David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Tolerance: A strange reversal

You can read this feature as an article in its own right, or you can use it as the basis for an event in a church, campus group, home group etc. It was first presented in this way by David Couchman at Above Bar Church, Southampton, on Sunday 22nd October 2001. This article may also be reproduced in print or on web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.


This is an opportunity to think about and discuss the issue of tolerance - a very important issue today. I have subtitled it 'A strange reversal?' The reason for this subtitle will become clear later.

To get our thinking moving, I would like to make three points:

(1) In the past, in most societies in the world, there was a single, over-arching framework that defined what people believed and how they lived. In the Russian world, this was communism; in the Middle East, it was Islam; in the Western world, it was Christianity. But today, the Christian framework has been replaced in the West by a society of many different beliefs and value systems. So we live in a multi-cultural and pluralistic society. At least three elements have combined to create this society:

  • Television - we see people from other parts of the world on TV.
  • Travel - we have opportunities to visit other parts of the world.
  • Migration - our neighbors often come from other parts of the world. The junior school that my daughters attended had pupils of about thirty different nationalities, representing six major world religions. Our current neighbors are Muslims; our neighbors a few years ago were Hindus.

As a result of these things, we are much better informed about other people than our parents or grandparents were. We know more about what they believe and how they live. This must be a good thing.

In saying that we live in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society, I am not saying this is a bad thing - in fact I think it is a good thing. But, for the purpose of this discussion, it is just an observation - this is how things are.

In our multi-cultural, pluralist society, tolerance has become the most important virtue of all. Someone once said, 'I believe in everyone's right to believe in whatever they want to believe in.' The expression may be a bit incoherent, but we would all agree with the underlying sentiment. Or, as Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently, 'We shall be intolerant of prejudice and bigotry.' I recently came across a web site devoted to promoting tolerance, www.tolerance.org

Let's say straight away that this kind of tolerance is both right and important. Of course, tolerance is often linked to the rights of groups that have been persecuted or marginalized in the past. It is linked to

  • Gender issues
  • Race issues
  • Gay rights

Again, I think it's important to say that there have been (and still are) huge injustices in these areas, and it is both right and important that these injustices are addressed.

But today, it seems to me that many people see the opposite of tolerance not as intolerance, but simply as believing something. So we come to see believing something - anything - as being dangerous in its own right. The Nazis believed something, and six million Jews died, as a result. The Stalinists believed something, and millions were sent to the Gulags in consequence. And, for example, we see the terrorists who flew the suicide attacks into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as dangerous maniacs, because they actually believed something enough to die for it. We do not see them as dangerous because of what they believed, but just because they believed anything with that level of commitment.

So we have become suspicious and skeptical of any kind of claim to know the truth.

One key contemporary thinker, Jean-Francois Lyotard, said that people today are characterized by an: 'incredulity towards metanarratives.' Or in plain English, we are suspicious of truth claims.

Another key thinker, Michel Foucault, says that claims to know the truth are always grabs for power. You simply cannot separate truth and power.

The recent Manic Street Preachers album titled: 'This is my truth; tell me yours'carries the same message. We all have different truths. You have yours; I have mine. It is OK to tell me your truth, but not to try to inflict in on me - that is fascist!

So my first point is that the importance of tolerance in a multi-cultural society has become linked to a cynicism about truth claims. My other two points can be covered much more briefly:

(2) Christianity does make a sweeping truth claim. It is very important to understand this. We cannot avoid it by saying that choosing to be a follower of Christ is just a lifestyle decision: 'You choose to be a follower of Christ; I choose to be into new age meditation. It's just a lifestyle choice, a matter of treading different spiritual paths. I'm glad you've found something that helps you cope with life, but it isn't for me.'

But we cannot say that. The Good News of Jesus Christ does claim to be objective truth - true for everyone; true whether or not anyone believes it. Either it is universally important, or its complete and utter rubbish. It is not just a lifestyle decision.

(3) Today, followers of Christ are often seen as intolerant and bigoted, simply because they believe something.

For most people today, truth is just a matter of opinion: 'What is true for you need not be true for me too. Your faith is just your private affair. If it works for you that's fine - for you. But don't you dare push it down my throat.'

In the past, people attacked the Good News of Jesus Christ by saying that it was not true. The challenge was: How can you be so stupid? But increasingly today, they see this Good News as outrageous, immoral, and oppressive, precisely because it does claim to be true for everyone. The challenge now is: 'How can you be so arrogant?'

So here are three points, to get our thinking started:

  • Tolerance is linked to a cynicism about all truth claims
  • The Good News of Jesus Christ does make a sweeping truth claim
  • Followers of Christ are seen as intolerant and bigoted: 'What right do you have to shove your beliefs down my throat?'

Questions for discussion starters

  1. How do you define tolerance?
  2. Is it possible to have shared moral values in a pluralistic society that does not have shared beliefs? If so, how?
  3. If you think you know what is 'true for everyone', can you avoid becoming intolerant and bigoted?
  4. If - as followers of Christ believe - there really is a God, and He really has spoken uniquely through Jesus Christ, how does this affect questions of truth and tolerance?

In closing

In the past, people understood tolerance as accepting other people for who they are, giving them the same rights we have to hold their own beliefs and live their own lifestyles (although those beliefs are different from ours, and we think they are misguided).

Tolerance was an attitude towards other people and their rights - it had nothing to do with the truth or otherwise of their beliefs. This kind of tolerance means I should welcome my Muslim neighbor, and extend to her the same rights and dignity that I want her - and society - to extend to me. It does not mean that I have to pretend I think Islam is a true description of the way the universe is.

Today, by a strange reversal, tolerance has come to mean not disagreeing with anyone. Blandly pretending that all beliefs and all lifestyles really are equally valid. You have your truth; I have mine.

But this is nonsense.

In practice, we do not think that something can be true for you but not for me. We know that some things are true whether or not anyone believes them. You can stand on top of a tower block, and look over the edge, and say 'Gravity may be true for you, but it isn't true for me.' But if you jump off, you will descend towards the ground with just the same acceleration, whether or not you believe in gravity - because gravity describes the way the universe really is, whether we like it or not. The message of the Bible claims to be the same kind of truth as the law of gravity - to describe how the universe really is.

In practice, we do not tolerate everything. We do not seriously think that pedophilia is acceptable. We do not think it was OK for those terrorists to attack the World Trade Center, because they were just working out the implications of what was true for them, and making their own lifestyle decisions.

We know intuitively that some things really are true, and some things really are right. Not just true for me, or right for me, but always true and always right. One question you might want to ask is: where did these moral values come from? In a naturalistic universe, it is impossible to account for them.

We need to get back to that earlier understanding of tolerance as accepting other people for who they are, giving them the same rights we have to hold their own beliefs and live their own lifestyles. This kind of tolerance is characterized by the words of the philosopher Voltaire - himself no friend of Christianity - who said

I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But the contemporary view of tolerance - that all beliefs and lifestyles really are equally valid, has two huge problems:

(1) If there is no real truth, there is no reason for me to be tolerant

Without some kind of beliefs which causes me to value you a person, even though I disagree with you, why should I be tolerant towards you? If you are getting in my way, why should I not walk over you, if I have the power to do so? I need a reason to be tolerant.

Contemporary tolerance is like a cartoon character who has run over the edge of the cliff, and is still running for all he is worth, without yet realizing that there is nothing underneath him holding him up.

We need a belief that provides freedom and dignity for the individual, so that we do accept other people whose beliefs and lifestyles are different from ours.

(2) If there is no real truth, we cannot place any limits on tolerance

If society is to be able to function, we need some shared beliefs that will move us to value other people as people, even when they disagree with us, but which will also enable us to put limits on our individual freedom of choice, for the good of society as a whole.

The question is, how can you set those limits in a society where there are no shared beliefs?

We need a moral law, to which we are all accountable, (and thus which allows us to say that pedophilia, or mass murder, are wrong always and everywhere, not just in some times and some places).

Where is such a belief to come from? I want to hold up for consideration the possibility that the Bible's message holds the answer to this question.

Only the Good News of Jesus Christ provides a balance of form and freedom. There is a real moral framework over and above us and our laws, because it is given by God, and yet the individual is respected as a person made in God's image. Even God respects our individual rights.

So there is clear freedom - and mutual respect and tolerance. The message of the Bible provides a reason for me to be tolerant towards my Muslim neighbor More than tolerance, it teaches me to love my neighbor just as I love myself. And not just to love my neighbor, but even to love my enemy.

Yet at the same time it gives me a reason to say to the pedophile or the mass murderer, 'no, that is unacceptable.' There is a clear framework of what is morally allowable. There is a real basis for moral decisions, because there is a God-given law.

Several times, I have made the point that the Good News claims to be true for everyone, true whether or not we believe it. I would like to come back to this point as we close.

It claims to be true because it is not just made up by humans, but revealed by God - a God who really is there, and who really has spoken, most of all through Jesus Christ.

If you are not a follower of Christ, I would like to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, and ask yourself this:

  • What if the message of the Bible really is true after all?
  • What if there really is a God who made us?
  • What if we are morally accountable to him?
  • What if he holds our future in his hands?
  • What if our greatest problem is that we are in the wrong before him - that we are morally guilty?
  • What if this God has, at great cost to himself, sent his only son to live and die on the Earth to deal with the problem of our guilt and separation from him - to make it possible for us to become his children?

If that really is true - if it describes how the universe actually is, just like the law of gravity - then nothing can be more important than for people to know that, and to have the opportunity to get right with this God. It means that the message of the Bible is not just 'true for me', but true for all of us. And it provides a real basis for society to function in a stable way, with both form, and freedom - law, and liberty.

Now you may say: 'That's all very well; I can see that if the message of the Bible were true, it would provide these things, but you haven't said anything yet that would convince me that it is true.'

That is right - and to answer the question of whether the message of the Bible is true, you need to look at the various kinds of evidence for it. But let me underline that this is a matter of history and evidence. As we've been at pains to emphasize, it is not just a lifestyle decision, or a matter of what 'works for you.'

The trouble is that many people today have, it seems to me, rejected the Bible's message not because they have looked at the evidence and found that it falls short, but because they have decided in advance that any claim to know the truth in this area is arrogant and intolerant, and so they have not even bothered to look at the evidence. Increasingly, in our 'tolerant' society, following Christ is not tolerated. We claim that we have open minds, but we close our minds to the claims of Christ.

I am not trying to get you to join a particular church or organization. I am certainly not trying to turn you into a fundamentalist or a bigot. But I would like to invite you to examine the evidence for the Good News of Jesus Christ carefully and fairly, and to make up your own mind whether it is true - and if so, what you need to do about it.

To read more on this subject, see either Jock McDowell's book 'The New Tolerance', or Dennis McCallum's 'The Death of Truth'.

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