Bill Muehlenberg

Worshipping at the Altar of Tolerance

As people more and more reject the notion of absolute truth and universal morality, they do not remain without belief. The religious sphere, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so people will always find something to take the place of the old verities. Thus today in the West the number one religion is that of “tolerance”.

All over the Western world people are turning in droves to this new religion. It is a most suitable religion in an age in which truth is jettisoned and fear of offending anyone becomes the primary concern. As Os Guinness wrote in 2005, “Ours then is a world in which ‘Thou shalt not judge’ has become the new eleventh commandment, and tolerance the last undisputed virtue.”

A recent speech given by Liberal frontbencher Joe Hockey is a classic example of the religion of tolerance. I do not mean to pick on Joe, because millions of other Westerners hold to equally silly and incoherent ideas. However, since his speech is getting so much media attention, it is worth looking at in a bit more detail.

While the speech is entitled “In Defence of God,” it really is no such thing. What it is in fact is a defence of the religion of tolerance. It seems that every silly and nonsensical thing that has ever been said in favour of this religion can be found in his speech. Consider this contender for politically correct paragraph of the year:

“Australia has embraced religious diversity. It must always remain so, and as a Member of Parliament I am a custodian of that principle of tolerance. That is why it is disturbing to hear people rail against Muslims and Jews, or Pentecostals and Catholics. Australia must continue, without fear, to embrace diversity of faith provided that those gods are loving, compassionate and just.”

Where can I begin? Bear in mind that he has just spent a page or two denouncing in the strongest of terms the harm caused by those who dare to take their religious Scriptures “literally” – whatever that means. He has just informed us all how bad it is to take religious texts in any sort of a literal sense.

How in the world can he then turn around and say “it is disturbing to hear people rail against Muslims and Jews, or Pentecostals and Catholics”? Does he not realise that this in fact is the very thing he has just done in his speech? He has just been railing against all four groups – and any other religious groups – for holding to a serious view of their Scriptures. Perhaps a majority of believers in these four groups do indeed take their holy books “literally”. Thus the very ‘tolerance’ that he pleads for is withheld from those with whom he disagrees. So much for tolerance.

His speech simply highlights the fact that we of course cannot really live in such a world of non-judgment and sheer tolerance. That is because neutrality is impossible, and no one goes a day without making numerous judgments. In fact, the very notion of tolerance presupposes the fact that you disagree with someone.

You do not tolerate someone that you fully agree with. You do not tolerate an idea you fully embrace. You can only tolerate something if you happen to disagree with it in the first place. That is the older and correct understanding of the word tolerance. It said, “I don’t agree with you, but I respect your right to argue your case”.

The new understanding of the term says this: you must fully agree with me, my ideas, my beliefs, my practises, my lifestyle, my ideology, etc, or you are being intolerant. That of course is not tolerance – that is coercion: ‘embrace me and my beliefs or else’.

But this warped understanding of tolerance is all the rage in modern secular societies. J. Budziszewski calls this religion of tolerance the “illiberal liberal religion”.  In his important new book, The Line Through the Heart (ISI, 2009), he explains why such “tolerance” must be intolerant and illiberal:

“Does liberalism live up to neutrality? The answer is no, because neutrality is logically impossible. It is not a bad idea; it fails to rise to the level of an idea. One must choose what to tolerate, what to accommodate, what to encourage – and choice, by its nature, is never neutral.”

He nicely demonstrates the complete nonsense of Joe Hockey’s statement quoted just above: “If you really believe that the meaning of tolerance is tolerating, then you ought to tolerate even intolerance. If you really believe that the best foundation for toleration is to avoid having strong convictions about good and evil, then you should not try to harbor the strong conviction that intolerance is bad.”

Mr Hockey clearly has some strong convictions about certain things, and he wants his listeners to share his convictions. And it is quite clear that he is very intolerant of those who disagree with his position. But this is all done under the guise of "tolerance”.

Evidently he does not see the glaring incoherence and inconsistency of his position. This is because his faith turns out to be little more than the modern, vacuous religion of ‘tolerance’. His beliefs fully encapsulate the spirit of the age, but bear little resemblance at all to historic Christian teachings.

He, like so many other trendy moderns, has completely ditched the notion of absolute truth, and with it, the laws of logic, and common sense. All he is left with is his mushy, sentimental concept of tolerance which has taken on the place of religious conviction.

Dorothy Sayers once well described such wishy-washy nonsense: “In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair, the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

Or as G.K. Chesterton once put it, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” Mr Hockey may hope that his religious embrace of tolerance will put him in good standing with the electorate. It may well, if the electorate no longer has any place for logic, truth, common sense, and hard thinking.

But for those of us who value such goods, the speech of Mr Hockey simply demonstrates what a downward spiral modern public life is on. It is not something to celebrate, but to worry about. It really means the death of a culture, and the embrace of nihilism, anarchy and irrationality.


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