The objection that Christianity is intolerant is increasingly common. “Christians don’t accept the views of other people as equally valid. They think that they have a monopoly on truth. They think that they are ‘right’ and other people are ‘wrong’. How bigoted and intolerant!”
The Resurgence released a report recently, based on thousands of interviews on numerous focus groups conducted by secular research organisations, that identified some of the top cultural objections to Christianity in the West. The number one re-occurring objection? Christians are intolerant.
If true, it’s a pretty serious objection – because true tolerance is an extremely valuable thing, both on an individual level, and for society as a whole. Is Christianity intolerant?
The Oxford Dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.“
Simply put, tolerance is respecting those you disagree with, and their right to disagree.
There’s a great quote – often attributed to Voltaire, but it actually comes from one of his biographers – that says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That captures the essence of freedom of speech, and the essence of tolerance. And it’s extremely valuable, because it protects the rights of people to believe what they want – and honestly express those beliefs – without fear of consequences. This not only protects minorities, but also helps in the pursuit of truth, because it encourages open and honest dialogue over issues people disagree on.
A clear example of INTOLERANCE, then, is the recent case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who has been fined $200,000, given a 10-year gaol stint, and sentenced to 1,000 lashes – all for expressing his opinions on an online forum (deemed ‘insulting to Islam’)!
Such a troubling situation clearly shows the value of tolerance by its absence. Instead of respecting the rights of people to disagree, real dialogue is squashed by high-handed means. That’s intolerance.
Tolerance is clearly a valuable thing.
But in recent years, under the name of ‘tolerance’, something very different has emerged. Under this new idea, significant shifts have occurred:
‘Everyone has a right to hold their own opinion’ has changed to ‘every opinion is equally valid.’
It’s changed from ‘respecting those we disagree with,’ to ‘no one is allowed to disagree.’
This new idea says, ‘whatever is true for you is true for you.’
So you can be a Christian because Jesus is what works for you, and Muslims are right as well, because they have what makes them happy. It sounds mean to say someone might be wrong, so we’ll just say everyone is right.
And while that might seem a subtle shift on the surface, it’s very different from real tolerance, and can actually be deeply harmful.
Now this can all get very confusing because these two different phenomena both go under the same name today. Sometimes when people use the word tolerance they mean ‘respecting people we disagree with,’ but sometimes they use the word tolerance to mean ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid.’
So to help distinguish, we’ll call this new idea FAUX TOLERANCE. It might look like tolerance, but it’s an imitation.
Because in a truly tolerant society, people are safe to disagree with each other, and have real conversation and embrace their disagreements while respecting each other’s viewpoints.
But with FAUX TOLERANCE, which says everyone’s opinion is equally valid, suddenly people aren’t allowed to disagree.
Anyone who claims to be “right” about something in any objective sense is seen as a bigot. Because to claim that something is objectively true, you necessarily say that other things are false. And how arrogant could you be to say that?
John Dickson, a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, exposes one of the many problems with this faux tolerance:
What sometimes passes for ‘tolerance’ today is, to my mind, akin to the advice of a marriage counsellor who urges her troubled clients to overlook the differences and avoid discussing the tensions. That is a recipe for disaster. Any experienced counsellor will tell you that tensions have to be acknowledged and differences named. Only then, with a renewed commitment to the relationship, can partners resolve to honour each other as family. Right now, the human family is in desperate need of a similar commitment to honesty, discussion and respect—in other words, tolerance.
When everyone’s opinion is equally valid, true tolerance is lost.
Christianity is Not Intolerant
Why mention all this about faux tolerance?
The thing is, often when people talk about Christianity being an intolerant religion, they’re using the word tolerance to talk about FAUX TOLERANCE.
That is, often their underlying objection is, Christians don’t accept everyone’s opinions as equally valid. They believe they’ve got a monopoly on truth. They think they’re RIGHT and other people are WRONG. How bigoted, and intolerant.
So when a Christian says, I believe Jesus is the only way to God. People say, well you’re just intolerant.
But that’s misunderstanding what ‘tolerance’ actually is.
Instead of encouraging healthy conversation on an issue where people disagree, FAUX TOLERANCE shuts it down before it can even start. Because today, as soon as you’re labelled ‘intolerant,’ your views are disregarded out-of-hand.
Instead of acknowledging our legitimate disagreements and respectfully engaging on them, it’s like the bad marriage counsellor who tells us to ignore our differences and pretend they aren’t there.
So what should we do?
Let me suggest, one of the most helpful things that we can do as Christians when someone says to us that Christianity is intolerant is to respectfully ask them what they mean by tolerance. And have a conversation about that.
I think if we can put forward a picture of TRUE tolerance, of a society where people can respectfully and honestly talk about their disagreements, that’s something that people genuinely recognise as a good thing.
Because that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Christians and non-Christians alike?
To be able to have honest, open, real discussions about what we think matters. To listen, to hear each other out, to respect each other. To be able to disagree and love each other at the same time.
That’s true tolerance.
This blog post is adapted from a sermon on ‘Is Christianity Intolerant?’ – you can find it here.
Image by enuwy