Monday, October 11, 2010

On Tolerance

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
—Aristotle  [384-322 BCE], Greek philosopher

What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. 
We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly—
that is the first law of nature.
—Voltaire [1694-1798], French enlightenment philosopher


Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions. 
—G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936], English writer & Christian apologist

Tolerance is a tricky, complex and emotional subject. Most enlightened and reasonable people would say they are fairly tolerant human beings. Except, of course, when it comes to issues that matter, like religion, politics and social change. Then, their intolerance shows, sometimes in a pronounced and nasty fashion.

There have been many essays written on tolerance in the last few hundred years, including famous essays by John Locke ("A Letter Concerning Toleration"), Voltaire ("Treatise on Tolerance") and John Stuart Mill ("On Liberty"). They are worth (re) visiting.

Of all the social values, ideologies and beliefs, religion is probably the one that historically tends to divide people into camps, certainly between religions, and yet often within religions. (For example, Christianity has about 33,000 groups, says the World Christian Encyclopedia, although most Christian adherents belong to about six dominant denominations, like Protestantism.)

Even so, it is typically the battle between religions that is the most conflictual, since by its tenets or doctrines each religion defines itself as true, and more true than any other. For example, here's what Albert Einstein, the famous Nobel laureate in physics, wrote about tolerance in a letter to Rabbi Solomon Goldman of Chicago's Anshe Emet Congregation: 
A man who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant. At the least, he is to feel pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion and usually he goes on to hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred then leads to persecution when the might of the majority is behind it.
In the case of a Christian clergyman, the tragic-comical is found in this: that the Christian religion demands love from the faithful, even love for the enemy. This demand, because it is indeed superhuman, he is unable to fulfill. Thus intolerance and hatred ring through the oily words of the clergyman. The love, which on the Christian side is the basis for the conciliatory attempt towards Judaism, is the same as the love of a child for a cake. That means that it contains the hope that the object of the love will be eaten up...

Universal Tolerance: Minerva as a symbol of enlightened wisdom protects the believers of all religions.
Artwork: Daniel Chodowiecki, 1791. Courtesy: James Steakley

Although Dr. Einstein cited Christianity, I am convinced that most, if not all religions, share a similar approach to those outside the fold. That is, one's tolerance for another, quickly diminishes if the receiver rejects the appeal to join the true side.

One famous and classic example is Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, whose stinging rejection from the Jews resulted in this reaction (from On Jews and Their Lies):
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:     
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly—and I myself was unaware of it—will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.
.... and so on, ad nauseam.

Notwithstanding sixteenth century language, one could hardly doubt Mr. Luther's lack of tolerance. It finally caught up with him, and in 1994 the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rejected Luther's anti-Semitic writings. Although I applaud its actions, I wonder why it took four centuries to act.  It goes to show that change happens slowly among religious institutions, notably when it comes to rejecting the views of a leading religious figure or hero.

Thus, a fervent unthinking religious observance that gives great devotion to the observed religious narrative drawn from stories of thousands of years ago tends to disqualify the other religious narratives. In other words, it is not possible to believe two often contrary truths. Hence, the only possible result is to express less tolerance for the Other, and in the worst of cases, heap condemnation on outsiders—a classic us versus them ideology. . Such is my lexicon to explain extreme religion and its adherents.

Even so, I support the need for religion in society, which I expressed in an earlier post. Yet, religion can also be a destructive force when used as a tool to divide and conquer. It has historically and continues in some cases to lead its followers to hatred and violence.

Such examples can also be found in non-religious beliefs or ideologies. In Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason (1945), Brunet, a member of the Communist party in France, invites his good friend, Mathieu to join him and work together for a common good. Mathieu hesitates, and rejects Brunet's overtures and arguments, albeit with sadness, saying:
" You mustn't be angry with me about this," said he hurriedly.

"Of course I'm not angry," said Brunet. "You aren't compelled to think as I do."

"That isn't true," said Mathieu drearily. "I know your sort, you do believe that a man is compelled to think as you do, if he isn't a rotter. You regard me as a rotter, but you won't tell me so, because you view the case as desperate."
Seeing that his appeal has been met with rejection, Brunet has no time to waste, and heads for the door to leave:
Brunet was fiddling with the door-handle. "Why, then do you think I came? If you had accepted my offer, we could have worked together...
....
Such reveals much about the bonds that bind. "My only friends, at present, are the Comrades of the party, with them I have a whole world in common."

Such a worldview will not tolerate contrary views, and with that pronouncement the friendship between Mathieu and Brunet is over. Their differing views on an ideology, one a faithful believer, the other a skeptic, have sundered the friendship. What Sartre's novel shows is that ideology and belief can hold a powerful grip on tolerance. Even if  the result leads to an erosion of human dignity and equality. Even if it narrows the field to only like-minded people. Such are the limits that ideology places on the human heart.

To be sure, it takes a lot of courage on the part of the individual to go against the dominant and conventional thinking of one's ideological heroes. I cannot agree with Mr. Chesterton on his view of the virtue of tolerance as indicative of a weak-willed person. Quite the contrary.

To be tolerant takes a movement away from the comfort zone, so to speak, of revealed or received truths. To act with tolerance takes more than will or conviction. To be tolerant takes an imagination of sorts. It also an act of courage in the face of opposition.

I am reminded of what U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said about religion, but it can apply to any core belief that cares about individual dignity: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

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