The tyranny of tolerance

The Briefing

The Briefing is a leading evangelical magazine published since 1988 by Matthias Media and founded by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. Subscribe here.

Originally Published:
Jensen, P 'The tyranny of tolerance'. The Briefing, issue 50, July 1990, pp. 7-8.

Tagged: relativism tolerance


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I suppose I had asked for it. It was being intolerant that had got me into this business in the first place.

And now this man was angry with me. “I can tolerate anybody except the intolerant,” he was saying, staring at me with the anger of his self-professed intolerance.

I mentally ran through the list of alternatives: Was I going to be burned at the stake? Barbecuing, after all, would be a thoroughly Australian way to go. Drawn and quartered? Hung by my toes till my eyes fell out?

What had my intolerance got me into this time?

You see, tolerance is a great way of holding a society together. Disagreeing without killing each other is a sophisticated, satisfactory way to live.

But there is an ultimate form of tolerance. There is tolerance taken to its very limit. Here it is applied not just to opinions about whether pink or blue is a better colour to paint your face. At the limit point where tolerance is applied to facts themselves, it becomes relativism.

And there is nothing more intolerant than relativism. In its popular form, relativism says: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.”

In its religious form, the theory runs like this: “You have your belief. I have my belief. If you are sincere and I am sincere, then God (gods) will accept us.” And since no one thinks of himself as insincere, God (gods) are happy with us all.

At this point the Christian starts to sound intolerant, and wrecks it all. “God is not happy with people,” he comes along and says. “In fact, God is angry with us. What is more, the Jesus who died also rose again from the dead. This same Jesus is coming back to judge mankind, including you.”

This is intolerant. This is narrow-minded. This is giving you no points for your sincerity whatsoever. The Christian has broken the rules. He is suggesting that the game is not about sincerity, but about facts.

As a result of this intolerant, narrow-minded attitude, even worse things happen. Some people take the message seriously. They get converted. They say they get ‘born again’.

It is not enough for these people to be sincere, they also insist on being right. As if sincerity alone wasn’t hard enough!

They are going too far. Christianity can be tolerated. It can be patronized. But it must not be taken seriously.

Let me try to get this in perspective.

I have been to only one meeting of the Flat Earth Society. There was a speaker there. It seemed to me that the man was sincere. He looked sincere. He acted sincere.

But I thought his facts were wrong.

This was intolerant of me, I know. Maybe he wasn’t wrong. Maybe, if he was as sincere as he looked, he was right. Maybe the crowd was wrong. But they looked sincere too.

Maybe they were both right. Maybe the world was flat for him and round for them. And confusing for me.

Now, if that was true, and if I keep changing my mind, then the world would keep changing from flat to round and back again provided, of course, that I am changing my mind sincerely enough.

I hope this would not inconvenience people living on the equator. But if they sincerely believed that the world was not changing from flat to round, then of course it would not be changing for them.

The crowd was not really very tolerant of the little man from the Flat Earth Society. They did not listen to his arguments. They jeered at him much in the way they would once have jeered at Copernicus or Galileo.

Naturally, they were intolerant of him. He was himself intolerant. He was claiming to be right.

If only he had come advocating the freedom to believe nothing (or everything) about the world. But no, he wanted to believe something—something which was either true or false.

At this point his sincerity did not matter. Now he was not worth listening to. Now he was a case for disdain and derision. His audience must have learned their manners by listening to parliamentary broadcasts. They silenced him without rebutting his arguments.

This is the tyranny of relativism. We are all required to be open-minded (or is it empty headed?). Everybody is right. Nobody is wrong. Except for the man who wants to say somebody is wrong. That man is always wrong!

So it is with Christians.

“So you believe in God. Well, some people do, some don’t. If you do, I won’t disillusion you. You most likely believed in Santa Claus when you were in second class. You will grow out of it.

“You are sincere. I am sincere. Your god helps you; my god helps me. Let us all live in harmony and ‘tolerance’.”

That sort of tolerance is phoney. It is not simply disagreeing but still getting on well together. It is agreeing with each other that truth does not matter.

And then some intolerant wretch comes along and suggests that, as a matter of historical fact, Jesus rose from the dead.

Well, did he? He either did or he didn’t. He can’t rise for you and stay buried for someone else. That is a nonsense. The fact that we are both sincere is irrelevant.

We may disagree about the facts and still continue living in the same society. That would be tolerance.

But the acceptance of each other based on our both being right makes nonsense of what I believe, nonsense of what you believe, and nonsense of truth itself.

That form of tolerance is too expensive and too tyrannical to be countenanced.