A review of The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars. By Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti.

InterVarsity Press, 2005.

This book is about how a good concept – tolerance – has been redefined and subverted by the secular left. Tolerance, properly understood, is a useful personal and social good. But stripped of its original meaning, it has become a weapon in the culture wars.

Tolerance originally meant being able to respect a person while disagreeing with their ideas, beliefs or behaviors. Today it has come to mean accepting what your opponent says, believes or does. If someone today objects to something like abortion on demand or same-sex marriage, he or she is labeled as intolerant, bigoted and narrow-minded.

Thus any person who now expresses an opinion or makes a moral critique which does not fit in with our politically correct culture is deemed to have committed the gravest of sins: being intolerant. But as the authors show, the ability to exercise moral discernment and make critical evaluations is at the heart of genuine democracy and the social good.

By demanding conformity to the values regime of the secular left, the goal posts in value making have been shifted. The authors show that the new tolerance is closely aligned with moral relativism and the postmodern distrust of truth. But without true truth and moral absolutes, the entire concept of tolerance becomes meaningless.

We can only tolerate something if we do not agree with it in the first place. We do not tolerate something we like or agree with. But if there is no absolute truth, and moral values are simple subjective preferences, then convictions and beliefs become mere preferences and tastes. No one needs to tolerate another person’s preference for chocolate ice cream. No one needs to tolerate another person’s taste for classical music.

If all beliefs and moral claims are mere matters of choice and preference, then tolerance no longer is necessary. If we accept the postmodern belief that all truth is self-created, then no one has a right to challenge any belief, or make any moral judgment. In which case, we have nothing left to be tolerant of.

Indeed, as the authors point out, the “belief in truth as subjectivity short-circuits discussion” and makes genuine social interaction impossible. Tolerance only functions in a setting where real dialogue, debate and intellectual sparring is allowed to take place.

The authors trace how the concept of tolerance developed, arising out of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and as out of classic Greek philosophy. They argue that the Christian religion has contributed much to the concept and practice of tolerance. Indeed, its high view of human personhood demands that we treat all people with respect and dignity, while we may disagree with their ideas and actions. But the secular leftist can offer no compelling reason why people should be tolerant. And in their dismissal of objective truth, they undermine the very basis of tolerance.

They also show that the secular left has used the notion of tolerance to push their own agenda. The new relativists argue that believers who insist on moral values are being intolerant and exclusive, yet they demand a whole set of their own moral absolutes, be it the right to abortion, complete choice in all matters sexual, and so on. Thus in their appeal to moral relativism to silence the so-called religious right, they make their own appeal to fundamental moral values: tolerance, neutrality, pluralism, etc. They want to have their cake (there are no moral absolutes) and eat it too (their moral values should be absolutely adhered to).

So the secular left has both subverted tolerance and misunderstand it as well. One can strongly disagree with another person’s ideas and still be tolerant. And tolerance itself is not an absolute.  There are some things that we should not tolerate. It is neither tolerant nor civil to stand by while a woman is raped or some crime is being committed. True tolerance means the making of moral judgments and sound evaluations.

And a Christian has good reasons for rejecting false ideas of tolerance. Just as a fireman has a moral obligation to warn someone in a burning house, so too the believer has a right to warn a non-believers about where their beliefs and actions are taking them. It is the most loving thing a person can do. Telling a drug addict to leave his destructive behaviour before it is too late is not being judgmental nor intolerant, but compassionate and loving.

Thus it is not being intolerant to proclaim the truth-claims of Christianity. But the secular left has managed to convince many that any attempt at religious conversion (especially to Christianity) is being intolerant, judgmental and bigoted. But we do not have a right to not being offended by other people’s ideas. Whenever the truth claims of a religion are stressed, there will be disagreements and some may be offended as a result. But true tolerance does not guarantee against being hurt or offended by contrary ideas and beliefs.

The authors conclude by reminding us that the secular left has high-jacked the concept of tolerance to promote its own ideological agenda. They seek not just to separate church from state, but religion from society. In the process, they are imposing their own secular values on the rest of society, all in the name of tolerance. But as the authors document, often the most intolerant people today are those who shout loudest for tolerance.

True tolerance is a virtue and should be practiced, both privately and publicly. But as the authors make clear, a new type of tolerance – really an imposter – has subverted it, taking its place. The new tolerance is no tolerance at all, but a new form of totalitarianism. And we should not be tolerant of that.

[949 words]

2 Replies to “A review of The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars. By Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti.”

  1. Bill, were there any parts of the book with which you discerned were out of balance or cause for concern? I only ask because sometimes IVP has leaned rather hard away from the so-called religious right, and embraced a lot of the religious Left, Green, and Liberal mindsets apparently for the purpose of dialogue and witness and perhaps though not as intentional…for wider marketing. Is this why the book and your review uses the term *secular* Left? Just curious.

    Jow Whitchurch, Indiana, USA

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