Review of Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance

Review of Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance June 23, 2012

Review of The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2012)

The Intolerance of Tolerance is Carson’s latest jeremiad about postmodernism. His earlier one was The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 2002). The basic thesis of The Intolerance of Tolerance (henceforth simply Intolerance) is that our culture is in the process of adopting an intolerant attitude toward real moral and intellectual pluralism in the name of tolerance. Carson’s thesis is expressed in many ways and illustrated by numerous anecdotes. Here is one statement of his thesis: “In the name of not offending anyone, we are in danger of appealing to the virtue of tolerance to become more intolerant.” (p. 28) An example (anecdote) from the “domain of education” is the case of one Scott McConnell whose term paper for a class at Le Moyne College advocated corporal punishment received an A minus. However, according to Carson, the student was dismissed from the college by the chair of the education department due to an alleged “mismatch between [his] personal beliefs…and the Le Moyne College program goals.” (p. 29)

Most of his anecdotes about intolerance in the name of tolerance have more to do with persecution of religious believers and especially Christians in education and the media.

Throughout the book Carson works with a distinction between two views of tolerance—one “old” and the other “new.” According to him, the old view combined tolerance with realism regarding truth. That is, truth is “out there,” real, objective in itself. In this older view of tolerance, it is a path toward social harmony and, at least in some cases, toward a greater grasp of truth through dialogue between competing visions of truth. According to Carson, “the new tolerance argues that there is no one view that is exclusively true.” (p. 11)

It seems to me that, throughout the book, Carson describes the “new view” in different and sometimes confusing ways. For example, “there is no one view that is exclusively true” isn’t incompatible with the old view. And it doesn’t equate with “all paths are equally right.” (also p. 11)

Let’s look at that again.

On a single page (11), Carson describes the “new view” in two very different ways. First, it is that “no one view…is exclusively true.” Second, it is that “all paths [to truth] are equally right.”

Then, on another page (13) Carson muddies the waters even more by describing the new view as that “all truth is relative”—a definition (or description) of the new view of tolerance he uses repeatedly throughout the book. This would seem to be a third definition/description of the “new tolerance.”

Are these three descriptions of the same thing? Not necessarily. A person might very well believe there is objective truth “out there” (realism) without believing that any one view of it is “exclusively true.” (Remember that “exclusively” means “to the exclusion of everything else.” A view that is “exclusively true” would imply that it has no mixture of error in it and that other views contain no truth.) A person might very well believe that truth is real, “out there,” so to speak, and at the same time deny that any view of truth is “exclusively true.”

Also, a person might believe that all paths (to truth) are equally right and believe in real truth “out there” (realism); it’s just that all the major paths toward it are equally fallible but also lead there in the end. (Nobody thinks literally all belief systems are “equally right.” Some are plainly delusional such as solipsism.)

What Carson seems to mean by the “new tolerance” is relativism; that’s the one he settles down with throughout most of the book. And the book’s argument is that 1) relativism is unstable and inconsistent, and 2) relativism should not allow intolerance—even with regard to absolutism, and 3) many movers and shakers of contemporary culture (especially British and North American as all the examples he cites come from them) act hypocritical because they claim to embrace the new tolerance (relativism) while at the same time acting against absolutisms such as traditional Christianity on the ground that they are intolerant.

A quote near the book’s beginning expresses well what Carson opposes. It is from Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ottowa: “Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.” (p. 12) (Carson doesn’t cite a primary source for this quote; his sources are radio talk show host Bob Harvey and authors Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler. See footnote 14 on p. 12) One has to wonder about that quote. Could Armour really have meant that without qualifications? The quote also raises questions about context. In what contexts (government, corporate, education, home, church) ought a virtuous citizen tolerate everything except intolerance?

In any case, throughout the book Carson is attacking the gist of that quote and the practices to which it gives rise and especially the common idea among movers and shakers of culture that, since Christianity is intolerant because it makes exclusive and absolutistic truth claims, it ought not to be tolerated.

Again, he attacks it on the basis that it is 1) inconsistent and therefore hypocritical (especially when put into practice to persecute people who make truth claims, and 2) dangerous to true pluralism. In the name of pluralism, the new tolerance excludes all views that claim to be true to the exclusion of other views even when they are not trying to persecute anyone. The new tolerance assumes that to claim access to truth is to persecute others even if only by hurting their feelings.

I agree with Carson that this extreme version of “new tolerance” is inconsistent and often intolerant. Most of the examples he cites, however, are of individuals or private organizations (not government) exercising bad judgment—sometimes out of ignorance of the law, sometimes out of desire that no one’s feelings be hurt, and sometimes out of antipathy toward absolutism of any kind and especially religious. Occasionally an agent of government or a court engages in “new tolerance” reasoning. Especially when that can be shown to be the case, Carson’s argument needs to be heard and heeded. (And, by the way, it is a case that has been made many times before by both secular and religious people on both the “right” and “left.”)

I think, however, that it would be helpful to distinguish more clearly between cases of the intolerance of new tolerance, relativism, anti-absolutism, in private and in public spheres. (By “public” here I mean government.) Most of it goes on in private organizations and institutions even if those are very “public” as in broadcast media. I wonder why that surprises or even dismays anyone? It seems to me that surprise and dismay at it reveal an expectation that Christianity (and clearly Carson is mainly concerned with persecution of Christians at the hands of adherents of the new tolerance) should be socially acceptable. I think a good case could be made that Jesus expected that his faithful followers would always be criticized and persecuted by “the world.” That is not to say it’s not worth pointing out that advocates of the new tolerance are being inconsistent; it’s just to express some bemusement at Carson’s apparent desire that culture tolerate Christians to the extent of accepting us “in the conversation,” so to speak, as equals with everyone else. I suspect that, to the extent we are really following Jesus Christ, we will not be seated at that table and given a fair hearing by the movers and shakers of culture.

In my opinion, it is worthwhile for Christians to expect a government such as ours, based on our Constitution, not to persecute Christians by marginalizing or excluding us, that is by singling us out for special negative treatment. On the other hand, it should not surprise us when efforts to do that are attempted even by government. But I have no objection to those legal organizations that come to the aid of Christians whose constitutional rights are being violated.

One type of intolerance Carson does not address is contemporary Christian intolerance of others. He decries past examples of it (e.g., the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc.), but says little about contemporary attempts by Christians to suppress minority voices WITHIN Christian organizations and networks (e.g., evangelicalism). As I have argued here many times before, there is a certain very vocal element within evangelicalism that uses pressures on publishers, colleges, seminaries and universities, etc., to suppress views other than their own. Carson might argue that such people have a right to do that. Of course they do, if we’re talking about constitutional rights, legal rights. But it seems hypocritical to me to tout true tolerance, “old tolerance,” and then engage in efforts to suppress or silence others’ views. (I’m thinking, for example, of evangelical authors who threatened not to publish with an evangelical publisher if it published books by open theists.)

A major point of Carson’s book with which I agree is that, to a very large extent, contemporary secularists pretend their world view is neutral and normal so that it ought to be privileged in the “public square” while all religious world views should be privatized. Carson is right to point out that there is no neutrality; every worldview, secular or religious, has at least a quasi-religious aspect to it. None should be privileged in the public square and that includes secular humanism or just plain secularism.

However, it also seems to me that neither should Christianity be privileged in the public square. I don’t know what Carson thinks about that. One could get the impression from this book that he agrees, but to me it’s not clear. Many conservative evangelicals do think that Christianity ought to be privileged by government and extensions of government (e.g., public schools). I think a great deal of the “new tolerance” arises from that phenomenon—the threat of conservative Christians grabbing power and marginalizing or even silencing other voices. The perception is that conservative Christianity is inherently anti-pluralistic. Conservative Christians don’t help with that perception when they, for example, support legislation of specifically Christian morality (i.e., criminalizing behavior deemed immoral only by Christians or some sect of Christians). As Christians, we could help the situation (if that’s what we want to do) by disowning and even publicly repenting for some of our past behaviors in which we have criminalized and persecuted people we considered “ungodly” because of their appearance, behavior that didn’t harm anyone, expressions of opinion, etc. We have a lot to live down—especially in parts of the country where conservative Christianity was tied in with intolerance toward minorities, ethnic and ideological.

Having said all that, it is my opinion that belief in God or a Higher Power is conducive to public morality because, without it, there is no ground or basis for belief in objective right and wrong. Without it there is no possibility of appeal to a “higher law” than “man’s law” (as Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly appealed to in his Letter from Birmingham Jail). That does not mean I think atheism or agnosticism should be criminalized; it just means I think theism should be privileged in the public square even as non-theistic voices are allowed to speak. There is no such thing as absolute, unfettered tolerance. We require public officials to take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That could be interpreted as intolerant toward persons who wish to abolish the Constitution. Nobody thinks that is intolerant, or at least nobody thinks that’s bad intolerance.

One complaint I have about Carson’s book is its treatment of “postmodernism.” Throughout the book Carson treats postmodernism as inherently relativistic. Yet he displays no first hand acquaintance with postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, et al. My own study has convinced me that most of them were not relativists. The Christian secondary literature on this is, in my opinion, largely mistaken. Most of it simply quotes other conservative Christian anti-modernist literature. Few conservative Christian critics of postmodernism demonstrate any serious engagement with postmodern philosophy’s primary sources. I’ve talked about that here before and recommended a few evangelical sources that seem to me reliable because they have actually read postmodern philosophers themselves as opposed to relying on secondary sources. (An excellent example is Bruce Ellis Benson’s Graven Ideologies [IVP].)

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