Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part I: The Difference Between Religious Freedom & Religious Tolerance
Do we believe in reason and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong? Do we believe in and teach the uniqueness of our Western Civilization tradition? Or, has the relativism of multiculturalism dumbed it all down to where there are no standards of excellence or truth discoverable by some combination of reason or faith?
In Having it Both Ways on “Values”, William Voegli writes:
…The more practical problem with the fact-value distinction is that no one, including those who espouse it, actually believes it. No one is really “value-neutral” with respect to his own values, or regards them as values, arbitrary preferences that one just happens to be saddled with…
The problem with relativism is its insistence that all moral impulses are created equal – that there are no reasons to choose the standards of the wise and good over those of the deranged and cruel. A world organized according to that principle would be anarchic, uninhabitable. As Leo Strauss wrote, the attempt to “regard nihilism as a minor inconvenience” is untenable.
The problem with relativists is that they always dismiss other people’s beliefs, but spare their own moral preferences from their doctrine’s scoffing…
Justice, rights, moral common sense – either these are things we can have intelligent discussions about or they aren’t…
In The Myth of Relgious Tolerance, Thomas Williams writes:
The vehement, sometimes acrimonious debates that accompanied the drafting of the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, yielded an exceptionally precise and carefully worded document. Noteworthy in the 5,700-word declaration is the absence of even a single reference to religious “tolerance” or “toleration.”
The choice of religious “freedom” or “liberty” as the proper category for discussion and the exclusion of “tolerance” flies in the face of the societal trend to deal with church-state issues in terms of religious tolerance…
Why Tolerance Isn’t Enough
Religion is a good to be embraced and defended – not an evil to be put up with. No one speaks of tolerating chocolate pudding or a spring walk in the park. By speaking of religious “tolerance,” we make religion an unfortunate fact to be borne – like noisy neighbors and crowded buses – not a blessing to be celebrated.
Our modern ideas of religious tolerance sprang from the European Enlightenment. A central tenet of this movement was the notion of progress, understood as the overcoming of the ignorance of superstition and religion to usher in the age of reason and science…
Since religion was the primary cause of conflict and war, the argument went, peace could only be achieved through a lessening of people’s passion for religion and commitment to specific doctrines…
The language of tolerance was first proposed to describe the attitude that confessional states, such as Anglican England and Catholic France, should adopt toward Christians of other persuasions (though no mention was made of tolerance for non-Christian faiths). The assumption was that the state had recognized a certain confession as “true” and put up with other practices and beliefs as a concession to those in error. This led, however, to the employment of tolerance language toward religion. The philosophes would downplay or even ridicule religion in the firm belief that it would soon disappear altogether. Thus, separation of church and state becomes separation of public life and religious belief. Religion was excluded from public conversation and relegated strictly to the intimacy of home and chapel. Religious tolerance is a myth, but a myth imposed by an anti-religious intellectual elite.
This “tolerant” mentality is especially problematic when applied in non-confessional countries -such as the United States – where an attitude of tolerance is not that of the state religion toward unsanctioned creeds, but of a non-confessional secular state toward religion itself…
Dignitatis Humanae, on the contrary, taught that religion is a human good to be promoted, not an evil to be tolerated. While government should not presume to command religious acts, it should “take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor.” Religious practice forms part of the common good of society and should be encouraged rather than marginalized.
Tolerance Versus Toleration
Along with the conceptual error of tolerating the good of religion, the meaning of tolerance itself has evolved still further. The United Nations’ Declaration of Principles on Tolerance states outright that tolerance is a virtue and defines it as “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.”…
If tolerance is a virtue, it is a decidedly modern one. It appears in none of the classical treatments of the virtues: not in Plato, not in Seneca, not even in Aristotle’s extensive list of the virtues of the good citizen in his Nichomachean Ethics. Indulgence of evil, in the absence of an overriding reason for doing so, has never been considered virtuous. Even today, indiscriminate tolerance would not be allowed…
The closer one examines tolerance and tries to apply it across the board, the more obvious it becomes that it’s simply insufficient as a principle to govern society. Even if it were possible to achieve total tolerance, it would be exceedingly undesirable and counterproductive to do so. In his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime.”
Moreover, as a virtue, tolerance seems to have distanced itself so far from its etymological roots as to have become another word altogether. Thus the virtue of “tolerance” no longer implies the act of “toleration,” but rather a general attitude of permissiveness and openness to diversity. A tolerant person will not tolerate all things, but only those things considered tolerable by the reigning cultural milieu. Tolerance therefore now has two radically incompatible meanings that create space for serious misunderstandings and abuse.
Tolerance and intolerance have no objective referent, but rather can be applied arbitrarily. Thus the accusation of intolerance has become a weapon against those whose standards for tolerance differ from one’s own, and our criteria for tolerance depend on our subjective convictions or prejudices…
The affair grows even muddier when the “acceptance of diversity,” present in modern definitions of tolerance, is thrown into the mix. The UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance incorporates a prior statement from the UN Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, which states: “All individuals and groups have the right to be different.” Taken at face value, that is a ridiculous claim. Suicide bombing is “different,” as are genocide and sadomasochism. To say that one person has a right to be bad, simply because another happens to be good, is the ludicrous logic of diversity entitlement.
The sloppiness of these definitions is unworthy of the lawyers who drafted them and cannot but lead to the suspicion that such ambiguity is intentional. This vagueness allows tolerance to be applied selectively – to race, sexual orientation, or religious conviction – while other areas – such as smoking, recycling, or animal experimentation – stand safely outside the purview of mandatory diversity…
In the end, the question for everyone necessarily becomes not, “Shall I be tolerant or intolerant?” but rather, “What shall I tolerate and what shall I not tolerate?”
Voltaire, Locke, Lessing, and other Enlightenment figures downplayed the importance of doctrinal belief in favor of morals. Unlike today, in 18th-century Europe a general agreement regarding fundamental moral principles could be counted on in contrast to the fierce debates surrounding doctrinal questions. In doing so, however, they couldn’t avoid a creeping relativism and epistemological uncertainty regarding religious doctrine…
What Are We Tolerating?
Another argument against the language of tolerance is the widespread confusion regarding the proper object of tolerance. Nowadays, the different types of “tolerance” – for persons, ideas, and behavior – are generally lumped together, but they are hardly the same things.
Much as tolerance fails as a category for dealing with goods, which are embraced rather than tolerated, so too is tolerance an inappropriate category with regard to persons. From a Christian perspective, all persons deserve unconditional respect and love for the simple fact that they are persons. We may tolerate their irritating behavior – such as knuckle-cracking or gum-snapping – but it is insulting to suggest that we tolerate the persons themselves.
Nor are ideas the proper object of toleration. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes: true and false, ridiculous and compelling, brilliant and commonplace, diabolical and divine. Each is evaluated in relation to the truth and accepted or rejected accordingly. Those ideas that convince by the strength of their inner consistency are embraced; those found to be untenable are rejected.
If goods, persons, and ideas fail as the proper object of tolerance, the only possibility remaining is annoying human behavior or situations of evil…
Slouching Toward Indifference
Though tolerance doesn’t necessarily entail indifference, modern formulations of tolerance as acceptance of diversity would seem to imply at least a placid resignation and sometimes even an enthusiastic celebration of religious diversity…
Voltaire took Thomas Aquinas to task for having dared to say that he wished all the world were Christian, accusing him of being intolerant. But for Aquinas, that was the same as saying he wished all men to be happy. Few would consider it intolerant to wish all people to be healthy or well-educated (though this implies “intolerance” toward ignorance and illness), and for Aquinas the Christian faith was a greater good than health and education…
The fact of a plurality of religions doesn’t imply the ideology of religious pluralism…
Voltaire, building on Locke’s arguments, arrived at relativism’s logical end: indifference. Live and let live. Not only should we tolerate others’ behavior and beliefs, it is wrong to try to change them. In this regard, St. Pius X wrote in his apostolic letter Notre Charge Apostolique: “Catholic doctrine teaches us that charity’s first duty is not in the tolerance of erroneous opinions, sincere as they may be, nor in a theoretical or practical indifference toward the error or vice into which our brothers or sisters have fallen, but in zeal for their intellectual and moral improvement, no less than in zeal for their material well-being.”
This zeal, however, must express itself in ways consonant with the dignity of persons. In his letter on the missions, Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II penned these memorable words: “On her part the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience”…
Dignitatis Humanae re-emphasizes perennial convictions of Christianity, including the obligation to seek the truth and to bear witness to the truth we have received. In doing so, however, it underscores the deep respect that must be borne in every instance for the dignity and freedom of the person. “Truth,” we read, “is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.”
This respect for religious freedom stands head and shoulders above a supposed tolerance for religious belief – with the relativism, indifference, and subtle disdain for religion it so often comprises.
Additional thoughts on this subject can be found in George Weigel on Europe’s Two Culture Wars: Is This the Future for America?.
…two interrelated culture wars that beset Western Europe today.
The first of these wars…call[ed]…”Culture War A” – is a sharper form of the red state/blue state divide in America: a war between the post-modern forces of moral relativism and the defenders of traditional moral conviction. The second – “Culture War B” – is the struggle to define the nature of civil society, the meaning of tolerance and pluralism, and the limits of multiculturalism in an aging Europe whose below-replacement-level fertility rates have opened the door to rapidly growing and assertive Muslim populations.
The aggressors in Culture War A are radical secularists, motivated by what the legal scholar Joseph Weiler has dubbed “Christophobia.” They aim to eliminate vestiges of Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture from a post-Christian European Union by demanding same-sex marriage in the name of equality, by restricting free speech in the name of civility, and by abrogating core aspects of religious freedom in the name of tolerance. The aggressors in Culture War B are radical and jihadist Muslims who detest the West, who are determined to impose Islamic taboos on Western societies by violent protest and other forms of coercion if necessary, and who see such operations as the first stage toward the Islamification of Europe…
The question Europe must face, but which much of Europe seems reluctant to face, is whether the aggressors in Culture War A have not made it exceptionally difficult for the forces of true tolerance and authentic civil society to prevail in Culture War B…
Related postings include:
Rediscovering Civility and Purpose in America’s Public Discourse
Happy Birthday, America!
Liberal Fundamentalism, Revisited
More on the Religion of Liberal Fundamentalism
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part I
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part II
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part III
The Meaning of Tolerance
Respectful Competition: A Basic Requirement for a Healthy Democracy
What Does “Social Justice” Mean?
Coerced Charity vs. Voluntary Charity
Discussing Justice, Rights & Moral Common Sense
We Are Paying Quite a Price for Our Historical Ignorance
Rediscovering Proper Judicial Reasoning
Countering the Intolerance of Left-Wing Secular Fundamentalists
“It Is Liberalism That Is Now Bookless And Dying”
To Nurture Greater Ethical Awareness, Students Need Practice in Moral Discernment
Religious Without Being Morally Serious Vs. Morally Serious Without Being Religious
Spreading Falsehoods in our Children’s Education about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Founding
John Paul II, Requiescat in pacem
For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard (call it “the truth”) by which to settle our differences, then either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you; Nietszche, great, mad prophet of the 20th century, got at least that right. Freedom uncoupled from truth, John Paul taught, leads to chaos and thence to new forms of tyranny. For, in the face of chaos (or fear), raw power will inexorably replace persuasion, compromise, and agreement as the coin of the political realm. The false humanism of freedom misconstrued as “I did it my way” inevitably leads to freedom’s decay, and then to freedom’s self-cannibalization. This was not the soured warning of an antimodern scold; this was the sage counsel of a man who had given his life to freedom’s cause from 1939 on…
Building the free society certainly involves getting the institutions right; beyond that, however, freedom’s future depends on men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.
That is why John Paul relentlessly preached genuine tolerance: not the tolerance of indifference, as if differences over the good didn’t matter, but the real tolerance of differences engaged, explored, and debated within the bond of a profound respect for the humanity of the other…
John Paul II was teaching a crucial lesson about the future of freedom: Universal empathy comes through, not around, particular convictions…
…Relativism means this: Power trumps.
In today’s liberal democracies, Ratzinger has observed, the move to atheism is not, as it was in the 19th century, a move toward the objective world of the scientific rationalist. That was the “modern” way, and it is now being rejected, in favor of a new “post-modern” way. The new way is not toward objectivity, but toward subjectivism; not toward truth as its criterion, but toward power. This, Ratzinger fears, is a move back toward the justification of murder in the name of “tolerance” and subjective choice.
Along with that move, he has observed (haven’t we all?), comes a dictatorial impulse, to treat anyone who has a different view as “intolerant.”
In other words, the new dictatorial impulse declares that the only view permissible among reasonable people is the view that all subjective choices are equally valid. It declares, further, that anyone who claims that there are objective truths and objective goods and evils is “intolerant.” Such persons are to be expelled from the community, or at a minimum re-educated:
On the basis of relativism, however, no culture can long defend itself or justify its own values. If everything is relative, even tolerance is only a subjective choice, not an objective mandatory value. Ironically, though, what post-moderns call “tolerance” is actually radically intolerant of any view contrary to its own.
What Ratzinger defends is not dogmatism against relativism. What he defends is not absolutism against relativism. These are false alternatives:
The fact that we each see things differently does not imply that there is no truth. It implies, rather, that each of us may have a portion of the truth, and that in this or that matter some of us may hold more (or less) truth than others. Therefore, since each of us has only part of all the truth we seek, we must work hard together to discern in all things wherein lies the truth, and wherein the error.
Ratzinger wishes to defend the imperative of seeking the truth in all things, the imperative to follow the evidence. This imperative applies to daily life, to science, and to faith.
But the fact of human “relativity” – that is, the fact that we each see things differently, or that the life-voyage of each of us is unique and inimitable – should not be transformed into an absolute moral principle. The fact of relativity does not logically lead to the principle of moral relativism.
No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless.
The culture of relativism invites its own destruction, both by its own internal incoherence and by its defenselessness against cultures of faith.
For Cardinal Ratzinger, moreover, it is not reason that offers a foundation for faith, but the opposite. Historically, it is Jewish and Christian faith in an intelligent and benevolent Creator that gave birth in the West to trust in reason, humanism, science, and progress, and carried the West far beyond the fatalistic limits of ancient Greece and Rome.
To the meaninglessness of relativism, Ratzinger counter poses respect for the distinctive, incommensurable image of God in every single human being, from the most helpless to the seemingly most powerful, together with a sense of our solidarity with one another in the bosom of our Creator. This fundamental vision of the immortal value both of the individual person and the whole human community in solidarity has been the motor-power, the spiritual dynamic overdrive, of an increasingly global (catholic) civilization.