The Intolerance of Tolerance

I’ve just finished reading “The Intolerance of Tolerance” by Don Carson. It’s not his normal subject matter, but personally I found the application of his insight and intelligence to a topic like tolerance very helpful. It sparked off a train of thought in my mind about tolerance – as such, this is not a book review, just a few thoughts on my understanding of tolerance. (I plan to write a proper review of the book with quotes and everything at some point.)

One of the things which he talks about is the classic understanding of tolerance vs the modern understanding of tolerance. The classic understanding of tolerance is more than simply recognising that different views exist, it is actually giving people the freedom to express those views in the public sphere. The modern understanding of tolerance is more like the thought police: you’re free to hold any view you like, but your public life must conform to what the state decides is acceptable and not acceptable.

In other words, modern ‘tolerance’ is highly intolerant. How ironic.

Case in point: gay marriage. I’ve commented on this before, but it seems to me that having an opinion which dissents from the majority view is actually steamrollered as ‘bigotry’. For example, the comedian Marcus Brigstocke tweeted this yesterday:

(I should point out that I have no special beef with Marcus Brigstocke; he just happens to make a convenient example – particularly given I mentioned him last time as well! I think he epitomises the opinions many socially liberal people do.)

What he is essentially saying is, “Hey, you people who oppose gay marriage: You’re wrong and I’m right, d’you hear me? Your opinions are valueless and worthless. Either agree with me, or get out.” The problem is, I just don’t think the issues are that simple. But they are portrayed in simple black and white terms: either you’re for gay marriage, or you’re a bigot. (And atheists sometimes accuse Christians of making issues too black and white…)

I don’t want to repeat what I’ve blogged about before, so I’ll just say this: This is not tolerance. Tolerance is not steamrolling all other opinions on, say, gay marriage until they all conform to some particular view. The government have to take a position, and I feel that they’re taking the wrong one. But the point is, we should be allowed to hold different opinions about this, which might perhaps lead to productive discussion rather than mocking, which tends to rather shut down any kind of discussion.

In terms of my own life, this has made me re-evaluate my priorities when it comes to tolerance. What, for example, do I think about the BNP? I’ve been guilty in the past of mocking them, perhaps speaking too harshly and too quickly. But is that tolerance? Are they allowed to hold their opinions? Are they allowed a stage on the public square, or do we pre-judge them all and shut them down before even opening their mouths?

Far too often lately, ‘tolerance’ has meant “do not discriminate – or we will make you not discriminate”. It’s right and proper for us in general and Christians in particular to be grappling with these issues. I don’t think there are easy answers, but I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with our current situation.

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3 thoughts on “The Intolerance of Tolerance

  1. Phill, i really appreciate your comments on this. I read your review of Rosaria Butterfields book too (back in January) and agreed with your comments on 1 Cor 7 which you pointed out. That book (I’ve not read it all but have researched it) and also what she said in her public appearances which I’ve watched make me really nervous. As she describes her former lifestyle, she uses all these same types of accusations against conservative Christians, such as bigotry. A great deal of the book is taken up with how they view Christians. But Christians are not subject to the world ‘s opinions of them. Of course they are going to hate us, but we are not supposed to be slaves to the world’s opinions. It used to be that bigotry was unwarranted suspicion or dislike of those who are not like us, based not upon any facts, but only upon usually outward appearances and other differences. But now it is being changed to mean simply someone who does not agree with you and applaud you. this is truly alarming. Because as you said if we get to the point that we cannot disagree without labeling and name-calling we are in trouble. Once it gets to that point it is a short step to deciding certain groups have to go.

    Christians are not bigots in the true sense, just because they, on biblical grounds are against something. It’s not like we are making this up, we are against it because the Lord is against it, and if we are His we will agree with Him, even if it means the world’s hatred.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Julie.

      I think it’s important to bear in mind what the apostles say in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” I think Christians don’t always come across in a good way, but people love darkness rather than light and will find an excuse to hate us. Even if you present the message in a loving way, you’ll still be called a bigot.

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