The Danger of Tolerance in Religion

IT is scarcely more than a platitude to say that we are living in an age of transformation of thought. It is not, perhaps, quite so much a platitude to say that we are apt to assume that certain contemporary tendencies in thought are permanent results of that transformation instead of ephemeral phases of it. Every great upheaval of life and thought through which humanity has gone has been accompanied, first, by a popular sense of uncertainty as to truth, and a consequent tolerance of every sort of belief. This tolerance is a mark of the decay of old standards rather than of the formation of new ones. After every period of tolerance there has come a period of intolerance, of intellectual strife, — often accompanied by physical strife. This period of strife is characteristic of the integration of new standards.

The decay of Roman civilization was marked by tolerance of every sort of morals, philosophy, religion. The rise of that civilization which succeeded it was heralded by the intolerant persecution of Christianity, itself an intolerant movement. Eighteenth-century France was marked by a similar universal tolerance, but it was the bitter intolerance of the Revolution which ended this complacency, out of which new standards emerged. Numerous other examples will occur to any one. Tolerance is a destructive force. The succeeding intolerance is constructive. The danger of tolerance is always this, that one may assume it to be a final instead of a preliminary step in thought-development, and in consequence stand half-developed, intellectually immature. The danger of tolerance is that it may destroy the capacity for constructive thought.

Notwithstanding all our pretending that we are of an age which lives and thinks scientifically, we are still, for the most part, not creatures of thought but creatures of sentiment. With most of us, for instance, the relationship of the sexes is still a matter to be regarded sentimentally. We still ignore as much as possible the physical and social facts back of that relationship. We still, too, for the most part, have sentimental political affiliations with glorious ideals, but little conception of the facts which condition their realization, with much of unreasoning loyalty to parties or persons. We still are apt to have, and desire, a sentimental sort of education for our children, on a cultural basis which ignores at once the necessity of knowledge of the facts of real life and the vulgar necessity of our children’s earning a living. We still speak, with a pathetic dignity, in terms of a sentimental economics based on life as a sentimentalist would have it rather than on life as it is. We still enjoy sentimental literature. We still patronize sentimental drama. And because in all these matters most of us are still comparatively unthinking beings, we are apt in all of them to have a genial toleration for our fellows, who, equally unthinking, tolerate us.

In each of these fields, however, there is going on a rapid change. In each there are coming to be small but growing groups which are so very much in earnest that they refuse to be tolerant. As people are facing facts in life rather than mere sentiments about life, the tendency toward intolerance is becoming more and more apparent. Marriage and the problems of sex are discussed more and more with a marked unwillingness to tolerate opinions other than those one has founded upon the basis of facts. Ellen Key, Edward Carpenter, and others like them, write on these subjects powerfully, just because they have passed through the indefiniteness of tolerance to positive and intolerant affirmations.

A few years ago political affiliations were almost wholly superficial. As politics have integrated more and more around the seen facts of our civic and economic inter-relationships we have observed a renewal of intolerant and deep political cleavages. The genial tolerance of every sort of educational theory which characterized our older brothers is being supplanted by utter impatience among the various schools of educational thought; and this has been true just in so far as we have begun constructively to think about pedagogy.

Our literature has become vital and meaningful of late years in a way that it was not a decade ago; and it is hard not to see that this has been accompanied, if not caused, by the espousal of positive convictions and by their quite impatient utterance by our contemporary novelists, essayists, and poets. Whether their plays prove popular or not, the dramatists of to-day are preaching in a way that is anything but conciliatory. In all these respects, we are gradually and hopefully emerging from an age of good-natured tolerance into one of contradictory and frankly clashing ideas and ideals.

In religion, however, we are, apparently, for the most part afraid to permit in ourselves this development from tolerance into bigotry.1 The very same man who is a healthy bigot, on sex-relationship, politics, economics, and what not else, imagines that in religion he is bound, if he would be in accord with the Zeitgeist, to be tolerant of all kinds and shades of religious belief or disbelief. Of course, part of this attitude is due to the impression, not now so prevalent as once it was, that certain truth is truth demonstrable physically, and that religion, which is incapable of such demonstration, is a thing in which uncertainty is inevitable. (Of course such an assumption is quite unscientific.) The main reason for it, however, is the unthinking or superficially thinking assumption that mankind has developed religiously from intolerance into tolerance, and that tolerance, complete, unquestioned, is the highest point yet reached in the development of religion. Students of the history of religion know that this is not so. They know that there have always been successive waves of tolerance and intolerance in religion, as in every other realm of human thought, and that religion has evolved out of tolerance into intolerance just as often, and as rightly, as the other way about. Most of us, however, know nothing of this. The result of this mistake of ours is that the return or progression toward constructive intolerance manifested in every other line of thought to-day is almost entirely absent from modern religious thinking.

One can see this in the very popular campaigns on foot making for what is called ’Church Unity.' Everywhere in Christendom one hears nowadays such cries as this: ‘Let us all get together. Let us forget the things which divide us, and think only of that which unites us.’ What it is that unites us, one notices, is never defined. ‘Let the Baptists and the Methodists and the Episcopalians and the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics and the Unitarians and all the others simply agree to love one another, and forget their differences.' We see many sorts of ministers, in their desire to promote what they believe to be the unity desired by their Master, Christ, exchanging pulpits with one another and passing genial compliments about one another’s superlative worth. There is a tremendous deal of good feeling and every one is very happy; and behold, the millennial unity of all men, for which Christ prayed on the night of his betrayal, is at hand!

Is it? If this was the sort of thing Christ wanted, why did He not practice this modern, tolerant method when He was on earth? Why did He not seek to conciliate, on a basis of mutual toleration, the Sadducees and Pharisees, for instance, instead of denouncing them both for differing from his own conception of religion? Why did He preach things so definite as to alienate most of the people whom He came to earth to save? Why did He die? Apparently it was because He uttered such definite and positive teaching as to force, by his very intolerance, the reflex intolerance of those opposed to that teaching. It is apparent to anyone who reads the Gospels, that Christ stood for definiteness in religion, that He himself died rather than tolerate the religious ideas of most of his contemporaries, and that He earnestly urged his followers to imitate the steadfastness of his example. He prayed, it is true, that all the world might become united; but He must have meant united on the positive and definite platform on which He himself stood. Any other interpretation would stultify, not merely his words, but his whole life.

To Christ, apparently, the most important thing about a man was his philosophy of life in all its relations, — in short, his religion. To us, that seems to be the least important thing about a man. Our attitude implies that one way of looking at God, man, and the universe is as good as another, for the simple reason that none of them matters very much anyway.

Our present efforts to be tolerant in religion, then, are based upon the presupposition that there is no such thing as objective religious truth. This is to say, that in the thing which for a human being must correlate all his other thought and activity, — namely his theory of life, his religion, — there is no objective reality at all, toward which he may approximate. This is to deny that there is anything which may rightly be called fundamental truth. It is to exalt peace at any price into the throne of ultimate reality. It is to destroy the search for that reality. It is to glorify intellectual cowardice and inefficiency. It is not merely to destroy a rational basis for morals; it is, in the end, to destroy a rational basis for thinking as a whole.

One hears constantly that people are not interested to-day in systems of religion which are not all-inclusive, which are in any way divisive. If that be true, it is a sad period for religion or for thought in general, that lies before us. To prohibit men from attempting to lift themselves up toward the realities of eternity, to compel them to abandon the mighty gropings which have ever characterized the seers, — intolerant because they were seers and not politicians, — and to substitute for these a unified ‘religion’ consisting of platitudes about being good to one’s grandmother and similar banalities, — to do this would be a dire calamity to the generation and to the race. Ah, no; better the bitter intolerance of those who believe too much and too strongly than the easy complaisance of those who believe too little and hold that little too lightly. Better the Inquisition and the rack than the drugging of those who else might seek for God. Better that we live and die slaves to a half-truth, or a millionth-truth, than that we refuse to look for truth at all. Better even that in religion a man should live and die believing with all his soul in a lie, than that he should merely exist, believing in nothing.

  1. Bigotry, according to the Standard Dictionary, means merely, ‘obstinate or intolerant attachment to a cause or creed.’ Ignorance is not necessarily implied by the WORD.-THE AUTHOR.