The Intolerance of Tolerance


Greg Koukl

There is one word that can stop a follower of Christ in his tracks as he seeks to “give an account for the hope” that is in him. That word is “intolerant.” Tolerant people do not think their convictions are right and others are wrong. They are impartial, non-judgmental, and neutral. The cultural creed, “There is no truth,” is often followed by a demand for tolerance. But this appeal self-destructs because it actually asserts two truths that cancel each other out: the “truth” that there is no truth—a clear conflict—and the truth that one ought to tolerate other’s viewpoints. Their confusion serves as a warning that the modern notion of tolerance is seriously misguided.

The Tolerance Trick

Greg Koukl

On this definition of tolerance, true tolerance is impossible. Let me give you a real-life example. A few years back, I spoke to a class of seniors at a Christian high school in Des Moines. I wanted to alert them to this “tolerance trick,” but I also wanted to learn how much they had already been taken in by it. I began by writing two sentences on the board. The first expressed the current understanding of tolerance: All views are equally valid; no view is better than another. All heads nodded in agreement. Nothing controversial here. Then I wrote the second sentence: Jesus is the only way of salvation; all other religions are wrong for rejecting Him. Immediately hands flew up. “You can’t say that,” a coed challenged. “That’s disrespectful. How would you like it if someone said you were wrong?” “Like you’re doing right now?” I pointed out. “But your view is intolerant,” she said, noting that the second statement violated the first statement. What she didn’t see was that the first statement also violated itself. I pointed to the first statement and asked, “Is this a view, the idea that all views are equally valid?” They all agreed. Then I pointed to the second statement—the “intolerant” one—and asked the same question: “Is this a view?” They studied the sentence for a moment. Slowly my point began to dawn on them. If all views are equally valid, then the view that other religions are wrong for rejecting Jesus is just as true as the view that other religions are right for rejecting Jesus. But this is hopelessly contradictory: “All views are equally valid, including the view that all views are not equally valid,” or “All views are equally valid and not equally valid at the same time.” They’d been taken in by the tolerance trick. If this is what tolerance amounts to, then no one can be tolerant because “tolerance” turns out to be contradictory gibberish.

True Tolerance Part 1

Greg Koukl

“Would you like to know how to get out of the trap?” I asked. They nodded. “Reject this distortion of tolerance and return to the classical view.” Then I wrote these two principles on the board: Be egalitarian regarding persons. Be elitist regarding ideas. Egalitarian - think equal. Treat others as having equal value or worth. This first principle is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. Treat people with equal respect. True tolerance applies to how we treat people, not how we treat ideas. We respect people who hold different beliefs from ours by treating them with courtesy, allowing them a place in the public conversation. Though we may strongly disagree with their ideas, tolerance requires us to be civil towards them in spite of our different convictions. The modern definition of tolerance turns the classical formula topsy-turvy: Be egalitarian regarding ideas. Be elitist regarding persons. If all ideas are equal, when you disagree with another’s ideas you are automatically accused of disrespecting the person (as the student did with Greg). On this new view, no idea or behavior can be opposed, even if done graciously, without inviting the charge of intolerance. Ironically, this results in the very elitism regarding persons relativists are trying to avoid. The “intolerant” one can be publicly humiliated, labeled as bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant, and indecent. Tolerance has thus gone topsy-turvy: Tolerate most beliefs, but don’t tolerate (i.e. show respect for) those who disagree with those beliefs. Different opinions are labeled as “imposing your view on others” and quickly silenced by calling the person “intolerant.”

True Tolerance Part 2

Greg Koukl

True tolerance involves three elements: (1) putting up with (2) a conduct or point of view one disagrees with or doesn’t like (3) while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we cannot truly tolerate someone unless we disagree with her in some way. This is the crux of the issue. We don’t tolerate people who share our views. There’s nothing to put up with. True tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong, yet still treat decently. This essential element of classical tolerance—disagreement (elitism regarding ideas)—has been completely lost in the distortion of the concept. Nowadays if you think someone is wrong, you are called intolerant no matter how you treat her. This presents a curious problem. One must first think another is wrong in order to exercise true tolerance, yet expressing that conviction brings the accusation of intolerance. It’s a “Catch-22.” According to this approach, true tolerance becomes impossible. The myth of tolerance forces everyone into an inevitable conflict. Each person in any discussion has a point of view he thinks is correct. Each person thinks that those who differ are wrong. No one ever satisfies the demands of the postmodern definition of tolerance. That is why the “neutrality” of postmodern tolerance is a myth.

Put It into Action

Greg Koukl

- Keep in mind that virtually all charges of intolerance are no more than simple name-calling rather than actually engaging your view to show why it’s wrong. - When someone calls you intolerant, always ask for a definition. Ask him what he means when he says you’re intolerant (or arrogant). - If he claims you’re intolerant because you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong, ask if he thinks his own views are right. - The fact is, everyone thinks his own views are correct - that’s why we believe what we believe (no one knowingly believes falsehoods). If he says his views are true for him, ask why he’s talking to you. Point out that it sure looks like he’s trying to push his correct, “tolerant” view on you. - Finally say, “I’m confused. Why is it when I think I’m right, I’m intolerant or arrogant, but when you think you’re right, you’re just right? What am I missing here?” Be sure to wait for an answer. - If tolerance means that all views are equally valid, then the Christian’s “narrow” views turn out to be just as valid as any other. Attacking Christians for their views, then, is intolerant.