The other day my daughter invited me to join her on a trip to Babys R Us to shop for a new toy for her 16-month old son (my grandson). Of course, “Grampy” said “Yes!,” so off we went. During the ride my daughter quipped “What’s up with building a mosque near Ground Zero? How weird is that?” After mentioning that I thought it was more like a community center rather than a mosque, she responded with something like “Well, whether community center or mosque that is like America building a nuclear plant in Hiroshima or Japan honoring their martyrs with a community center near Pearl Harbor! Just a little insensitive don’t ya think!? It makes me think of that Coexist bumper sticker. So…how’s that coexist thingie work’n for ya!!?”

We did not continue the discussion since we pulled into the parking lot of Babys R Us and my grandson was ready to move on to more “important things.” But, I was thankful that my daughter was engaging the world around her with worldview thinking. She hit on some very important concerns about living in a religiously pluralistic society.

How exactly should we get along in a government that prizes religious diversity and insists through its laws that people of differing faiths may worship as they wish in so far as the worship practices do not violate the laws of the land? What precisely is the place of tolerance in such a society as ours? What exactly does tolerance look like? Consider the following (with special thanks to Frank Beckwith’s “A Critique of Moral Relativism” in Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy.

Tolerance can only be exercised in the presence of disagreement; I can only be tolerant toward views I believe are mistaken. Never to disagree with anyone is not the mark of tolerance but intellectual suicide.It hardly makes sense to tolerate things you heartily approve! Therefore, tolerance presupposes a negative outlook toward an opposing view. 

If tolerance means I cannot judge a view as morally wrong, then that is no different from saying that I must be either indifferent to the opposing view or embrace it, in which case “tolerance” has lost its meaning. Tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Tolerance does not mean accepting anything and everything. No culture, for example, praises the torturing of innocent people or killing babies for the fun of it. 

There is a clear distinction between accepting a person’s right to hold a belief and accepting the belief as true. Tolerating people and tolerating ideas are different.It is often the form or expression of a belief that is hard to tolerate rather than the belief itself.Surely the people we respect and treat fairly are not just those with whom we agree! 

Tolerance has its limitations. People may believe as they wish, but not behave as they wish.Much of what hides behind “tolerance” today is intellectual cowardice and laziness. It’s easier to hurl an insult than to engage contrary opinions with thoughtful dialogue.

Consider this definition and use of tolerance: “Tolerate all persons in all religions by showing them respect and courtesy. Tolerate (allow) behavior that is healthy for society and consistent with the laws of the land. Tolerate (accept) ideas that are intellectually faithful and reasonably sound.”


  1. Very good discussion of Tolerance, Paul. As a Christian who married into a Jewish family, I’ve found that the time I’ve spent attending synagogue with my David’s family has deepened my own understanding of my faith.

    I personally believe the WTC Mosque issue comes down to an important concept that people seem to have forgotten as of late — just because you have the right, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea in the long-run to exercise it when I have a viable alternative. My short form of that is “Polite goes a lot further than, ‘it’s my right” A society without a empathetic view to how our actions may impact those around us becomes very shrill, and the inevitable result is a ratcheting up of rhetoric and ill-will. This isn’t restricted to religions tolerance. You can watch it play out in clubs or civic organization. Part of the problem is the ease with which we now communicate. Firing off a nasty email, blog post, or article without taking the time and effort to reflect on its impact has become our new norm.

  2. @Carolyn H
    What? Jesus was a Jew? Surely you jest!! I thought Jesus was a Republican! (wink). Seriously, the West has done a bang up job in de-contextualizing and de-historicizing Jesus so as to re-make him into their own image. Thankfully, academicians such as N. T. Wright, Michael Bird, and others have shone a bright light on that first-century Jew who “bore our sins in his body” and hopefully their voice will eventually filter down into the churches. Good that the diversity has deepened your understanding!

    So much of our culture today is built upon the rights of rhetoric and the rhetoric of rights (is the alliteration killing you yet? ….), rather than reason and civility. As you say, sounding off via any electronic means available can clearly get out of hand…and indeed it often is. The best way to win a hearing and have a voice is to return the favor first to others. Unless and until we do, then the hurling of opinions is reduced to a digital shouting match.


  3. The conversation doesn’t really surprise me. She takes after her mom and dad. You guys have every reason to be proud!

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