Review: The Intolerance of Tolerance

The Intolerance of Tolerance
D.A. Carson


Of all the great ironies in the modern mind, the intolerance of tolerance must be one of the greatest. How can tolerance be intolerant, and what does that mean? D.A. Carson sets out to answer that question in easily readable terms — and he mostly succeeds.

The book begins with a look at the one of the various root causes for our modern problem with tolerance, the definition of tolerance itself. In Christian worldview circles, it’s well known that definitional sleight of hand is one of Satan’s greatest weapons (as Eve found out when the serpent whispered, ‘you will not surely die!’). Carson argues that tolerance has lost its original meaning of finding ways to work and live with people even though we don’t agree with them. The modern definition is the acceptance of a central claim: all sources, and all statements, of truth are equally valid. And because they are equally valid, they must all, also, be equally celebrated.

Chapter two lists a litany of social problems he believes are related to this problem. This is, perhaps, one of the weakest chapters in the book — any Christian reading this type of material probably doesn’t need to be convinced of the social problems caused by our society’s intolerant tolerance.

From here, he moves into a short history of the concept of tolerance, and then explains how these two different views of tolerance make meaningful conversation difficult, if not impossible in some situations. There is a slip in this fourth chapter; Carson says, “sometimes the right sounds off about issues that few if any would want to be sorted out by rewriting the penal code – for example, the ideal of limited government or certain economic policies.” But why should the issue of tolerance be tied to, or limited, by issues that can be solved by “rewriting the penal code?”

Chapter five deals with the Church and Christian truth claims, making the argument that when religion is forced into the private sphere, or subsumed to the state, it’s no longer something religious adherents can actually practice. Chapter six, the problem of the further slippage of our language; in the name of tolerance, the word “evil,” is being taken off the list of words you can use is polite company — and yet, the world still recognizes evil. The words replacing evil are “hate,” and “intolerance,” which are not the same thing at all.

In the next chapter, the author deals with the problem of where the moral foundation of society comes from, relating that to the idea of tolerance through the concept of every moral system being right. He argues that the majority cannot be right — there must be some other foundation for the legal and moral stands a culture makes. The final chapter is a wrap up that considers the Ten Commandments as a guiding moral force for today.

In his discussion on the history of tolerance, he misses the underlying tie between the State’s desire for a moral code through which to control people to the betterment of the ruling class within minimal state oversight — clearly a shaping factor in the Roman Catholic merger with the state under Constantine, and even in some of the discussions around and results of the Reformation. Carson also sometimes lapses into using the new definition of tolerance himself when dealing with how to solve this problem, saying Christians shouldn’t be seen as trying to enforce their moral code on others, but this mixes up morals pulled through the filter of natural law from legal implementation of specific Christian belief.

For instance, unless Christians are to impose a Judeo-Christian perspective of tolerance through social and legal means, then how can tolerance itself actually survive? Don’t Christians have to at least assert that their view of humans as individually created in the image of God, and hence individually worthy of respect and tolerance for a tolerant society that accepts non-Christian views to exist in the first place? The separation of church and state can only happen when the state is firmly grounded in a worldview that respects individuals because of the religious insistence that individual humans are worth more than grist for the state’s mills of power — and there is no worldview that supplies this base other than the Judeo-Christian worldview itself.

Overall, this is a much needed conversation opener on the nature and state of tolerance in the modern world, and the pernicious effects of our current view of tolerance.

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