Volume 7, Issue 2: Disputatio
Peace, Hatred, and Tolerance
Douglas Jones & Timothy Madigan
Amid a wide array of cultures and faiths,
questions of political tolerance continue to arise in a variety of pressing
contexts. Some advocate a tolerance based on values that all or most worldviews
hold in common. Others deny any place for tolerance whatsoever, and still others
seek to remove any domination by one group over another.
In the following interchange, the managing editor of
Credenda/Agenda , Douglas Jones and Timothy Madigan discuss the topic of
political tolerance. Timothy Madigan is the executive editor of the national
secular humanist magazine, Free Inquiry, and co-editor of the Secular
DJ: In discussions of religion and society, secularists regularly seek
to blunt Christian comment on social issues through accusations of intolerance
and hatred. They object that any Christian interaction in social matters would
involve imposing a particular religious ideology on everyone. Though biblical
Christianity forbids a political imposition of Christianity, the consistent
secular response is far from being the epitome of tolerance that it claims.
"Tolerance" and "neutrality" always involve the negation of something.
For example, humanistic "neutrality" in social affairs assumes that Christianity
is false. Such "tolerance" could succeed only by precluding Christians (and
others) from voting and thinking about social issues in accord with Christian
principle. "Humanist tolerance" is a contradiction in terms.
TM: Douglas Jones presents a false dichotomy between Christianity and
Humanist "tolerance." Just what sort of "Christianity" is he referring to?
Methodism, Mormonism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc.?
While members of these different sects can today sit down together cordially and
discuss doctrinal differences, such differences were the cause of much bloodshed
and hatred in the past. The Western notion of "tolerance" came about largely as
a way to bracket these metaphysical disputes, and allow for a common ground for
political interchanges. A secular government is in the interests of all
members of society. The claim that biblical Christianity forbids a political
imposition of Christianity sounds very nice, but even if it is true, there have
been far too many sincere Christians who have proved willing to use the arm of
the government to impose their version of the faith on citizens.
DJ: "Secular government" could work "in the interests of all
members of society" only if you assume all other worldviews are false. That's
tolerance? If Christianity, for example, is true, then we would be fighting
reality and everyone's interests by legislating in accord with some other
standard. In short, secular "tolerance" demands that everyone "obey" a
secularist worldview in the political realm. Neutrality is impossible. Let's be
more honest and call your view "secular imperialism" but not tolerance. And, if
you want to do an historical body count, I would think that secularists would be
the very last group to stand up and accuse others of bloodshed. Stalin almost
makes Richelieu look like a Christian.
TM: I don't know whether Cardinal Richelieu was a Christian or not,
but I didn't mean to get into a contest of who's killed more people, Christians
or secularists? Stalin was an atheist who led a repressive regime that denied
people their basic rights. One of the first to point out the horrors of
Stalinism was Sidney Hook, another atheist, but also a democrat who strongly
supported the rights of free speech and liberty of belief. These rights in his
view, and the view of most secularists, are best protected in a civil society
that takes no official position on ultimate worldviews, but which allows people
to argue and discuss these issues in the public square.
DJ: Your point on "ultimate worldviews" is exactly the question at
issue. Society can't escape taking a position on some ultimate worldview.
A society that took "no official position on ultimate worldviews" would assume
that Christianity and other views are officially false. If you say some
form of secularism is true, and someone else, being more "neutral," says "no one
knows whether anything is true," that person is saying that your claim is false.
Similarly, your pluralism is itself a worldview full of claims about reality. I
can understand secularists openly seeking to impose the ultimate worldview of
"Secular Pluralism," but it doesn't seem, in principle, any more tolerant than
Muslims seeking to impose their worldview.
TM: A distinction needs to be made between secularism and
secular humanismor, if you prefer, atheism. The latter does indeed deny the
validity of Christianity and other supernatural belief systems, but the former
does not. It is true that secularism is not value-free, but those values (which
include toleration) are not inimical to religions. The secular state is based on
compromise another value, to be sure. Are you proposing instead that our
society be explicitly Presbyterian in its governmental positions? Or Buddhistic?
Or Rastafarian? What other than pluralism would allow so many ultimate
worldviews to thrive on their own, and also interact peacefully with each other?
DJ: My argument has been against generic secularism, not atheism
per se . The former is far more worrisome for its facade of innocent
neutrality. If a Christian explained tolerance as permitting secularists to
thrive as long as they assumed Christian principles outside of their
private, inner life, you wouldn't describe that as tolerance. So why call
secular pluralism tolerance? Even now, the "mild" egalitarianism of secular
"tolerance" aims to silence Christian pulpits and deny us freedom of
association. Such pluralism is far from a peaceful compromise and has
historically laid a trail of Christian blood. If our only options are an
intolerant pluralism or a Protestant decentralism, the choice should be easy.
But neutrality isn't possible.
TM: Just how "decentralized" should Protestantism be? I
consider atheism the ultimate Protestantismit protests against having any
religion at all. What actual examples are there of pulpits being silenced or
Christians denied the freedom to associate? In a nation where not one
national politician is an avowed nonbeliever, and where the stated religiosity
of leaders from every spectrum is constant, this claim seems pretty farfetched.
Bear in mind that the nonreligious like myself often feel like we are
second-class citizens. When we read of the recent attempts of conservative
Catholics and Protestants to forge common ties to combat secularism, we too fear
for our civil rights. How might such rights be protected under a religious
DJ: Christians and others are all now coerced into subsidizing
opposing worldviews embedded in the government schools and other federal
departments. Similarly, tax and welfare codes and "antidiscrimination"
legislation increasingly constrain Christian speech and association. Beyond
abolishing all such intolerances, we should adopt a very liberal attitude toward
real freedom of association. If any community, Muslim, atheistic, Catholic, New
Age, etc. wants to peacefully govern themselves by their own code, we should let
them, instead of sending in the BATF types. Given secularism's track record, I
would expect Protestant communities quickly to become havens for refugees from
secular enclaves. After all, secularism can't philosopically justify a moral
framework necessary for civil rights. Can it?
TM: A touch of hubris heredo you really presume to speak for all
Christians? Most whom I know (and some of my best friends are Christians) don't
feel coerced at all. Like myself, they grumble over the amount of taxes they are
expected to pay, but they still support the public school system, the social
safety net, and other state and federal programs. Are you proposing that every
group enter its own enclave, refusing to interact with those who don't share its
particular ethical code? And while you may not agree with the arguments, there
are plenty of secular justifications for moralitylet's debate those in another
DJ: Coercion isn't determined by emotions. You can't really be
suggesting that if someone were robbed or enslaved but didn't feel that
way, then they weren't. Now that you've openly opposed tolerating the beliefs of
others in "less serious" concerns, how can secularists expect to be taken
seriously regarding tolerance on weightier issues? We can't just shrug off
foundational ethical questions when they determine the whole discussion. Can we
at least agree that if a worldview cannot provide a framework for moral rights,
then a society embracing that worldview will catch on in time and start to act
more consistently with that worldview by rejecting rights and tolerance?
Robespierre's secular reign of "tolerance" comes to mind.
TM: What leads you to assume that foundational ethical questions
determine this whole discussion? Robespierre certainly had his foundational
views on virtue, as did Torquemada and John Calvin. Those who differed with them
met an unfortunate end. Just as you deny Richelieu Christian status, I would
point out that Robespierre attempted to foist a religion of Reason on Francehe
would not consider himself a secularist. "Secularism" is not a worldview, but
rather the means by which people of differing worldviews attempt to live
together harmoniously. All groups are prone to reject the rights of nonmembers,
which is why defending a secular state is so important.
DJ: If you still really think that secularism isn't a worldview,
despite its assumptions about truth and value, then you should be able to supply
a standard of harmony that all worldviews can embrace without surrendering their
basic loyalties. What neutral standard can harmonize all the right to
life and property issues (abortion, euthanasia, education, redistribution)? No
such standard exists. A neutral state is a contradiction in terms. So, a
secular state, too, will tend to "reject the rights of nonmembers," those who
reject the secular standard. You need to supply an answer to this pressing
contradiction. Your concluding thought seems to supply the answer to your
opening questionsecularism's foundational values count, others don't.
TM: You are right that a true harmonization of differing ethical views
cannot be achieved. Secularismat its bestshould adhere to what Isaiah Berlin
calls "a negative liberty." That is, it provides a freedom from coercion,
allowing people to pursue their own ends. "Positive liberty"which the Stalins,
Torquemadas, Calvins, and Robespierres have advocatedattempts to direct all
people toward one common goal, and woe to those who don't accept it.
"Secularism" remains an ideal. Its values of tolerance and respect should
correspond to values found within the worldviews participating in the
experiment. It's not the foundations but rather the ends that are important.
DJ: Whoa, a few steps back I appealed for negative libertiesfreedom of
association and freedom from being forced to support opposing worldviews, but
you opposed so much tolerance. Are you now willing to give up all your
egalitarian goals and allow Christians to hire whomever they want, speak without
IRS threats, and use their money "to pursue their own ends"? Or do you still
harbor some Robespierre in your heart? Since our cultures disagree on the
foundations and the ends, secularism can't serve as an ideal. By the way,
propaganda aside, Calvin's tradition specifically developed our notions of
church-state separation, freedom of conscience, and our Revolution, that
"Presbyterian Rebellion" as the English called it.
TM: I'm afraid you haven't put propaganda asideMichael Servetus could
attest to Calvin's willingness to tolerate those who differed with his
worldview. But the Presbyterian Rebellion did indeed help foster the ideals
which secularism, in my view, best serve. Your version of negative liberty, with
incommensurable groups living apart, with no neutral ground between them,
differs from Berlin's notion of a government which takes no sides in ultimate
matters, but allows for open discussion and intermingling of positions. You may
be right about the government's overbearing nature regarding taxation (I am
sympathetic to a libertarian approach) but, at least so far, the framework of
the founding fathers has allowed us to avoid the internecine doctrinal battles
of the pastand allowed for the mutual give-and-take of disputatio such as this.
DJ: The ancient Justinian code that had already condemned Servetus in
multiple locales was widespread in Europe and hardly unique to Geneva or Calvina
man who never held any political office and struggled long to separate Genevan
civil and church authorities. More importantly, the rather Protestant liberties
of early America can't be sustained in a vacuum. The more consistent
secularistsresurgent fascists and their postmodern bedfellowswill continue to
ask "Why is intolerance evil?" They more clearly recognize the inconsistency of
a secularism parasitically trying to maintain Christian liberties without a
Christian framework. Secularism's devotion to evolutionary, naturalistic
mythology forever keeps it from supplying the "oughts" requisite for liberty,
and more and more people are realizing this.
Though when the dam finally breaks, Tim, you will always have a sincere
welcome in the Protestant havens. Thank you so much for participating in this