Need For Tolerance

One major reason why tolerance is needed in the area of knowledge and beliefs is the nature of our knowledge. Our knowledge, whether scientific or revelational is based on induction.

Induction is based on observation, interpretation and application of data/facts that come to us from deferent sources. This is the basic ‘tool of trade’ of every scientist – observe the facts, collect data, conduct experiments to confirm the data and then and only then make interpretations/conclusions. In other words the interpretations and conclusion that are drawn must be substantiated by the facts/data upon which they are based. And since one cannot have/collect all the data that is there in the world, as we are finite in our knowledge and abilities our conclusions are generally probable conclusions. The greater the data available the greater is the probability for the particular conclusion. ( Of course we can have statements of certainty in the areas of pure maths and definitional statements or tautologies).  And since our conclusions are conclusions of probability we accept and believe in them. This is what gives us psychological certainty.

Unfortunately many interpretations (and beliefs) are based on very small data while there are some, which can be substantiated by sufficient and reasonable data. And most of us do not examine to see if what is being claimed or believed in is based on sufficient and reasonable data. We tend to make emotional commitments to what we think is enough to believe/accept. Hence the bigotry and volatility whether it is found in the extremist or the believer.  We make hasty generalisations, extensions, reductions, and language tricks etc.

But what is generally forgotten is that induction is the ‘tool of trade’ of not only the scientists of the world but also of the religious scholar. Induction is the way we draw our theological/doctrinal interpretations/conclusions too. Even in the case of those faiths which claim divine revelation, the revelation is based on events, claims and beliefs based on which inductive conclusions are drawn.  Divine revelation did not come in the form of  general, universal statements for us to know but it comes in the form of  actions in human contexts, forms, histories etc, which we study and interpret and believe. This is what makes faith necessary.

It would be good to remember the following:

Ø       That most of our beliefs are based on induction. And induction being statements of probability, we must understand why some find it so difficult to believe what to us seems so reasonable. This should give rise to an attitude of understanding towards people of other faiths, ideologies etc. For even their beliefs seem to have certain reasons, only those reasons may not be sufficient enough, which they are not aware of, but are sincerely convinced about them.

This is also the reason why within a faith/religion there are so many differences of opinion on a host of doctrinal issues – each one seems to have certain reasons to hold to certain doctrines/practices. So we need to understand why some tend to hold to certain views so rigidly.

Our attitude of understanding towards those who do no agree with what we believe must lead to an attitude of making room for them as people who have a right to be and believe. God allows them to be – He could exterminate all those who do no agree with Him, but that is not the way He deals with them.

Ø       Secondly, there is a gap in knowledge – the gap between probability and certainty. This gap is bridged by faith. Since there is some evidence/information available we base our faith on it, whether it is reasonable or sufficient or not. And this leads to certainty for those who believe. This is true both for the believer and unbeliever. This should lead to an attitude of humility and not cockiness.

It is because of the nature of faith, and knowledge that we need to cultivate the attitude of tolerance towards all those who do not agree with what we believe.

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Robust Tolerance

One of the major concerns today in the world is the increasing trend towards cultural, linguistic and religious chauvinism and the intolerance that it generates. If tolerance is a desired virtue in the context of the pluralism of our times and if the hallmark of civilised communities is to be tolerant to people while opposing their views, then what is it that undergirds such a response and how can we engage each other with respect despite our differences? Why do we tend to swing between two extremes of the ‘veneer of broadmindedness’ and ‘rabid intolerance’ as alluded to in my previous article? In the following discussion we shall attempt to answer these questions and propose an alternative model, which I would call as a more robust and realistic way of handling our differences and conflicts.

John Naisbitt and Patricia Aberdeen said, as early as in 1990s, in Mega trends 2000, one of the trends of the 21-century is that there would be a swing towards global lifestyles and cultural chauvinism.

There has been an increased trend towards assertion of individual, social and cultural identities and distinctives in recent times. Many times this has lead to factions and fragmentation. Disagreements and differences have torn apart families, communities and nations. Today we have fragmented societies, broken homes and divided nations. And we do not seem to understand how to handle differences and distinctives of people and societies – leading to schisms and factions.

Factions imply differences of opinion or beliefs. And we generally don’t know how to handle disagreements and differences. Factionalism is to be preoccupied with the differences to such an extent that we allow them to hamper or hinder our relations and unity. We must remember that we cannot be completely free from differences and disagreements. Differences are bound to come because understanding and perspectives differ. We cannot remain totally free from differences or their influence over us. It does affect our working, our relationships and our unity.

Why do we have differences? Are differences and distinctives good? Or should we strive for uniformity at any cost? Is it unity or uniformity that we are looking for?

There have been generally two approaches to solve the problem of differences and dissensions. The first one and the one mostly touted, as the best for post-modern times is to be tolerant or broadminded towards all. Such an attitude sounds so noble and virtuous that most of us do not even pause to examine if there is a flaw in such thinking. This position is based on the monistic or pantheistic understanding of the world, life and reality. This approach generally springs from the view that ultimately ALL IS ONE. The distinctions or differences we see are only apparent and illusory. Therefore accept all without rejecting or making any value judgements about anyone or any position. I call this the ostrich-like or tongue-in-cheek approach, which under the veneer of broadmindedness tends to run away from the reality of differences that do exist and are a constant source of trouble. It is ostrich-like or tongue-in-cheek because it fails to face the differences that exist in realistic terms and acts is if differences do not exist. The hollowness of this view is exposed the moment this view is rejected. The best test for the proponents of this view is that they be willing to accept those who do not agree with them including those who are intolerant. Another drawback of this approach is that it negates or denies the individual identities or that they must be subsumed in the one ultimate identity, thus negating both the individual distinctions of people and their quest for recognition and acceptance. In the final analysis this approach is suicidal and self-defeating. Suicidal because if one goes on tolerating everything and anything then there would be nothing there to hold on to, including this very stand. It is self-defeating because by its very nature it must accept all other views including the intolerance of the intolerant. It is because of this reason and the insecurities arising as a result that, sooner or later they too begin to be intolerant.

The second approach has been to regiment culture and practices and to enforce faith and religion, suppressing freedom of expression and thought. This is the approach that is intolerant to all those who disagree and they often resort to rabid intolerance. We find this approach in general among most theocratic, totalitarian, and autocratic regimes in history. The stand is that one’s own view or belief is the only right one and all who do not agree with it cannot be tolerated. Theistic communities who hold to a strict monotheistic understanding of the universe, that God is ONE and therefore whoever disagrees with Him and what He says cannot be tolerated, hold this position generally. No debate, no discussion can be allowed. The world has been witness to untold, unreasonable and unfortunate violence and oppression as a result of this position. Some of the memories are of deep wounds on the psyche of several communities and nations. There might be moderates among them but moderation has no ideological basis within the view.

The third approach, which I wish to propose for consideration and debate, is what I term as a robust model. This approach is based on the Trinitarian understanding of God, the Creator. This model may be called as Trinitarian or Incarnational and is very close to the classical model of J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig [1] as quoted in my previous article.  According to the classical model, a person holds that his own moral views are true and those of his opponent are false. But he still respects his opponent as a person and his right to make a case for his views. Thus there is a duty to tolerate a different moral view, not in the sense of thinking it is morally correct, but quite the opposite, in the sense that a person will continue to value and respect one’s opponent, to treat him with dignity, to recognize his right to argue for and propagate his ideas and so forth”(italics mine). How is it possible that one can hold his views as true and his opponent’s false and yet tolerate them? What forms the basis for such a position?

Such a position is possible because of the understanding that God exists as Triune being. There is unity and there is diversity within the Godhead. God is ONE yet THREE. God is ONE because of the communion. God is THREE because of the room, the space they give each other to exist, to express and to BE. The three are in such mutual communion and inter-mingling in their giving and receiving from each other in love and fellowship, retaining their distinctives and particularity. God existed in his pristine solitude (if I may use the word). Nothing existed but He, the communion of three in perfect unity, tranquillity and love. He decided to ‘make room’ for another to exist. He not only created the material world but also self-conscious, self-expressing, rational beings like us with a free will. He made room for our thoughts, ideas, desires, actions, and abilities and finally even the possibility of our foolish lapses, follies, foibles, idiosyncrasies. He did not make us to fall but created us with the possibility to reject him.

Implications for plurality and tolerance

The idea of ‘God making room’ for another to exist has far reaching implications for plurality of ideas, expression and creativity. Hence any attempt at regimentation of people or unification to create one culture or society goes against the very grain of creation or the nature of our being.

According to this model there is room for a multiplicity of ideas, expressions, cultures and societies. The God of the Bible derives pleasure in variety. He went to the extent of taking the risk of creating a being who could disagree with him. And when he did, God without violating the freedom given to man made provision to win him over through a process of propositional, and personal revelation, thus engaging man at the level of the intellectual and the rational.  While holding on to his perfection, he works for man’s restoration through rational persuasion, personal incarnation and loving sacrifice, without the use of any coercive methods and allowing man the freedom to choose, tolerating even his rebellion. In this is the model for tolerance in today’s world. Trinitarian tolerance is giving the freedom to the other for expression and action even if it means a disagreement, but working persuasively to win him over, through rational engagement with gentleness and respect; gentleness with regards to the methods of persuasion, and respect with regard to the other’s position. (Note: This does not mean that there is no end to divine tolerance; God does mete out retributive justice at the end, but first he has borne it himself in the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ).

The incarnation of God in Christ shows us the way for settling our disputes and solving our differences – it is through genuine engagement though rational, intellectual and personal persuasion by means of discussion, debate and teaching. Not by methods of coercion or force but with gentleness and respect. This ought to be done to the point of incarnating to the level of those who we seek to win over.  This is the message for the world today, torn by differences, frustrated by oppression the only way we can handle our difficulties, differences, without losing our identities and distinctives is through tolerance of this kind. This kind of tolerance does not call for running away from reality nor to enforce ones own view. It demands that one has the confidence and the conviction of what he believes and engages in persuasion through debate to the point of entering into an incarnational identity with the people, we seek to convince. This is the challenge before all those who believe that they have something that the world must hear and learn.

This is mature and robust, for while holding to one’s own position as true, it treats its opponents with respect and makes room for them to exist and express themselves while refusing to accept their views. It is a willingness to examine the claims of its opponents and tolerate them even if there is no agreement.  A civilized society is one, which has the confidence of its own beliefs and has the willingness to examine its own views and work gracefully for change, if there is need. And also knows how to handle those who do not agree with them.

[1] Moreland, J.P. & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  (Downer’s Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2003).


The Myth of Absolute Tolerance

It is generally believed that broad-mindedness and tolerance are the hallmarks of civilized communities and therefore most desirable of virtues today. Tolerance as a virtue is good and needed especially in the context of the pluralism of our times. History has been witness to unimaginable hatred and violence in the name of religion and faith. Historians tell us that the last century has been the bloodiest and it is anybody’s guess as to what was the chief cause for it. Even in a nation like India where, as Radhakrishanan described tolerance in Hinduism as the ‘deathly hug of a bear’[1], we have witnessed intolerance at its worst in recent times. Surely there is need for a fresh look at the whole idea of tolerance and the need ever greater for it to be taught and practiced across the board by every one. But to think that tolerance can be absolute is to miss the point completely. Is tolerance possible in all situations and at all times? If it is, then what kind of tolerance is needed?

Intolerance of the tolerant!

The intolerance and the rabid hatred of opposing views even among the so-called tolerant societies or faiths have demonstrated sufficiently, one hopes, that something is wrong with our understanding of tolerance. It certainly suggests that absolute tolerance does not exist. To think that tolerance can be practiced without any regard for truth or to desist from any value judgments is, in the final analysis self defeating and suicidal. This can be demonstrated very easily. Just take a look at those who proclaim tolerance as a virtue. You will notice that even they are intolerant. They are intolerant towards those who do not agree with them. Their position is that every viewpoint is equally valid and therefore must be tolerated. But the trouble comes when they are faced with those who do not hold such a view. There are those who hold that every view or belief is not equally valid and that theirs is the right one, and those who disagree need to be challenged and corrected. The proponents of tolerance cannot but disagree with such a view. This brings home to us, that absolute tolerance is an impossible position to hold and is self defeating. It is impossible because some intolerance seems inevitable. It is self-defeating because while claiming to be tolerant they cannot tolerate those who disagree with them and end up being intolerant. Besides, if you begin to tolerate every view or belief, you end up being subsumed by those who believe that their view is right and that they must do everything they can to propagate it if necessary use force or even exterminate those who hold a different view.  The ‘deathly hug of a bear’ indeed, dragging the bear to its own death! The eastern societies, especially in India, have come to realize this.

Why is it so? Why can’t we tolerate every view or position and not dub anyone as wrong? Why cant tolerance be absolute?

Tolerance is an attitude

To begin with the dictionaries[2] tell us that tolerance has to do with attitudes or a willingness to bear or accept. Responses and attitudes are not values or standards to talk about in terms of absolutes. We talk of absolutes in the context of truth, values, norms, and morals. Secondly when we talk of tolerance there is a suggestion that there is something that is the mean, norm or a standard and any deviation from it can be or cannot be tolerated. So tolerance is an attitude shown or the willingness to accept a deviation or a difference from a norm, belief, or a viewpoint.

It needs to be noted that the idea of tolerance suggests that there is a disagreement about an issue and therefore the need for tolerance about the disagreement. It also suggests that there is what is known as a median or a norm or even a standard and any deviation from it can or cannot be tolerated or tolerated with a rider or a qualification. In the fields of engineering and scientific experimentation we know this is a common practice. For instance when I was studying for my bachelors in science, we had to conduct experiments in physics and chemistry. We were asked to perform the experiments and take the readings. Our findings were to conform to the standard readings and minor differences were permitted within certain limits as tolerable. Just this evening the weather forecaster on the TV referred to the pollution levels in the city of Hyderabad and suggested that they were within tolerable limits. My friend who works in a gas turbines manufacturing unit of a leading company tells that when the blades are made for the turbine each blade must meet a specification with regard to size and the temperatures it is subjected to or has to withstand. Since it is impossible to achieve absolute or zero error because of human factors, and environmental fluctuations, they are given certain tolerable limits within which to operate.  This is an accepted practice in such fields. One can imagine the disaster that one could face if everything were to be tolerated.

Tolerance is towards people

J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig[3] tell us that the principle of tolerance has been defined in two different ways, the Classical and the Modern versions. “According to the classical sense of the principle of tolerance, a person holds that his own moral views are true and those of his opponent are false. But he still respects his opponent as a person and his right to make a case for his views. Thus there is a duty to tolerate a different moral view, not in the sense of thinking it is morally correct, but quite the opposite, in the sense that a person will continue to value and respect one’s opponent, to treat him with dignity, to recognize his right to argue for and propagate his ideas and so forth”(italics mine). While  “The modern version of tolerance, popular in the general culture, goes beyond the classical version in claiming that one should not even judge that other people’s viewpoints are wrong.” One wonders if there is a reluctance in the later version, to face truth or even to challenge or be challenged by opposing views, because it entails intellectual and philosophical scrutiny, correction and scope for improvement. One of the problems with this view is that it has mistaken truth for tastes and ethics for aesthetics. In the area of arts and culture, as Mortimer J. Adler[4] argues, where tastes reign supreme, tolerance is desirable and to be expected. But in matters of truth and values, absolute tolerance is tantamount to dismissing all value judgments as matters of taste rather than as matters of truth. But again as Adler quoting J.S. Mill, argues,  “Mill advocates the toleration of individuals who differ in thought and speech, but not tolerance for competing doctrines or opinions, as if they were all equally acceptable or preferable. He does not look upon pluralism with respect to matters of truth in the same way he looks upon pluralism with respect to matters of taste.”

Robust tolerance

Finally if our aim is the pursuit of truth, then we need the ‘classical’ kind of tolerance. It is mature and robust, for while holding one’s own position as true, it treats its opponents with respect and makes room for them to exist and express themselves while opposing their views. We certainly do not need the tongue-in-cheek kind of tolerance, which makes dubious claims to tolerance while running away from reality and truth. Nor do we need the kind of intolerance that attempts to regiment culture and practices and to enforce faith and religion, suppressing freedom of expression and thought.

The test of a truly developed or civilized society is not of being broadminded or tolerant without any regard for truth claims or to avoid value judgments.  But it is a willingness to examine the claims of its opponents and tolerate them even if there is no agreement. It is a sad commentary on the 21st Century society, with all our claims to knowledge and information we do not know how to handle our differences, disagreements, dissensions and conflicts.  We either tend to hide behind the veneer of being broadminded or resort to rabid intolerance. Both the responses indicate a weakness or even an unwillingness to examine ones own claims or those of others and thus be exposed. A civilized society is one, which has the confidence of its own beliefs and has the willingness to examine its own views and work gracefully for change, if there is need. And also knows how to handle those who do not agree with them.


[1]Quoted in, Pillai, Paul. India’s Search for the unknown Christ, New Delhi, 1978.

[2] The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary: (Online dictionary) Tolerance (of / for sb/sth) the willingness to accept or tolerate sb/sth, especially opinions or behavior that you may not agree with, or people who are not like you; (technical) the amount by which the measurement of a value can vary without causing problems; allowable variation in any measurable entity.

The Cambridge dictionary: (Online dictionary) tolerance (ACCEPTANCE) – willingness to accept behavior and beliefs which are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them; tolerate – to accept behavior and beliefs which are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.

[3] Moreland, J.P. & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downer’s Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2003).

[4] Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth, (New York, Collier books, 1990)