Don Carson’s new book is an insightful critique of the often unquestioned modern ‘virtue’ of tolerance. Carson’s thesis is that tolerance currently occupies a very high place in western culture, but that it is a kind of tolerance that is intrinsically intolerant. He argues that the widely understood meaning of tolerance has shifted, from ‘accepting the existence of different views’—or as Carson terms it, the ‘old tolerance’—to ‘acceptance of different views as equally valid or true’—the ‘new tolerance’ (p3).
The older view of tolerance is aptly summed up in the famous words often (but wrongly) attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. This form of tolerance depends on there being disagreement—you don’t need to ‘tolerate’ what you are happy to agree with—but contends that the goal of discovering truth and persuading others without coercion warrants the free exchange of ideas. Intolerance, according to this view, would be defined as refusing the right of those who hold contrary opinions to express them. This old tolerance holds either that there is
This old tolerance holds either that there is objective truth which can be uncovered through unhindered dialogue, or that, because there are insufficient grounds for verifying differing truth claims, public order demands a degree of tolerance, particularly in the area of religion. What Carson calls a ‘secular libertarian version’ of this old tolerance is exemplified by John Stuart Mill, who argued for ‘public agnosticism and private benign tolerance’ of religions (p7).
The ‘new tolerance’, however, holds that there is no one view that is exclusively true. It evaluates all values and beliefs as positions worthy of respect, so that questioning another’s beliefs, or questioning the belief that all beliefs are valid, becomes intolerance. Carson argues that this new tolerance has taken the position of the highest virtue in Western culture, such that the supreme ‘sin’ is now intolerance.
Where there is a broad moral consensus—a commonly accepted moral framework—in a society, tolerance is a social response to those who hold beliefs that diverge from the mainstream, worked out in terms of what might be permitted, or tolerated, in order to protect the rights of minorities but still maintain civil order. In a pluralistic society, however, where there is no agreed society-wide moral framework, tolerance becomes an independent intellectual stance, in and of itself, supporting moral relativism (p76). When tolerance is divorced from an agreed framework of truth and morality, and becomes an end, what happens in practice is that public discourse starts to focus not on what constitutes aberrant behaviour and what should be done about it, but on what sanctions should be imposed on those judged not to be tolerant (p133): Increasingly…the rights and wrongs of the old moral issues receive scant attention while the public discourse focuses on what sanctions should be imposed on those who do not ‘tolerate’ (definitely the new sense!) the abolition of what were once the moral standards. In other words, the primary ‘moral’ line drawn through
Where there is a broad moral consensus—a commonly accepted moral framework—in a society, tolerance is a social response to those who hold beliefs that diverge from the mainstream, worked out in terms of what might be permitted, or tolerated, in order to protect the rights of minorities but still maintain civil order. In a pluralistic society, however, where there is no agreed society-wide moral framework, tolerance becomes an independent intellectual stance, in and of itself, supporting moral relativism (p76). When tolerance is divorced from an agreed framework of truth and morality, and becomes an end, what happens in practice is that public discourse starts to focus not on what constitutes aberrant behaviour and what should be done about it, but on what sanctions should be imposed on those judged not to be tolerant (p133):
Increasingly…the rights and wrongs of the old moral issues receive scant attention while the public discourse focuses on what sanctions should be imposed on those who do not ‘tolerate’ (definitely the new sense!) the abolition of what were once the moral standards. In other words, the primary ‘moral’ line drawn through Western culture declares that those who ‘tolerate’ just about anything are good, and those who do not are bad and therefore should not be tolerated. (pp133-4)
This of course means that in the name of inclusion, we end up with exclusion of anyone who is branded intolerant. This kind of tolerance, Carson argues, does not engage with the views of those who would disagree with its underlying assumptions, but merely dismisses them and tries to expel them from the discourse, on the grounds that they are intolerant. In chapter 2, Carson lists example after example of intolerance— all in the name of tolerance—in fields such as education, media, and sexual ethics, of those who hold to exclusive truth claims.
And it is Christians who are the target of much of this intolerant tolerance. From the banning of Christmas trees so as not to offend atheists, through forcing doctors and pharmacists to act against their conscience by prescribing and supplying abortifacients, to banning student groups who won’t accept practising homosexuals as leaders, it is Christians who are overwhelmingly being discriminated against.
Carson attributes this change of direction to a process of secularization that has seen the banishment of religion from the public square into the private domain. Championing the separation of church and state, this secularising impulse insists that freedom of religion ‘implies the free exercise of nonreligion’, such that religion is free only ‘insofar as it is consistent with the establishment of the secular, moral order’ (Kathleen M Sullivan, quoted on p88). ‘[The] admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publically criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.’ (p45)
Many who espouse the new tolerance, Carson argues, assume that, unlike religious beliefs, secularism is a neutral stance and therefore intrinsically superior, so that ‘that position ought to be supported by law, even if it means suppressing, by law, those who contest this view’ (p88). The argument is that religions are intolerant because they hold to exclusive truth claims, whereas secularism, because it refuses to adjudicate between competing truth claims, is morally neutral.
Carson argues that secularism is not neutral at all. He states, ‘the sad reality is that ethical neutrality—this new tolerance—is finally impossible, but as long as it is pursued it cripples policy choices and abolishes principled choices because it has banished the framework of truth and morality on which true tolerance depends’(p98). When we can no longer make and defend truth claims in the public sphere, public debate can no longer be robust and effective. When the systems and structures of government are considered to be independent of any greater allegiance (i.e. to God), the state easily becomes our master, instead of our servant. For example, without a vision of human rights grounded in something other and greater than governmental decrees, ‘our rights as humans cannot trump the power of the state because they are derived from that very power that…can easily take away what it has given’ (p149).
Thus tolerant secularism becomes coercive, demanding religious people’s silence on public matters, particularly on matters that used to be considered ‘moral’ issues. Freedom of religion demands that anyone may hold private religious convictions, but increasingly Christians are being asked to ‘check their beliefs at the door’ before entering public discussion. Carson notes numerous examples of public officers being censured or suppressed for bringing their religious convictions to bear on matters of policy. ‘[We] may not bar a person from high office on the ground of race or creed, provided the creed is so loosely held that it exercises no influence on his conduct’ (footnote p135).
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the challenges facing Christians wanting to engage with Western culture today. The chapter on the history of tolerance, ranging from the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world, through the early church, the shift to Christianity as the official religion, repression in the Medieval church, to sectarianism and philosophical developments from the 17th century onwards, was particularly thought-provoking.
A most helpful aspect of Carson’s analysis is his take on the way Western tolerance is perceived by other cultures. Advocates of the new tolerance are inclined to look down on Middle Eastern cultures as intolerant, but the Muslim world sees tolerant westerners as people who hold nothing firmly but materialism, and who can’t think deeply about questions of truth and morality (p16). Western culture’s hostility to any suggestion that one thing is ‘better’ than another, means that the new tolerance ‘dilutes and destroys all the hard and otherwise unyielding components of cultural identity’, as they are judged to be marks of intolerance (p77). Thus it is perceived as culture-destroying, superficial and self-righteous.
What, then, is an appropriate Christian response to the new tolerance? Carson’s last chapter details 10 practical ways ahead, including exposing the moral bankruptcy and arrogance of the new tolerance, preserving a place for truth in public discourse, practising civility, evangelism and being prepared to suffer. I was glad he included this last one, because the number of examples of intolerance towards Christians in this book could easily foster moral outrage. It was good to be reminded that those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus should expect to be maligned, misrepresented and persecuted in this world. And so to Carson’s last way ahead: delight and trust in the God who remains ‘sovereign, wise and good’ (p176); who, although forbearing, is not infinitely tolerant of evil; and whose love is better than tolerance (p103). ©
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