On Tolerance – Part 1

The word “tolerance” can be used in at least two different ways. One way is the old way, or the way it is used in dictionaries. The other is a new way, the way it is often implicitly used in political discussion or the media. We may say “tolerance” and mean it in the first way, while someone else may mean it in the second. This guarantees that everyone will be confused.

A Christian author wrote recently about the difference:

This shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance [that is, the second sense of the word] suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new.[1]

Thus, in the modern world, people are tolerant partly because our culture has largely given up the idea that absolute truths or values exist. (Or, if people admit that they do exist in theory, they insist that no one can know about them—my values have as much chance as being true as your values.) So, I can have my values, but to be “tolerant” I should admit that they are in an absolute sense no better or no more likely to be correct than someone else’s. This is, of course, a pretty absolute claim about truth—it is absolutely true that no absolute truths exist—but intellectual sophistication and logical consistency are not really the hallmark of this world. This puts members of the Church—and many other religious believers—on a collision course with the world.

Leaders of the Church consistently use the term “tolerate” to imply that we allow, permit, or acknowledge differences with which we do not agree. Dallin H. Oaks defined it as “a friendly and fair attitude toward unfamiliar opinions and practices or toward the persons who hold or practice them.”[2] And Elder Oaks quoted with approval a Muslim author who noted, “To tolerate something is to learn to live with it, even when you think it is wrong and downright evil.”[3]

In sum, the new definition of tolerance—all truths are relative, and so we cannot insist on one over another—rests firmly on the idea that there is no revealed, absolute truth about beliefs or behavior. The old definition of tolerance recognizes—indeed, it requires—that the tolerant person believe in absolute truths, fixed moral standards, and so forth.

[To be continued]


[1] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2012), kindle location 49–55.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

[3] Alwi Shihab, “Building Bridges to Harmony Through Understanding,” forum address at Brigham Young University, 10 October 2006; cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Truth and Tolerance,” BYU Devotional, 11 September 2011.

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