Even though Daniel’s loyalty to the emperor was established beyond question, Daniel was clearly prepared to swim against the tide of polytheism and assert his conviction that there was only one true God – the God of Heaven whom he worshipped. He was not prepared to compromise his position, even if the emperor commanded it. That left him open to accusations of being arrogant, narrow minded, bigoted, and anti-social. How could he possibly believe that he was right and the rest were wrong? Who did he think he was?
Throughout history it has been the same. In the Roman empire for instance, there was widespread tolerance of religion. You could worship whatever god you wanted provided you were also prepared to join in the worship of the emperor, or state deities, whenever public ceremony demanded it. The Christians were not prepared to do so, and consequently many of them were thrown for public entertainment into the huge lions’ den, the Coliseum.
What is it about Christianity that continues to stir up opposition? It is its claim to be unique. Jesus said “I am…the truth;” and that claim enrages those who claim there is no absolute truth. For them it represents the height of unacceptable intolerance.
What does tolerance mean? I ask the question, because it seems to me that one of the things that pose a real threat to human freedom is the contemporary understanding of tolerance. I say contemporary, because the old and good meaning of tolerance has been abandoned for something that is insidious and dangerous. The original meaning of the statement “I tolerate you” was famously expressed by Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Tolerance asserts the right to have convictions, to make judgements about right and wrong, which differ from those of others. It also asserts the right to express those views without fear. The word comes from the Latin tolerare, meaning “to bear, endure, sustain hardship”. Tolerance does not demand we accept the opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles of others, but only that we learn to live without forcing them to line up with us. John Locke advocated tolerance in order to protect religious adherents from state coercion. Such coercion, we should remember, was one of the reasons the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for America.
True tolerance is principled yet it involves knowing how to put up with things and people, as well as knowing when to offer criticism. True tolerance makes judgments without being judgmental. It is, therefore, capable of being intolerant of the fanaticism (both religious and secular) that inhibits true freedom. A classic example of the view that toleration is wrong was expressed by Jacques Bossuet, a French theologian who wrote in 1691, “I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.” Such a view is, offensive, and principled tolerance is always careful to avoid offense wherever possible. However offense may not always be avoidable, especially where truth is concerned.
The new tolerance is completely different. It seizes on the idea of offense and holds that I must not ever offend anyone else by expressing disapproval of any aspect of his or her behavior or ideas. The new tolerance disapproves of all absolutes except this one: you will be tolerant of everyone else’s point of view. You must, however be intolerant of intolerance. This means that criticism is forbidden, and must be replaced by unrestrained affirmation and praise, or silence.
The new tolerance is intolerant of the old, and indeed negates it. To put it another way: the old tolerance accepted the existence of other views while disagreeing with them; the new tolerance insists on accepting the views themselves and not merely their existence.
Such tolerance acts as an acid that not only dissolves human freedom and flourishing but also dissolves truth and morality – other views are accepted to be as true as your own. If we are not allowed to make judgments or have convictions any more, then all that is left is for us to descend into a kind of ethical neutrality. In the end, tolerance simply becomes a synonym for unconditional approval. We have lost our human dimensions of virtue and truth. In that sense, we have become merely animal.
At first glance this seems light years removed from the court of Medo-Persia. The satraps were prepared to tolerate neither Daniel nor Darrius’s tolerance of him. The relevance of Daniel’s story however, lies in the fact that there is a powerful drive to embed new tolerance in enforceable legislation. The new tolerance wishes to impose its view.
This type of thinking can be seen in the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declaration on the Principles of Tolerance: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our worlds cultures, our forms of expression and our ways of being human.”
British sociologist Frank Furedi says, “For UNESCO toleration becomes an expansive and diffuse sensibility that automatically accepts and offers unconditional appreciation of different views and cultures.” This detaches tolerance from any specific object, and encourages “children to ‘tolerate diversity’ or ‘tolerate difference’. Such pedagogy self consciously avoids encouraging children to develop their capacity for moral reasoning or the making of moral judgments.”
The result is that we increase the sense of moral uncertainty, rather than diminish it. “In those days…Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).
None of us like to be exposed to talk that is offensive to us; it is true that some people have difficulty in differentiating between attacking people personally and criticizing the ideas they hold. The danger is now, however, that the desire to be completely insulated from any kind of offense leads to the paralyzing of robust discussion through which all participants could learn.