The Myth of Religious Tolerance


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.

As one notable example, along with the 40th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, 2005 also marked the tenth anniversary of the United Nations’ “Year for Tolerance.” Back in early 1995, Federico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, made the following remarks in New York:

Fighting intolerance takes both state action and individual responsibility. Governments must adhere to the international standards for human rights, must ban and punish hate crimes and discrimination against all vulnerable groups, must ensure equal access to justice and equal opportunity for all. Individuals must become tolerance teachers within their own families and communities. We must get to know our neighbors and the cultures and the religions that surround us in order to achieve an appreciation for diversity. Education for tolerance is the best investment we can make in our own future security.

If the umbrella of tolerance necessarily covers hate crime legislation and “appreciation for diversity,” with all that has come to signify, these remarks may well give pause. In modern discourse tolerance is never just tolerance; and even if it were, it would hardly present the best category for describing attitudes toward religion. Rather, we would do well to heed the wisdom of the Council Fathers regarding the true meaning of religious freedom.


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. In the words of Voltaire, “Philosophy, the sister of religion, has disarmed the hands that superstition had so long stained with blood; and the human mind, awakening from its intoxication, is amazed at the excesses into which fanaticism had led it.”

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. As Voltaire wrote in his Treatise on Toleration, “The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery.” Toward this stated end, many mechanisms were put into play, among them the selection of proper words to modify people’s views on religion.

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. Language of religious toleration of Christianity in Saudi Arabia would be a marked improvement over present conditions, and consistent with a confessional Muslim state’s belief that Christianity is a false religion. In a non-confessional state, such language is more pernicious.

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.”

This definition mirrors that of the American Heritage College Dictionary, which states that tolerance is “a fair and permissive attitude toward those whose race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry. A fair and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

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. A public official tolerant of child abuse or tax evasion would hardly be considered a virtuous official.

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. Thus Voltaire was able to defend the actions of the Roman Empire in persecuting Christians and blamed the Christians themselves for their martyrdom because they failed to keep their religion to themselves. He avers that the death of Christians was a consequence of their own intolerance toward Rome, and not the other way around. Such sophistry is part and parcel of many of today’s debates on tolerance as well, and flows from the ambivalence of the term.

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” (Article 1.2). 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.

Of course, this double standard is hardly new. John Locke himself, in the midst of his impassioned appeal for religious toleration, notes that toleration does not extend to Catholics, Muslims, or atheists. “To worship one’s God in a Catholic rite in a Protestant country,” he writes, “amounts to constructive subversion.”

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?”


Relativistic Underpinnings

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. For example, in Nouveaux Mélanges Philosophiques, Historiques, Critiques, Voltaire posits as the condition for the establishment of a true tolerance the disappearance of theological controversy, which he describes as a “plague” and “epidemic illness.”

On the other hand, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke dismissively notes that “everyone is orthodox to himself.” His own ecclesiology that lacked belief in the existence of any one true church led Locke to the conviction that all Christian churches (except the Catholic Church) should be tolerated. “Nor is there any difference,” he confidently wrote, “between the national Church and other separated congregations.”

Locke further appeals to the “Business of True Religion.” A true Christian, Locke asserts, will dedicate himself principally to a life of virtue and piety, which are the chief concerns of religion. In the same letter, he relegates to a lower tier “outward pomp of worship, reformed discipline, orthodox faith.” His own theological prejudices and political concerns led him to arbitrarily place morals above doctrine, since morals at the time garnered greater unanimity and generated fewer disputes. Their roles have been somewhat reversed today.

Locke’s disdain for “orthodoxy” and Voltaire’s diatribes against religious “fanaticism” find an echo in contemporary descriptions of tolerance. The 1995 UN Declaration on Principles of Tolerance states that tolerance “involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.” Popular wisdom holds that true tolerance entails not only respect for others, but the acknowledgement that we don’t know for certain who is right. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the late Pope John Paul II wrote that today, some “consider such relativism an essential condition of democracy, inasmuch as it alone is held to guarantee tolerance, mutual respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority, whereas moral norms considered to be objective and binding are held to lead to authoritarianism and intolerance.”


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 under the broad heading of “tolerance,” 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 in 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. Here, too, the criterion for discerning what is to be tolerated must be determined by the superior good that justifies it. In the case of Dignitatis Humanae, the Council Fathers avoid the claim that error has rights by appealing to the truth that people “cannot discharge these obligations [the pursuit of truth] in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.” Thus even when they fail to live up to their duty to seek the truth, or fail in their attempts to discover it, the right to religious liberty persists.

Just as the term “tolerance” does not appear in Dignitatis Humanae, it likewise is absent in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In fact, of the scant five times that the verb “tolerate” appears in the Catechism, two refer to the moral legitimacy of accepting foreseen but undesirable evil consequences of human actions, if the evil is not intended either as an end or a means. The other three citations concern the moral tolerableness of civil divorce in certain limited cases, and the intolerableness of trial marriages and a life of duplicity. The precision of this language provides a refreshing contrast to much of the vague tolerance blather of our day.


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. This has led to theologies of pluralism incompatible with the divine mandate to “go out to the whole world and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19-20), as well as Peter’s declaration that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

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.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who devoted her entire life to spreading the love of Christ, expressed her motivation with the utmost simplicity, as recorded in Desmond Doig’s Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work: “I want very much for people to come to know God, to love Him, to serve Him, for that is true happiness. And what I have I want everyone in the world to have. But it is their choice. If they have seen the light they can follow it. I cannot give them the light: I can only give them the means.”

The fact of a plurality of religions doesn’t imply the ideology of religious pluralism. St. Paul undauntedly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to King Agrippa, who declared: “A little more and you would make a Christian of me,” to which Paul replied, “I wish that not only you, but all those that hear me might become as I am” (Acts 26:28-29). Though other religions may contain elements of truth, we must hope that all come to the fullness of truth.

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. To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the Church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!

Similarly, in his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II wrote:

The new evangelization has nothing in common with what various publications have insinuated when speaking of restoration, or when advancing the accusation of proselytism, or when unilaterally or tendentiously calling for pluralism and tolerance…. The mission of evangelization is an essential part of the Church.

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.


This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Thomas D. Williams


Thomas D. Williams is the Rome Bureau Chief for Breitbart News. He is a Catholic moral theologian, professor of ethics and author of 15 books including Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (2005) and The World As It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (2011). Williams holds a doctorate in theology, a license in philosophy and a BBA in business administration and economics.

  • Paul Rodden

    Fighting intolerance…”

    Isn’t he refuting himself?

  • D.B.

    There needs to be clarification on this. I agree with them in that there is no Natural “Right” to be a Heretic or Heathen, at least in the grand scheme of things.

  • Andy

    I agree with them in that there is no Natural “Right” to be a Heretic or Heathen, at least in the grand scheme of things.

    Of course there is such a right. Every one of us, down to Adam and Eve, was born with free will. We can also reap the consequences of our decisions.

  • Eric Giunta

    I think we need to differentiate between a) the right to heresy, and b) the right not to be compelled by any human agency to profess what one does not believe to be true.

    I believe it is the latter which the developed teaching of the Church endorses, in so doing bringing the Church’s teaching back in accord with the ante-nicene Fathers, not to mention the Sacred Scriptures.

    To claim otherwise is to endorse a medieval aberration which is plainly contrary to the New Testament as well as the natural law, and makes us little better than the Islamists criticized by our Holy Father in his famous Regensburg address.

    I’m a huge medeivo-phile, folks, but there’s nothing wrong with admitting that the Church of the day got this one wrong. Rather, acknowledging this fact should make us all the more sensitive to claiming that every thing farted out by a Pope, Council, or Bishop is infallible.

  • James Pawlak
  • R.C.

    I think we need to differentiate between a) the right to heresy, and b) the right not to be compelled by any human agency to profess what one does not believe to be true.

    Yes, exactly.

    There is no “natural right” to heresy…meaning, there is no natural right to preach what you know to be false religious doctrine, or to willfully deceive yourself about such matters when you absolutely know better.

    But there is a big difference between asserting “no one has a natural right to do X” and asserting “it is both justified and wise to use force against a person to prevent him from doing X, or to punish him for doing X, after-the-fact.”

    No one has a natural right to murder; furthermore, it is justified and wise to exert force to prevent a murder or to punish a murderer after-the-fact. So murder falls in that category of things where there is no natural right, and where there is also no legal right.

    No one has a natural right to be a glutton, either; but I would not hold an obese woman away from the buffet line at gunpoint, nor put her in prison after the fact. With gluttony, there is no natural right, but it is neither justified nor wise to exert force to prevent or punish; hence, there is a legal right.

    The Libertarian party in the United States is absolutely bass-ackwards on some things, most prominently abortion. But a philosophically libertarian understanding of the scope of government, while not correct when taken to the extremes to which some folk take it, is extremely useful for clear thinking about the role of government (and very complimentary to the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity).

    Included under the kind of clear thinking seen in libertarian quarters are such observations as:

    (1.) If a role can be played by more than one level of government, it should be played by the lower of the two; e.g., by the individual or family instead of the neighborhood or community, or by the neighborhood community instead of the city council, or the city council rather than the county, or by the county rather than the state, or by the state rather than the federal.

    (2.) Broadly speaking, governments ought to outlaw that set of actions in which one person initiates force or fraud against another to violate their rights; and, broadly speaking, it is either unwise, unjustified, or both, to outlaw activities outside that set.

    (3.) This (number 2, above) means that what ought to be outlawed is a subset of what is wrong, and that when we get keenly annoyed at someone for doing what is wrong but not outlawed, we ought to dial back our outrage lest we be tempted to unjustly or unwisely write a law against it.

    (4.) As an extension of number 3, above, you should always remember: When your party is in power, resist the temptation to grant to government new expansions to its power. You must remember that, in a few years, the opposite party will be in office, and will use that newly-expanded power in ways of which you will not approve. Better neither side have that power.

    So there are rights, and there are RIGHTS. Always important to keep in mind, in conversations like these.

  • Austin

    I am not sure if the author is advocating an established church or perhaps some “partnership” between Church and Government? I am wary of this. Government money comes with strings and I would not want the US Federal Government telling the Catholic Church what to do, what to believe. I know the current separation of church and state may not be perfect, but I am wary of any Government-Church partnership.

    I agree with R.C. I know that Government is necessary,but should be limited.

  • Maria
  • krulayar
  • Kenneth

    The sentiment “Religious practice forms part of the common good of society and should be encouraged rather than marginalized” shows the fundamental problem with religious leaders and writers today

  • Tony Esolen

    Witness the intemperance, the bigotry, the hatred, and the historical ignorance of the preceding quote. I meet no one less tolerant than the secularist, and, since I’m in the academy, I meet quite a few of those.

    Let’s get something straight. The human race has NEVER had religion as a primary motive for warfare. Islam is a partial, but only a partial, exception. The philosophes used the example of the so-called wars of religion as a template with which to view all human conflict. Those wars were more about nationalism than about religion, even at that; and the vast majority of wars in the history of man have had nothing to do with religion.

    As opposed to what Kenneth above says, the commandment to love my neighbor as myself requires me, under the virtue of prudence, to tolerate his errors, not because they aren’t really errors, but because the conscience by its nature cannot be compelled. By contrast, secularism is rife with hatred; politics is an ugly god. There is nothing in secularism, nothing at all, that can unite people across economic, intellectual, and partisan divides, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the snake pits that form in the secular academy. When I go to church, I unite with people that the smug secularist never associates with — because our union in worship of God makes me a brother of the fellow in prison, the blue collar worker, the old lady, the little child.

    I’m reminded here of the kid who pretended to be Christian and went to Liberty University, and then wrote about his experiences. How did they treat him after the scam? With love. His former roommate said, “How can I not forgive you, when I have been forgiven so much?”

    Voltaire was a great hater…. I’ll cast my lot rather with Mother Teresa than with Madeleine Murray O’Hair and the like.

    One last comment: not only is religion part of the common good of society; there is no such thing as a genuine society or culture apart from it. Things degenerate into crass materialism, and there is nothing left to unite people in joy. “Secular humanism” is a contradiction in terms.

  • Thomas Mallon

    Fr. Brian Harrison has clarified many of the issues here:

    The document has problems, he acknowledges, but heresy is not one of them

  • Kathryn

    “Religion is a good to be embraced and defended…”

    But what if the religion in question is a false religion? Should it be embraced and defended?

  • Bob

    Well, in answer to the proceeding post, most religions believe the rest are false and their own correct, so I think it might be good idea to skip the question altogether. No one would be able to objectively judge any religion as false or true, no matter how many religious writings it has.

  • Michael PS

    Dorothy Sayers put it rather well, when she said,