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01 September 2007

Talking about... intolerance

Talking about... intolerance

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence. Peter S Williams helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

In this summer's hit The Simpsons Movie, Homer and his beloved family are chased into exile by their neighbours over an environmental crisis caused, of course, by Homer. The exile turns out to be rather enjoyable, until they learn of plans to destroy their hometown Springfield. Homer is happy to tolerate the impending catastrophe, but his wife Marge believes she should help their friends.

Meanwhile, in the somewhat smarter blockbuster The Bourne Ultimatum, former hit-man Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) continues to struggle against the clandestine Treadstone group, which trained him and is now determined to kill him. Should Bourne try to live in peace with Treadstone? Of course not. Bourne wants nothing more than to discover his true identity and put his life of violence behind him. But he can't be tolerant of murderers.

In both of these cases, inappropriate tolerance is wrong.

In the popular imagination, Christians are bad because we are intolerant: we disapprove of things that we believe are morally or intellectually wrong, but which others do not. For post-modernists, the mere fact that Christians distinguish between right and wrong, true and false, is enough to convict us of intolerance.

Free to be wrong

People who recognise the difference between right and wrong don't always agree about which side of the line various beliefs and activities are. Those who think Christians are intolerant basically disagree with us about what things are wrong and which wrongs it is appropriate to tolerate. We can suggest to such people that the right way to handle our disagreement involves us both recognising that appropriate tolerance is a virtue, and that it is sometimes appropriate to tolerate disagreements.

The mere fact that Christians distinguish between right and wrong is enough to convict us of intolerance.

By definition, it's impossible to tolerate something we think is right or good. Tolerating is believing that the other person is wrong, but that he or she should be free to make his own mistakes. Tolerance doesn't mean being reticent about defending one's own view; it's about allowing the other person to disagree and to act in ways we would rather he didn't. Both of us can think that the other is wrong while believing that they should have the freedom to be wrong.

The very fact that we uphold tolerance means we think that there are limits to it. Still, as philosopher AC Grayling, a public intellectual who's often on TV and radio, writes in The Meaning of Things, "Tolerance is a rare and important virtue. It has its limits, but they are usually drawn too tightly and in the wrong places."

Unfortunately, Grayling also argues in his new book, Against All Gods, that when it comes to religion, society should be more intolerant. He writes, "It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities."

Ironically, despite saying that it is time to "demand" that believers keep their ideas to themselves, he immediately goes on to write, "Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others." But Grayling himself advocates coercing believers: ''It is time to demand and apply a right for the rest of us to non-interference by religious persons and organisations - a right to be free of proselytisation and the efforts of self-selected minority groups to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who do not share their outlook."

In other words, according to his own criteria, he should not be free to believe as he does. Grayling draws the limits of tolerance too tightly, and so falls within his own definition of intolerance: "An intolerant person ... wishes others to live as he thinks they ought and ... seeks to impose his practices and beliefs upon them" (The Meaning of Things). Grayling adopts double standards when he advocates "a right to be free of proselytisation", because Against All Gods is an act of proselytisation for secular humanism. Has he ever read Jesus' teaching about planks and sawdust (Luke 6.42)?

To debate or not to debate

Surely everyone should have the right to invite debate about their worldview, just as they have a right to stay out of that debate. Jehovah's Witnesses and secular humanists alike should have the right to knock at our doors offering literature and discussion. And we should have the right to invite them in for a chat, or to politely send them away, as we see fit.

Grayling says nothing about the rights of the religious not to be proselytised by the non-religious. Christians don't want any such right: humanists should be free to write books like Against All Gods, but in return it's only fair to expect the right of reply.

Grayling wants to "return religious commitment to the private sphere" (Against All Gods). But Christianity is by its nature both a missionary religion (Matthew 28.19) and a religion that takes serving others seriously (Luke 10.27). Such beliefs cannot be private.

One cannot ban the public proclamation of the Gospel. or public acts of Christian charity, without thereby banning Christianity. If Grayling is committed to excluding religion from the public sphere, he is committed to banning Christianity.

Is this example of intolerance more like Marge Simpson's appropriate intolerance of violence, or of Treadstone's inappropriate intolerance towards Jason Bourne?

  • Find out more about the issues raised in this article at www.damaris.org/ideamagazine
  • www.ToolsForTalks.com provides a onestop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films. music. magazines and TV - updated weekly.
  • Peter S Williams is a freelance Christian apologist working with Damaris Trust

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