Tolerance and Truth

By Michael Horner

What is tolerance? This may seem like a simple question with an obvious answer. But is it? I suggest we'd better know the answer very clearly in order to respond to those who, in the name of tolerance, impose a frightening intolerance.

In Canada, we value the concept of the "cultural mosaic" where different cultures are encouraged to retain their distinctiveness. We compare our system to the American "melting pot" concept where all cultures are amalgamated into one. Thus Canada has a neutral policy of multiculturalism.

In order for these differing views to coexist peacefully, there must be tolerance of each other's culture and views. So far, so good.

But somewhere near here a logical jump confuses the categories of tolerance and truth. Somehow we move from simply allowing differing views to offering different views as equal. Assuming that truth only gets in the way of equality, no one view can be more true than another. Thus exclusive claims to truth promote inequality and hence intolerance.

Clearly this violates one's rationality. What begins as tolerance of those with whom you disagree, now becomes acceptance of the views with which you originally disagreed! Anything less in intolerance.

But how can this be when the concept of tolerance implies disagreement? If there is no disagreement, there is nothing to tolerate. Eliminating differences eliminates the need for tolerance. I don't believe that it is actually tolerance that many people really want.

When gay rights activists claim that disagreement with their views is intolerance and homophobia, it is not tolerance they are seeking but affirmation of and agreement with their lifestyle. The real intolerance is not to allow someone to disagree with their views without threat of sanctions, censorship or violence.

It is not tolerance that is actually being promoted. It is relativism, the idea that all truth is relative to cultures or individuals. Truth, therefore is not worth pursuing. Our society has been taught to value openness to all views as the highest virtue. We are taught to fear intolerance, not error. Instead of being taught to correct error, we are taught to avoid making any claims to truth.

Ironically, not only does the imposition of relativism on society discard the need for tolerance by eliminating all significant differences, it also breeds intolerance of those who disagree with relativism. That is, under the guise of tolerance, those who make exclusive claims to truth are
branded intolerant.

This relativism has already influenced public education. Secularists claim that since so many other religions exist, Christian teachings and morals should be removed from our schools. This is a ploy. The secularist is not trying to gain a hearing or a place for these other religions, but rather is trying to remove ALL religious influence from education. It is as rational as a principal looking around his school and noticing that some like to play hockey, others prefer football, others basketball and still others soccer. Given that there is such a plurality of preferences and opinion, he concludes, "I won't allow any sports."

Genuine tolerance allows differing views to have an equal right to exist, not necessarily an equal share in truth. These are different issues.

There is confusion here between the admirable quality of tolerance for different views and the absurd position that all claims can be or even must be equally true.

We can't toss out truth for the sake of tolerance. We are truly intolerant when we respect the rights of others to hold a different view without the threat of violence. But we may still be firmly committed to another point of view as being true. The great value of tolerance in no way excuses us from resolving conflicting claims to truth.

We can be truly tolerant without accepting another person's beliefs. Tolerance has nothing to do with accepting another person's belief, only his right to have that belief.

For example, I can tolerate people who believe in a flat earth without having to agree with them. Likewise, I can tolerate the beliefs of people from other religions without having to accept their beliefs as true.

This misunderstanding of tolerance leads to the ridiculous situation of a position being considered false JUST BECAUSE it claims to be true.

A story is told of Socrates wading into the public bath in Athens. Following him, a young man taps Socrates on the shoulder and says, "Socrates, can I be your disciple?" Socrates continues walking, giving no response.

"Socrates, can I be your disciple?" the young man repeats. Again Socrates gives no response. A third time the young man pleads, "Socrates, can I please be your disciple?" Suddenly, Socrates wheels around, grabs the young man's head and thrusts it under the water. He holds the struggling man under until the bubbles start surfacing.

Finally, when there is virtually no hope left, Socrates pulls the young man up out of the water and says eye to eye, "Young man, when you desire truth as much as you desired air, then you can be my disciple."

We live in a world that no longer values truth. When tolerance is valued at the expense of truth, it becomes intolerance. As thinking and moral people, we should be committed to both truth AND tolerance.

Michael Horner has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. As a traveling lecturer with Campus Crusade for Christ, Canada, he has participated in over 60 debates and delivered thousands of lectures on University campuses around the world. Mr. Horner is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Evangelical Philosophical Society and an adjunct instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Trinity Western University. He is the author of a popular series of articles entitled ANSWERS which have been distributed widely on university campuses around the world. Current topics in the ANSWERS series include, "Does God Exist?", "Who Did Jesus Think He was Anyway?", "Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?", and "Is There Any Real Right or Wrong?". He currently lives in Abbotsford, BC with his wife Phyllis and their three children.

Copyright 1996 Campus Crusade for Christ. Used with permission from