On religious and political tolerance

Today, I’m going to look at tolerance, particularly in the spheres of religion and politics. And I’m going to conclude that a world based on political and religious tolerance would be a far better place to live than today’s world of out of date, failing states and superstates.

This essay arose out of three recent posts at the Libertarian Alliance blog, all on or related to the subject of religious tolerance; by Keir Martland, Stephen Moriarty and Sean Gabb. For which, I thank all three; though I’m not replying specifically to any one of them.

My view on religion

I was brought up in a moderate Anglican household. But these days, I count myself an agnostic. It’s fair to say that I got there by a long and tortuous path. It all began (and I remember my mother’s surprise!) when, aged six, I asked if I could go to Sunday school. My motive, at the time, was curiosity; I wanted to find out what this religion stuff was all about. But as it turned out, this was a good strategic move. For it helped prepare me for the day, two years later, when I was sent to a boarding school whose headmaster was a clergyman, and where the Anglican atmosphere was far heavier than in the local church, or in my (C of E) primary school.

For several years, I was subjected to compulsory chapel – often twice a day. I wasn’t exactly a doubter, but I wasn’t an enthusiast of religion either. Then, a few days before my sixteenth birthday, came the moment that began my move away from religion. I was watching a TV programme, on which some pompously robed bishop was pontificating about “helping the poor.” And I remember thinking, “If you care so much about the poor, why don’t you get out of those silly robes, go out there and get helping them?” By three months later, the religion had simply leached out of me; it had ceased to mean anything to me. It was all part of growing up.

After I left academe, embarked on my career and acquired a modicum of worldly wisdom, I found my thinking becoming more aggressively atheist. I used to ask questions like, “If there’s a god, and he’s so wonderful, why doesn’t he put an end to all the evil in the world?” And, “why don’t we just ban religion altogether?”

At the age of 35, I was exposed for the first time to the ideas of liberty. The following year, I made my bicycle trip across North America. It’s a mode of transport which allows you plenty of time to think; and I used the opportunity to develop my philosophy in many directions. I found myself taking a new, more tolerant attitude to religion. It was at this time that I coined what I now call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

Being tolerant of others’ personal religion doesn’t, however, mean that I have much respect for institutional religion. My Third Precept, indeed, is a religious equivalent of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle: “If two individuals have exactly the same religion, one of them is surplus to requirements.” This reflects my distaste for the institutionalized conformity and mumbo-jumbo of the officially sanctioned religions. And I am utterly opposed to any attempts to constrain anyone’s religious beliefs – either for or against – using browbeating, threats or violence.

To summarize, broadly, my current views on religion. One, I don’t know whether or not a god exists, and I really don’t care either way. Two, Jesus seems to have been a decent man, who was murdered by the ruling class – like William Tyndale and Giordano Bruno. And the gospels are about as accurate and unbiased as mass media news reports. Three, I’m happy to tolerate in others whatever religion they wish, including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, any branch of Christianity, atheism or even Pastafarianism, provided they extend the same courtesy to me. (And, of course, as long as it doesn’t lead them to commit aggressions against me or anyone else). Though I greatly prefer the religion to be their own, not someone else’s.


As to Christianity, I agree with those who say it isn’t a very nice religion. I did once, long ago, read the bible through cover to cover, and there’s lots of really nasty stuff in there. And church history is hardly unblemished; consider, for example, the Inquisitions.

Yet one of the worst things about Christianity, I find, is the hypocrisy it inspires. I mentioned earlier the bishop, who turned me away from his religion by failing to practise what he was preaching. That’s just a small example; but there are far bigger ones.

Consider, for example, three of the prime moral edicts of Christianity: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” There are, of course, circumstances in which keeping to these rules can be wrong; for example, they can sometimes be broken in self defence. Nevertheless, if you’re setting out to construct a morality for civilized people in dealing with others of their kind, these three rules are a pretty good start. Yet many of those, who call themselves Christians, give their support to – or even take part in – gross violations of these rules. Aggressive wars, redistributory taxation and enviro lies and propaganda are cases in point.

Then there is the, to me crazy, doctrine of “original sin,” that tells us that we are “sinful” or “depraved,” at or even before birth. For me, those that make out that humans are naturally bad are merely projecting their own inner badness on to others.

Then there is the tendency of Christians to factional strife. Think, for example, of the Thirty Years’ War. Or the oppression of Catholics by Protestants, which lasted in England until the 19th century.

And further, there is the frequent hostility of Christians towards members of other religions. Jews have been victims of this for many centuries. And Muslims are the latest scapegoats du jour.

Religion and politics

Where there is religious intolerance, there is usually political intolerance too. The prime reason behind 17th century Anglican oppression of Catholics, for example, seems to have been that they were seen as agents of a foreign power, the pope. Other conflicts, which may appear at first sight to be sectarian, often have political roots. The troubles in Northern Ireland, from the 1960s on, are an example. Or the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, where nationalism and religion seem to have been crazily mixed up.

The Balkans also provide evidence that, absent political troubles, people of different religions can live peaceably together. In present day Albania, for example, it’s not uncommon for a single family to include Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox among its members.

Religious tolerance

So, what is religious tolerance? Simply put, tolerance is respect for others’ right to be different. And religious tolerance is the application of this respect to the practice, or not, of religion; to the inner life, if you will.

This tolerance can manifest itself in many ways. By recognizing others’ right to worship in their own way, in their place of choice, using their own icons and symbolisms, and in company with whomever they choose. By accepting their right to their own religious customs, such as not eating pork or drinking alcohol, or taking off their shoes for worship. By accepting their right to display their religion, if they wish, by means of their dress or their headgear, be it the burqa, the zucchetto, the turban or the colander.

But, most of all, tolerance in religion is allowing others not to follow particular religious rules and practices. For example, by allowing them to use version X of a religious book rather than version Y. By refraining from restricting their right to trade when they please. Or by allowing them to meet in the pub, drink beer and eat bacon butties, if that’s what they want to do.

All this, of course, is conditional on individuals keeping to basic rules of civilized behaviour. For example, they must refrain from aggression, fraud, deception, provocation and rights violations. And they must, in their turn, show tolerance towards those who show tolerance towards them.

Political tolerance

The phrase “political tolerance” seems, at first sight, an oxymoron. For politics, as it’s practised today, is institutionalized intolerance. A ruling class seeks to run everyone else’s lives. It does so by controlling the outdated, failing but still destructive institution that is the political state. And the state’s tools are violence, theft, lies and propaganda, rights violations and crony favouritism.

But let’s explore some possibilities. If political tolerance did exist, what would it be like? I think it would take the form of a general respect for others’ right to be politically different. Subject of course to keeping to the basic rules of civilized behaviour, it would allow people to live in their own way, to enjoy their own property, to use their own skills and abilities, to mind their own business, to trade and to live with whomever they choose. Political tolerance would be to the outer, public side of life what religious tolerance is to the inner, private side.

I’ll try to put a little more flesh on this idea. Individuals form political views in a number of different dimensions. They may, for example, prefer social liberalism to social conservatism. They may prefer a bottom-up, individualist way of life to a top-down, collectivist one. They may prefer capitalism to socialism. In race or religion, they may prefer tolerance to intolerance. They may prefer the seeking of truth to the repetition of politically correct lies. They may prefer peaceableness to warmongering. They may prefer objective, individual justice to the exploitation of some by others. They may prefer honesty and integrity to deceit and hypocrisy. They may prefer a global free market to a compartmentalized and controlled economic order. Political tolerance, then, if it existed, would be a willingness to let each individual select whereabouts in each of these dimensions he or she wants to be.

In a world based on political tolerance, someone who is individualist, capitalist, scrupulously honest, socially liberal and tolerant of difference – for example – would be free to associate and trade with like minded people. Such people would neither need nor want any dealings with those of the opposite persuasions. Collectivist, socialist, dishonest, intolerant social conservatives, on the other hand, could get together, form their own communities, and run them according to their own norms. They wouldn’t need to interact at all with the liberty lovers down the road.

Thus, a general atmosphere of political tolerance would lead, I expect, to a world something like Robert Nozick’s “utopia of utopias.” That would be a win for all good people. Wouldn’t it?

So, I think we liberty lovers might do well to focus on this ideal of political tolerance. Let’s look to develop it, and let’s seek ways to make it practical. Who knows where that might lead?


  1. Anglicanism is the religion of tolerance. That’s one of the things that makes it so good.

    As for ‘tolerance’ itself, it’s important to realise what the word actually means. It means

    ‘the ability or willingness to live with the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes, or disagrees with, and the capacity to endure continued subjection to something without adverse reaction’.

    Everyone has the right to be ‘intolerant’ so long as they don’t manifest it in any way whatsoever, which affects the rights of others. At that point their actions become wrongs perpetrated upon someone else.

    ‘Tolerance’ isn’t a charitable gift we offer others. It’s a moral, spiritual and political obligation we owe to the community which we expect to live in, and which we expect show similar ‘tolerance’ to us. If some ‘religious’, sexist, or political lunatic claims the right to ostracise, or even kill me, why shouldn’t I have have the right to do the same to him,

    Lack of ‘tolerance’, is no more than a personality disability we ourselves suffer from. If we can’t or won’t offer ‘tolerance’, it’s simply anti social behaviour for which we must suffer the consequences. Either way it’s our problem not society’s problem. But if our intolerance manifests itself in anti social conduct it has to be stamped out either by persuasion or force.

    I for example am severely intolerant to wheat. If I eat any significant amount of it before retiring it causes, what I can only describe as, a ‘near death experience’ during the night. That’s my problem. But if I set fire to the local Supermarket because they are selling wheat derived products, it becomes society’s problem and I am liable to censure. I cope with my intolerance by avoiding eating wheat.

    Were anti Semitic or Islamophobic I would avoid Jews and Moslems. As long as one of them weren’t threatening me, I wouldn’t go round denouncing or killing them. And if one did threaten me, I would confine my retaliation to the individual concerned, not denounce or attempt to kill all Jews and Moslems.

    The acid test of all this is the simple principle:-

    ‘We are all free do or believe whatever we like, provided that we do not interfere with the like freedom of others’.

    • Ronald,

      You say “Anglicanism is the religion of tolerance.” I’m not sure whether or not that’s true today. But it certainly wasn’t so in the past.

      I think that you may be mixing two meanings of “tolerance.” I think of them as active and passive tolerance. Active tolerance is allowing others to do things you don’t necessarily approve of, as long as they don’t harm you or others. Passive tolerance is being able to survive something you can’t do anything about. Your intolerance for wheat, for example, is passive, not active.

      I’d also say that we don’t owe tolerance to “the community” or to “society,” but to individuals.

      Otherwise, I’m in pretty good agreement with you.

  2. I can think of no serious disagreement here. Persecuting anyone simply for his religious views should be off the table. And I do look forward to a decentralised world, where everyone can find a suitable community of shared values.

    • Thanks, Sean.

      But I’m amused by the star rating at the head of this piece. It started at 5 (presumably given by you or David). Now, with 3 votes, it’s down to 2 and a half. Which suggests that there are at least two individuals here who don’t even tolerate the idea of tolerance…

      • I did give the first rating. But you will have noticed we are a diverse community of views. Unlike you, I am not an anarchist, but I do not believe that government should be looking inside our heads or punishing us for what comes out of our mouths.

  3. Neil,

    Five stars, as always, but here are the problems I see with your ideas:

    (i). First, a practical realisation of your vision of socialised tolerance would seem to require a basic acceptance that individuals have rights that are inviolable. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, this is the basis of Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, which is a precept of radical libertarianism. Without this basic principle of inviolability, I think your position falls apart. If indeed it is your position that there are inviolable individual rights, then I think this requires some substantiation. What are these rights, and what evidence or argument can you produce to persuade me that such rights exist at all? And how would these rights be enforced, if infringed?

    (ii). Are you saying that tolerance is only possible among human beings if we segregate and subdivide? If so, how is this radically different from the arrangements we have at present – i.e. house prices and nation-states? Don’t take that for facetiousness, it’s a genuine question. I can see why you would think your proposed arrangements are morally different, nevertheless you seem to be acknowledging that segregation of human beings is necessary. That is a very significant admission in and of itself, and that having been noted, what is so morally objectionable to you about ethnic and racial segregation? You are already conceding that human beings form into tribal and (in the Orwellian sense) nationalistic groups, so why is ethnicism and racialism such a Bad Thing?

    (iii). The word ‘tolerance’ seems to be used mutably from one essay to the next. To me, tolerance implies inequality and a power relationship. If I am tolerant of something or somebody, it means I am willing to allow that person or thing some liberties or allowances, but not parity. This necessarily implies that I am ‘above’ or have command over that person or thing in some way. In other words, toleration is a condescension. An example might be the toleration of Catholics in early modern England, or the tolerance of homosexuals that existed in England from perhaps Victorian times up to the 1950s/60s. Party or equality is not tolerance, it is something rather different altogether. What I am getting at is that I think you are misusing the word ‘tolerance’. When you refer to ‘tolerance’, I think what you really mean is ‘equality’. You want a world in which everybody is equal (but separate). That being the case, I would put it to you that what you are actually arguing for is a world of intolerance. Perhaps you could comment on this?

    (iv). Just taking the theme of ‘separate but equal’ further, would you not accept that this could only work in a world in which people are of broadly equivalent capabilities? Just to illustrate the problem with an extreme hypothesis: let’s say you have a group of humans who have average IQs of 150, while all other human groups, for whatever reason, still have average IQs at about the level they are at now. This super-intelligent group are going to dominate everybody else, yes? How does the separate but equal principle work under those circumstances? It’s all very well having rules about honesty, integrity and peacefulness, but how do you account for human nature? Do you also accept that one of the reasons we have different races is because, from a Darwinist perspective, groups adapted and specialised according to their general environment. Even if we could establish a situation where everybody is roughly comparable in ability, how would you prevent differentials in human development arising again with time? And how would you establish equality in the first place?

    (v). You also mention that people could separate and establish communities according to distinct values, but doesn’t that in and of itself imply collectivism and a degree of coercion? If we’re all supposed to be free-thinking individuals, then how does this reconcile with your admission that human beings do form into tribal and nationalist groups?

    (vi). Also, what is your position on children born into these communities? Clearly they are subject to coercion, at least until an age when the community deems them to be mature enough to make their own decision. Now, if that was all there was to it, I could accept this is actually a non-point on the basis that a child is not of legal majority and so cannot be coerced in the sense I am referring to here. However there is more to the problem than that. The child can be seen as having been put in much the same position as a young boy who was circumcised as an infant. He had no choice in the matter but must live with the decision forever. In the meta-utopian world you envisage, the child is unlikely to want to leave the community, even as an adult, as this is what he is used to and all his social and emotional bonds are in this community. Therefore I think the world that would arise in a meta-utopia would not be any more a world of free choice than this one. After all, I can, if I wish, move to Afghanistan tomorrow or virtually anywhere, and hardly anybody will stop me, but I am not likely to do this because I have been brought up here and this is what I am used to. Thus choice is conditioned by environment and is not ‘free’.

    (vii). The other problem I have is with your thesis of intentionalist communities. Don’t you accept that human groups have evolved organically? If so, is it likely that people would form communities on the basis of shared values alone? But more deeply than that, I would question how you have come to construct these ‘values’. Things such as honesty, integrity, freedom/liberty, reason and so on, are based on settled ideas that have arisen over hundreds of years among a particular community. They are not abstract things. If they were, then much fewer people would adhere to them. If you were to throw a bunch of people on a remote island and say to them: ‘Now act honest and civilised’, they would only adhere to this as a group value in so far as it promoted individual rational self-interest. Honest behaviour would make no [rational] sense if it means you starve. It only makes sense if it helps you in advancing your evolutionary goals (i.e. surviving, reproducing, etc.). That, as I see it, is essentially what ‘morality’ is. We condemn murder not because it is a wrong in and of itself (or not just for that reason), but because over hundreds of thousands of years, we have learn to understand that if people are allowed to kill lawlessly, then this threatens the cohesion of the group as well as individual safety.

    • Unfortunately, WordPress has mangled my comment, so it is not separated into paragraphs and there is no numbering. Is there no way of editing comments on here?

    • Tom,

      Yes, individuals have rights which are – in theory – inviolable. Of course, that doesn’t mean they never will be violated by murderers, thieves, politicians etc. But they should be inviolable.

      As to what these rights are, I gave a draft list in my article “Rights and Obligations,” published here last April. It’s hardly an unconventional view that such rights exist. Indeed, the existence of such documents as the UN Declaration and the European Convention (however flawed they may be in detail) shows that the idea is, or has been at times in the past, mainstream.

      As to how to enforce these rights, that’s one of the things I’m thinking about now. It’s about No. 3 on my list of major essays to write. I did give some pointers to my thinking in the “Blueprint for Human Civilization,” also published here in July of last year.

      I don’t think I’m saying that tolerance is only possible if groups of people segregate and sub-divide. An alternative would be simply to get rid of the intolerant; but that’s a big job, and certainly can’t happen under the current political system. What I’m trying to do here is to put forward a system under which people can live tolerably, even while there is still a significant amount of intolerance among the world population.

      So, in my vision, people who want to segregate ethnically or religiously can do so, and those who don’t want to segregate don’t have to do so. I expect that many people (such as myself) will prefer to live, not in communes, but as singles, couples or nuclear families; and to obey no laws over and above the minimum necessary to secure the rights of all.

      Where my idea differs radically from the current set-up, is that I reject sovereignty. For me, no-one can have a right to make arbitrary laws to restrict others, or to tax them without delivering anything in return, or to make aggressive wars, or to set up arbitrary borders. Individual communes in my vision will, of course, have their own boundaries; but these boundaries will be rooted in property rights, not in sovereignty.

      I don’t see any necessary relationship between tolerance and equality. For me, the only worthwhile equality is moral equality. That is, the idea that is what is right is the same for everyone; namely, the minimum code of conduct necessary to secure the rights of all. Though individual communes can, of course, impose stricter rules on members and visitors if they want to.

      I suppose that in my vision there might be some tendency for people with particular skills to “glob” together. For example, a commune of computer programmers would be likely to have a higher average IQ than most other communes. But why is that a problem? At the very least, they would need to invite in some people of other types in order to make a viable community. (And, for cultural reasons, such a community might well have a higher proportion of northern Europeans and Asians, and a lower proportion of southern Europeans and Africans, than others. But again, what’s wrong with that?)

      As to children, even today, some are more reluctant to leave the nest than others. But almost all of them manage it in the end. I expect that in a “utopia of utopias” style world it would be normal for young people, at a certain stage of life, to go exploring. In this way they would find out what kinds of communes (if any) are appropriate for them, without having to commit themselves permanently to any particular lifestyle until they are ready.

      • Neil,

        Here I take up two points from response:

        (i). I can’t accept that human beings have rights in any natural, inviolate sense without further evidence, as there doesn’t seem to be any basis for the assertion. If I’m drowning, do I have the right to be saved? If I have the right to ‘own’ property, where does this ‘right’ spring from? I suppose there is sort of an answer to this in regard to property and other actionable rights. We should acknowledge that ‘rights’ is a two-handed term. It embodies not just choses-in-action, but also the opposite intangible of a responsibility and duty, which we can call a ‘right’ as opposed to ‘rights’, and which each party bears to the other. The social recognition of ‘rights’ reproduces the ‘right’ through society, however this still leaves us with the question begged: what is the rightful source of right? I don’t think there is any answer to that question other than to beg the question further and construct artifice upon artifice – which is why we have states in the first place.
        Instead of rights/right, I would speak of tacit or naturally-arising liberties. I have the liberty to do as I please, as long as that doesn’t impede the liberties of others. This, for me, is semantically more satisfying than the assertion that we somehow have abstract rights. I think the distinction is especially relevant to any discussion of a contractual society. If this society were based on a mythic rights-based philosophy, I think the enforcement of these ‘rights’ would be conceptually very difficult because you would not be able to identify from where the ‘rights’ spring – hence my invocation of a ‘Residual Legal Authority’, which I have mentioned in previous comments on your essays.

        In response, I suppose you would say that a ‘residual legitimacy of right’ is not necessary in a stateless society due to the existence of rights inviolate. My criticism of this I have already outlined above: it is an inimically circular position. Your ‘philosophy of right’ is constructed, has no natural basis and could not be sustainable, either philosophically or practically. What I think you would have is a vacuum that would have to be filled by an authoritative construct that resembles a state and that would, in time, aggregate to itself sovereign privileges and thus become a state proper. Which is probably why we have states.

        On the other hand, a contractual society based on simple liberties – you do what you wish, as long as it doesn’t impede on my liberties – could work I think, under certain circumstances, because there would be no necessity for a mythic ‘font of right’. But there would have to be some means to arbitrate in the legal grey area of what amounts to an infringement of liberty and these rulings would need to be enforced, which could in turn lead to the development of a ‘philosophy of right’.
        Thus we are back with [anarcho-]socialism, which does provide an answer – or at least, a circumvention – in that there would be no market economy and no private property, thus no need to construct any ‘font of right’ in the first place.

        (ii). I think your use of the term ‘tolerance’ really amounts to a soft version of equality. You speak of moral equality, which is no person having any arbitrary rights over another – i.e. a society without constructed sovereignty – but my point is that in order to achieve this you would have to have equality in the broader sense. At the very least, people would need to be of broadly similar intellectual capability so as to avoid a situation where one group took advantage of another (even if unintentionally). My question is: Do you acknowledge that your vision depends on broad spectrum equality? If so, how will you achieve this? If you don’t acknowledge this, what are the design features in your society that would prevent arbitrary power (sovereignty) re-emerging, as it did during the previous development of human societies? I ask this question in the knowledge that your vision involves the retention of private property ownership and market economies and the possibility of avaricious social models like capitalism re-emerging. If it didn’t, then I would acknowledge that the question would be less relevant, if not irrelevant.

        Would you instead acknowledge that in order to have societies of moral equality, it will be necessary to allow human beings to segregate, for the most part racially (though mixed-racial groups would probably arise as well), so that people of similar capability could live together contractually without the need to construct superinvening concepts such as states? I see from your answer that you have already responded on this point to some extent, and perhaps the question has been answered, but what I wonder is whether there can be a free choice in this matter for those who want to live in free, happy, ordered, tolerant and productive environments? In making that point, I am conscious of a further possible flaw, in that socio-evolutionary forces don’t just apply to disparate and diverse groups. It probably wouldn’t be long before these stable societies are at war internally.

        Would a high-IQ society leave their low-IQ neighbours alone, just as we pretty much leave aboriginal societies alone for the most part now? Or would the low-IQ society be expected to defend themselves? Would there be some legalistic means for the low-IQ society to prevent incursion by the more capable society? Would some kind of Prime Directive develop, in which humanity agrees to separate development, with perhaps a long-term future of isolated and sympatric speciation?

        If your answer is, ‘everyone would be tolerant’ and intolerant people would not be tolerated, OK that’s fine, but ‘tolerance’ there is being used as another word for civility, and I wonder how we reach the point where everybody is civil in the sense you require, and also whether this would even be desirable. I would venture that tolerance and civility are not abstractions that arise in a vacuum, but ever-changing ideas that represent the settled view of a population based on its historical experience.

        • Tom,

          For me, the logic which derives the existence of rights goes something like this: Individuals have free will. Therefore individuals have responsibility for the effects of their actions on others. Therefore, individuals should refrain – i.e. have an ethical responsibility to refrain – from doing things which harm others. Therefore, other individuals acquire a right (or rights) not to be harmed. Surely there are many caveats which need to be added around this, but I don’t see how this argument is circular.

          Of course, you can object to the premise of free will in the first place. Maybe, as a former marxist, you reject free will as incompatible with the determinism which marxists seem to think is a feature of the universe? In that case, I think I may see how you arrive at the ethical position you’ve stated, which I’ve described before as “might is right,” but can perhaps more accurately be described as “whatever succeeds is right, whatever fails is wrong.” For if there’s no free will, then there’s no individual responsibility for the consequences of your actions; so others are expendable. Although, that said, I find it hard to say how “succeeding” or “failing,” or even “right” or “wrong,” could be meaningful concepts to a being without free will.

          I’ll answer the two specific “rights” questions you raise in your (i). Do you have a right to be saved from drowning if you get yourself into trouble? The answer to this one is no. It’s because to expect such a “right” requires others to take positive action, which they might not be willing to do, or might not be in a position to do, or might not even be able to do. If you really do want this “right,” you should go to a life-guard association, and sign a contract committing them (subject to payment of a fee, and presumably other conditions such as whereabouts you bathe) to rescuing you if you get into trouble.

          On property, my answer is yes, you do have a real right to property you have earned and not yet used, traded or given away. This is because, in earning that property, you used up a portion of your life (or, if the property was given to you by someone else, some original creator of it used up a portion of his or her life). To take away that property against your will is to destroy that portion of your or someone else’s life.

          Most of your (ii), I think I answered already. As to your last paragraph, civility and the tolerance which is part of it are ideals, and I think they are “in the large” independent of culture. Any form of governance aiming to satisfy these ideals will be, at best, only promoting an approximation of them. And historical experience is, indeed, an important factor in creating such approximations. So, for example, I’d expect some form of English common law to be a more likely component of such a scheme than former Soviet law. But I’m not that’s quite what you mean by “the settled view of a population?”

          And you worry whether everyone behaving civilly is desirable. To me, that isn’t even a question. For any naturally civilized being, civil behaviour reciprocated by others is (or would be) a nett benefit. Whether it’s actually achievable, of course, is another matter; there will always be a few criminals, at least. But I have no doubt of its desirability.

  4. Thank you, Neil, for your essay.

    In a foolhardy moment recently, I decided to nail my colours to religious conformity. Admittedly, it is much the safer option to be in favour of toleration nowadays, but that is because we have some really intolerant ideologies stalking the land. I am not advocating any sanction whatsoever against those who refuse to conform. It is just that I feel compelled to say that refusal to conform to the Church of England in England would be lamentable, were it not for the fact that people can hardly be blamed for failing to do something that almost no one has had the courage to ask them to do, not for a very long time anyway.

    People talk about “the paradox of tolerance”. This goes something like this: “Tolerance is the good thing; intolerance is the bad thing. I must therefore tolerate everything except intolerance. That makes me intolerant, which is a bad thing.” Paradoxes indicate that there is something wrong with the premises: tolerance is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Sometimes it is “turning the other cheek”, sometimes it is “passing by on the other side”; for a nihilist it is neither (although even nihilists tend to have values when it comes to their own interests). When people speak of the “paradox of tolerance”, they are really almost-grasping that there is not in fact a comprehensive “live-and-let-live” “get-out clause” in life. If one has a moral sense one is unfortunately obliged either to live by it or suffer from a bad conscience. If one does not have a moral sense, or is willing to put up with a bad conscience, one may still regret having failed to act in one’s own interests.

    It is true that one needs to be very careful of over-righteousness: there are peccadilloes; there are dramatic ironies; there is hypocrisy; there is forgiveness; but the existence of grey does not make black and white meaningless concepts. Sadistic pleasure in inflicting suffering is a common human trait, but it is wrong. It is a much more common phenomenon than many people want to admit. In fact it is a temptation for all of us. Christianity, by idolising the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence, takes an unusual and revolutionary moral stance, albeit one that is foolishly taken for granted by far too many people. Now, I am willing to listen to those who say that Christianity, by excessive passivity, incites violence against it; but I think it is fair to argue that Christ’s teaching and example are the foundation of everything that makes, or made, life bearable for ordinary people (Untermensch?): equality before the law and the reasonable chance of a family life.

    As I have argued previously, “tolerance” only makes sense when one is in a position of absolute power not to tolerate if one so chooses; otherwise one is acting subject to necessity. To my mind this renders tolerance meaningful only when one is willing to grant an equal right to be intolerant. What people really mean by tolerance is therefore either, a. accepting that other people have rights; or, b. being in a position of such weakness that one is unable to do anything about the thing one is supposedly tolerating. However, in neither case is “tolerance” (because tolerance requires the right and capacity to choose its opposite) anything to do with it. It is a “face-saving” word, or a self-regarding one.

    Accepting that other people have rights may include accepting that they have rights to a certain latitude in religious matters, and probably should, but this latitude cannot be unqualified. It must be limited by morality and realpolitik: announcing that one is doing something for religious reasons is not a “get-out clause” with regard to common decency. Equally, endangering the ship of state from pride or malice is not acceptable.

    Neil makes much of the reciprocity of “tolerance”. This, of course, is the $64,000 question. What guarantees do I have that I will be tolerated, i.e. that my rights will be respected? If one is relying on tolerance then the answer is, by definition, no guarantee at all. In the real world, whether my rights are respected or not comes down to, a. how much power I am able to exercise and, b. the ethical standards of those with whom I come into contact.

    As I have also argued previously, the question of how much power I am able to exercise as an ordinary citizen is dependent upon the cohesion and power of the society of which I am a member. “Power comes from patriotism,” (Edmund Burke, paraphrase): I am justified in thinking that the more cohesive my society is, the more power it, and I, have. Therefore I must oppose the weakening of my society through division, in order to preserve my fundamental rights. These fundamental rights are often taken for granted nowadays, so used are we to the protection of a Christian state. The rights not to be murdered, enslaved, kidnapped or tortured, for example, are all taken for granted, even though they are commonplace where no Christian state exists to protect its citizens.

    This brings us to b.: what are the ethics of the power of which I am a member? Neil discusses what we might call “common decency” as though these were universal ethics that only the deranged deny; unfortunately this is not the case. There are human universals, but they do not include “common decency.” I don’t want to draw up a gruesome list of anthropological horrors; suffice to say that what we call “common decency” is either the internalisation of Christian teaching or fear of punishment by the state; in practice, both. Without this, life is “nasty, brutish and short”. It is true that all people behave relatively well towards people they consider kin without a Christian Leviathan being present, but this is a further point in support of the need to maintain unity in the body politic.

    Far from indiscriminate tolerance being a virtue, then, it is a vice. It is vanity, weakness, relativism and anarchy. Genuinely moral people of all kinds can see this – they join together to guarantee their Christian rights. How have we reached the stage where such an obviously hollow and dangerous concept as “tolerance” has become the touchstone of our society, such that I run the risk of being officially labelled an extremist for questioning it? Tolerance indeed!

    “If you are not taking Communion, please go forward for a blessing.”

    Love to ALL.

    • Stephen,

      I’m not saying that I’m tolerant of everything. I’m not tolerant, for example, of murder; or of anything else that violates innocent individuals’ rights. The kind of tolerance I am talking about here is tolerance of difference. For me, there’s no paradox in that.

      Tolerance, for me, is accepting that different people are different; yet also accepting the first of the two options you mention, that is, that others have rights. As an example, by allowing me the latitude to reject the Anglican church without sanction, you recognize that I am different from you; one man’s religion is another man’s mumbo-jumbo.

      Of course, you’re right that however tolerant I am towards others, I have no guarantee of being treated similarly – even, indeed, by those for whom I have gone out of my way to be tolerant. That’s one of the reasons why I favour giving people the option to pick who they will interact with. In my case, I will prefer to interact, as far as possible, with those who share my ethical standards; including tolerance. And I will prefer to avoid interacting with the state and its cronies. That is, with those that, far from upholding my and others’ fundamental rights, use their ill-gotten power to do things such as making aggressive wars, taxing people heavily and spouting enviro lies and propaganda.

      As to Christian teaching leading to a life bearable for ordinary people, well, I did say Jesus was a good man. It’s a pity that some of those that purport to be his followers (not yourself, I hasten to add) can’t live up to his standards of tolerance.

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