolerate wrongs now is because we know that one day God will make them right. That’s why we can even return good for evil. (Rom 12:14-21). We don’t have to right all wrongs now, because we can trust that God will! We tolerate evil now, because we know that eventually God will tolerate no evil. Without that belief, calls for tolerance will not be able to be sustained.