article first appeared in the Practical Apologetics column of the Christian
Research Journal, volume 24, number 4 (2002). For further information or to
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One word can stop you in your tracks when you
seek to "give an account for the hope that is in you" as an ambassador for
Christ. That word is "tolerance."
This idea is especially popular with
postmodernists - that breed of radical skeptics whose ideas command unwarranted
respect in the university today. Their rallying cry, "There is no truth," is
often followed by an appeal for tolerance.
The tolerant person allegedly
occupies neutral ground, a place of complete impartiality where each individual
is permitted to decide for him or herself. No judgments allowed. No "forcing"
personal views. That all views are equally valid is one of the most entrenched
assumptions of a society committed to relativism; but it's a myth!
all their confident bluster, the relativists' appeal actually asserts two
principles or "truths," one rational and one moral. The first is the rational
"truth" that there is no truth. The second is the moral "truth" that one ought
to tolerate the viewpoints of others. Their stand, contradictory on at least two
counts, serves as a warning that the modern notion of tolerance is seriously
misguided.The Tolerance Trick.
As it turns out, by the modern
definition of tolerance no one is tolerant, or ever can be. It's what my friend
Francis Beckwith calls the "passive-aggressive tolerance trick." Returning to
the classic understanding of tolerance is the only way to restore any useful
meaning to the word. Allow me to give you a real-life example.
this year I spoke to a class of seniors at a Christian high school in Des
Moines, Iowa. I wanted to alert them to this "tolerance trick," but I also
wanted to learn how much they had already been taken in by it. I began by
writing two sentences on the board. The first expressed the current
understanding of tolerance:
"All views have equal merit, and none should
be considered better than another."
All heads nodded in agreement.
Nothing controversial here. Then I wrote the second sentence:
the Messiah, and Judaism is wrong for rejecting Him."
flew up. "You can't say that," a coed challenged, clearly annoyed. "That's
disrespectful. How would you like it if someone said you were wrong?"
fact, that happens to me all the time," I pointed out, "including right now with
you. But why should it bother me that someone thinks I'm wrong?"
intolerant," she said, noting that the second statement violated the first
statement. What she didn't see was that the first statement also violated
I pointed to the first statement and asked, "Is this a view, the
idea that all views have equal merit and none should be considered better than
another?" They all agreed.
Then I pointed to the second statement - the
"intolerant" one - and asked the same question: "Is this a view?" They studied
the sentence for a moment. Slowly my point began to dawn on them. They had been
taken in by the tolerance trick.
If all views have equal merit, then the
view that Christians have a better view on Jesus than the Jews have is just as
true as the idea that Jews have a better view on Jesus than the Christians do;
but this is hopelessly contradictory. If the first statement is what tolerance
amounts to, then no one can be tolerant because "tolerance" turns out to be
gibberish.Escaping the Trap.
"Would you like to know how to get
out of this dilemma?" I asked. They nodded. "You must reject this modern
distortion of tolerance and return to the classic view." Then I wrote these two
principles on the board:
Be egalitarian regarding persons.
"Egalitarian" was a new word for them. "Think equal," I
said. "Treat others as having equal standing in value or worth." They knew what
an elitist was, though, someone who thought he or she was better than others.
"Right," I said. "When you are elitist regarding ideas, you are acknowledging
that some ideas are better than others; and they are. We don't treat all ideas
as if they have the same merit, lest we run into contradiction. Some ideas are
good. Some are bad. Some are true. Some are false. Some are brilliant. Others
are just plain foolish."
The first principle, what might be called
"civility," is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. It can be
loosely equated with the word "respect." Tolerance applies to how we treat
people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect
those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people
courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may
strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the
public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our
differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously
with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter
what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or
These two categories are frequently conflated in the muddled
thinking created by the myth of tolerance. The view that one person's ideas are
no better or truer than another's is simply absurd and inescapably
self-contradictory. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain
silly does not violate any meaningful definition or standard of
The modern definition of tolerance turns
the classical formula for tolerance on its head:
Be egalitarian regarding
Be elitist regarding persons.
If you reject another's
ideas, you're automatically accused of disrespecting the person (as the coed did
with me). In this new view of tolerance, no idea or behavior can be opposed -
even if done graciously - without inviting the charge of incivility.
say I'm intolerant of the person because I disagree with his or her ideas is
confused; ironically, it results in elitism regarding persons. If I think my
ideas are better than another's, I can be ill-treated as a person, publicly
marginalized, and verbally abused as bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant, indecent,
and (can you believe it?) intolerant. Sometimes I can even be sued, punished by
law, or forced to attend re-education programs.2
In this way, tolerance
has gone topsy-turvy: Tolerate most beliefs, but don't tolerate (show respect
for) those who take exception with those beliefs. Contrary opinions are labeled
as "imposing your view on others" and quickly silenced.
This is nonsense
and should be abandoned. The myth of tolerance forces everyone into an
inevitable "Catch-22," because each person in any debate has a point of view he
or she thinks is correct.Catch-22.
Classical tolerance involves
three elements: (1) permitting or allowing (2) a conduct or point of view one
disagrees with (3) while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we
can't truly tolerate someone unless we disagree with him or her. This is
critical. We don't "tolerate" people who share our views. They're on our side.
There's nothing with which we need to put up. Tolerance is reserved for those we
think are wrong, yet we still choose to treat decently and with
This essential element of classical tolerance - disagreement
(elitism regarding ideas) - has been completely lost in the modern distortion of
the concept. Nowadays if you think someone is wrong, you're called intolerant no
matter how you treat the person.
This presents a curious problem. In
order to exercise true tolerance, one must first think another is wrong, yet
saying so brings the accusation of intolerance. It's a "Catch-22." According to
this approach, true tolerance becomes impossible.Intellectual
Most of what passes for tolerance today is little more than
intellectual cowardice - a fear of intelligent engagement. Those who brandish
the word "intolerant" are unwilling to be challenged by other views or grapple
with contrary opinions, or even to consider them. It's easier to hurl an insult
- "you intolerant bigot" - than to confront an idea and either refute it or be
changed by it. In the modern era, "tolerance" has become intolerance.
ambassadors for Christ, we choose the more courageous path, "destroying
speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God" (2
Cor. 10:5; NASB). Whenever you're charged with intolerance, always ask for a
definition. When tolerance means neutrality, that all views are equally valid
and true, then no one is ever tolerant because no one is ever neutral about his
or her own views. Point out the contradiction built into the new definition.
Point out that this kind of tolerance is a myth.
This way of putting it comes from Peter Kreeft of Boston College.
has happened in a number of communities regarding the homosexuality issue.