It would be difficult to find a more universally celebrated virtue in modern Western culture than the virtue of tolerance.
The trouble is (writes D.A. Carson) that a new (but not necessarily improved) definition of tolerance has crept up on us and is now accepted virtually without question.
According to the old definition, tolerance meant something like ‘recognition and respect for the views of others without necessarily sympathising or agreeing with them.’
According to the new definition, tolerance means something like ‘acceptance as equally true and valid the views of others.’
The difference in form may be slight, but the difference in substance is massive. The first definition permits honest disagreement; the second forbids it.
Part of our confusion today stems from the fact that both usages are in still in use. So, when is is said that ‘Christians should be tolerant of other religions’, it may mean that ‘Christians should recognised the existence of other religions and treat them with respect’, or that ‘Christians should regard other religions as equally valid as their own’.
The old tolerance is enshrined in the words (probably erroneously) attributed to Voltair: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This view of tolerance (a) assumes that there is objective truth out there; (b) permits honest disagreement over the truth; and (c) encourages free enquiry in search of the truth.
The new tolerance, in contrast, assumes that there is no one view that is exclusively true. We may have our own preferred version of reality, but that is all it is – a preference. Other people’s preferences are equally true and valid. In the famous words of Leslie Armour, ‘Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.’ The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) asserts, ‘Tolerance…involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.’
The trouble however, is that when this form of tolerance is elevated to the status of supreme virtue, it becomes supremely intolerant. For to question the axiom itself is intolerable. But how can it be a virtue to tolerate everything (except intolerance)? Why is dogmatism to be dogmatically rejected, and absolutism to be absolutely banned? Are we to accept as equally valid the beliefs and practices of Nazism and Stalinism?
One of the problems with the new tolerance is that it is a defeater belief. The old tolerance was based on arguments about truth and goodness. The new tolerance simply sets up itself as the unargued standard, and calls its opponents names: ‘bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant, and so on’. The new tolerance is allowed to trump everything.
None of this is to suggest, of course, the the old tolerance got everything right, or that the new tolerance gets it all wrong. But it is to point out how different the two forms of tolerance are, and how dangerous the new, indiscriminate, inquisitorial, tolerance can be.
Based on D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, 1-71.