Skip to main content

Transatlantic Blog

The foundation of true tolerance

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, University of Chicago rhetorician Richard Weaver wrote of “god terms.” By this phrase, Weaver meant the terms to which a culture attaches absolute goodness and which command unquestioned moral weight. When such terms are used in conversation, they carry the presumption of moral agreement. Writing in the 1950s, Weaver offered the terms “progress,” “freedom,” and “science” as examples of god terms of his own day.

The word “tolerance” functions as a late twentieth and early-twenty first century god term. The veneration with which this term is used may be seen in UNESCO's 1995 Declaration of Principles of Tolerance, which defines tolerance as:

respect, acceptance, and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.

The document concludes by urging that inculcating tolerance be one of the major goals of education at large.

Tolerance certainly can be, and has been, a building block of a healthy civilization. Yet tolerance is rarely defined. This essay will seek to distinguish between a “thin” and a “thick” view of tolerance, arguing that a thick view of tolerance is essential for Western civilization. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that within the field of moral epistemology, ethicists distinguish between “thin” concepts (which are generally expressed vaguely using words like “goodness” and “wrongness”) and “thick” concepts (which move to the level of concrete expression and application employing terms such as “courage” and “compassion”). Bernard Williams argued that moral action only occurs at the level of “thick” concepts.  Tolerance requires a philosophically robust grounding that heightens its importance and links it to our common humanity.

“Thin” tolerance

A “thin” tolerance cannot hold society together. By flattening distinctions between communities, it does injustice to the complexities of a pluralistic society. Rather than highlighting distinctions and values within positions, “thin” tolerance dismisses all competing truth claims, presenting them as having little value or as utterly meaningless. They are simply not important enough to spark disagreement.

This kind of tolerance is encapsulated in a metaphor used by Sean Meshorer in The Bliss Experiment. In Meshorer’s understanding, all religions have the same goal – reaching the divine. He imagines a mountain with the divine at the top. All religions are different paths seeking the same goal – the mountaintop.

Those holding to this understanding of tolerance do a disservice to the intellectual complexity within each position; a thin tolerance fails to understand how adherents view themselves.

The problem with Meshorer’s metaphor is that it ignores what each religion claims about itself. The Brahma of Hinduism is not the Allah of Islam, nor is the Trinitarian God of Christianity the Enlightenment pursued by Buddhism, nor is the all-powerful Creator YHWH of Judaism equivalent to the natural forces revered by paganism. Three of these traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – each claim to be the unique expression of religious truth, denying the truth claims of all others. This metaphor flattens each religious tradition, and as such fails to provide a solid grounding for tolerance.

Those holding to this understanding of tolerance do a disservice to the intellectual complexity within each position; a thin tolerance fails to understand how adherents view themselves. This tolerance operates with a kind of disrespect as it denies credibility to the different participants in a complicated conversation; thin tolerance encourages people to ignore the real differences distinguishing their convictions.   

Instead of this sense of tolerance, Western culture is built upon a philosophically thick and reasonably sound tolerance that respects the intellectual traditions behind ethnic, cultural, and religious claims.

“Thick” tolerance

In contrast to a “thin” vision of tolerance, a “thick” understanding of tolerance begins in human nature; a complex anthropology provides commonality undergirding diversity. All human beings are composed of rational, physical, and spiritual capacities. This common human nature nurtures tolerance of different expressions of humanity.

Studying the different cults that have motivated mankind throughout the ages allows us to understand other people without accepting their ideologies, or excusing their actions.

This common understanding of human nature is expressed in unique ways across different cultures. The Judeo-Christian doctrine goes by the Latin phrase Imago Dei, (the image of God); this image makes humans different from animals (Genesis 1:26-27). For the Eastern world the soul, which has been reincarnated in the centuries-long cycle of samsara, is that part of man which transcends the body. In Greek thought, this is the nous, the “divine spark” which enables men to reason. All humans possess this rationality, paired with a conscience.

These religious motivations, according the American intellectual historian Russell Kirk, explain how human beings build societies. He wrote:

From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship – that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshipers, that community grows. … Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government – all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.  

Studying the different cults that have motivated mankind throughout the ages allows us to understand other people without accepting their ideologies, or excusing their actions.

Our common human capacity for understanding, and our ability to build constructive relationships with each other, depends upon recognizing the other as a another person. English philosopher Roger Scruton explains this phenomenon in an analysis of the human face. He writes:

The face has this meaning for us because it is the threshold at which the other appears, offering ‘this thing that I am’ as a partner in dialogue. This feature goes to the heart of what it is to be human. Our inter-personal relations would be inconceivable without the assumption that we can commit ourselves through promises, take responsibility now for some event in the future or the past, make vows that bind us forever to the one who receives them, and undertake obligations that we regard as untransferable to anyone else. And all this we read in the face. (The Face of God, 93.)

Without recognizing our shared human nature, atrocities become inevitable. The Spanish conquistadors perpetrated horrors in the New World; Bartoleme de las Casas became the voice urging the protection of indigenous cultures because, he argued, they shared in common humanity. The Nazis denied the humanity of the Jews before committing genocide. Whenever society loses sight of our common human dignity, tolerance evaporates.

Rather than beginning in our differences, tolerance grows out of our common humanity. Tolerance begins, not in flattening the distinctions between us, but in recognizing in every human person the capacity for reason and the infinite value of each individual human person.

By first recognizing that all humans share certain capacities, that we are the same kind, we can then appreciate the different traditions in which the human family has flourished. As Herbert Butterfield once wrote, “To understand is to love.” When we understand the choices people make, and the rational processes behind their differences, the other moves from being an alien to being our neighbor. This is the Western tradition of tolerance, one that has proven thick enough to tie together all those willing to share in it and made possible the flourishing of Western culture.

(Photo credit: jinterwas. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Luddy Schools Conference 2015 (Rolesville, NC) and the North Carolina Conference for the Social Studies 2016 (Greensboro, NC).


Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.