What is Tolerance?

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. This post was particularly important to me because I was (am) still struggling to take the concept of tolerance and change it from the weapon of intolerance it is generally used as to be the real deal. So, unfortunately, this post became long and unwieldy as I thought it all through with detailed examples and tried to find my own position. Unfortunately, even after doing all that, I continue to feel that there is something wrong – missing – in my attempt to define tolerance. I admit this near the end where I am forced to admit that tolerance must not always be a virtue. This bothers me that there isn’t a clearer definition between when it is and when it isn’t a virtue to be tolerance. For those disinterested in reading a long article like this, I will post a ‘summary’ version shortly, so I’m not going to open comments on this post. If you have comments on it, put them into the next post. 

I wrote an article explaining how I become converted to “political correctness”. I was really talking about “tolerance.”

Tolerance: I hear that word a lot. Words are funny things because they often mean different things to different people. And sometimes (often? usually?) other people have little incentive to bridge any communication gap.

I would like to try to come up with a good working definition of the word “tolerance” to use as a way of guiding my interactions with those I disagree (and sometimes strongly disagree) with. But this definition shouldn’t just be a warm fuzzy. It should be a substantive and, as much as possible, objective basis for determining what is or isn’t tolerance.

But what is tolerance?

Tolerance means literally “to tolerate” something. This directly implies that the belief system (i.e. “religion”) being tolerated is one that a person, by definition, disagrees with and perhaps even dislikes. This might ease the burdens of tolerance to realize that it in no way implies you have to pretend to like something you don’t like or pretend to accept things you truly believe to be wrong.

So let’s start with this as the basis for our definition: Tolerance is to literally “tolerate” something, not to accept it or like it. In fact, as far as I can tell “tolerance” in no way implies not fighting against something you disagree with; it simply defines what fighting techniques are legitimate, fair, or just by asking you to treat others how you want to be treated as well.

What Tolerance Isn’t

It is unfortunate the the word “tolerance” is in the process of no longer meaning “to tolerate” something. Instead, we regularly tell people they are being “intolerant” if they disagree with us or if we don’t like what they are saying. This new and growing definition of “tolerance” literally removes all virtue from the word and concept, for if we are labeled intolerant for doing nothing more then disagreeing, then unfortunately someone’s beliefs are going to “win out” while the others are forced to shut up. What a sorry state that would be. Indeed, it would be a form of tyranny.

Along those same lines, “tolerance” seems to also be used to mean “don’t offend me.” But I’m afraid “inoffensive” and “tolerance” may at times be worlds apart. Yes, intolerance is always offensive. But tolerance is often offensive at well. Why? Because offensive isn’t a description of some innate property of an item or idea, it’s a description of how someone else reacts to it. Thus if we use “offensiveness” as a basis for tolerance or intolerance, the word becomes 100% subjective and has lost all meaning.

Even taking the word to mean “what the average person finds offensive” is problematic. In the South, back during segregation, the “average person” found it offensive to have unsegregated water fountains or to have Caucasians have to be around African Americans. Was that tolerant? It is if we decide that tolerance is based on majority rules.

It’s hard to imagine how the word “tolerance” could ever be useful at all if we base it on the idea of “offensiveness.” Clearly the majority view on everything would be “tolerance” and the minority view (that the majority of people don’t like) would be “intolerance.” Not a very useful definition or concept.

So Then What is Tolerance?

Okay, wise guys, I can hear some people say: It’s easy to state what “tolerance” isn’t. But give me a definition of what it is. Stick your neck out and let me criticize your definition.

While I think this is a tall order, I think it’s entirely possible to come up with a workable and useful definition/description of what tolerance is.

Tolerance Level 1

I believe there are two types, or degrees, of tolerance. The most basic one is the most important one. Tolerance level 1 is nothing more or less than legally allowing people to express their beliefs and views without fear of violence either illegally or from the government – that monopoly on legal violence.

This first definition of tolerance deals only with the governments and lawbreakers, not private law abiding individuals.

Why limit this view of tolerance to violence and government only? Because this is where the biggest dangers lies.


  • Jim Crow laws disenfranchising certain races
  • Segregation laws that favored certain races over another
  • State religions being favored to the exclusion of other religions
  • The law looking the other way while hate groups (this might be the KKK or Missourian mobs) use illegal violence to control an undesirable group
  • Not enfranchising women
  • Disenfranchising women as a way to control juries or the vote of the territory (i.e. 19th Century Utah).
  • Requiring a religion to have to live in certain places or counties  (i.e. Daviess and Caldwell Counties, Missouri)
  • Legally requiring a group to not live in certain areas or states  (i.e. Missouri and Illinois)
  • Court systems refusing to apply the law to undesirable groups (i.e. Jackson County Missouri)
  • Defining a Church as not a legal charity because of their offensive beliefs 
  • Prosecuting polygamy, even if handled in private only, but not prosecuting private adultery 
  • Outlawing private religious practices or beliefs

These are all obvious examples of government intolerance or intolerance though use of illegal violence. These will always be the worst kinds of intolerance.

I think it’s important to separate degrees of intolerance for another reason: intolerance level 1 is the only type of intolerance we should ever make laws against. Intolerance level 2, which I will now describe, should be a matter of conscience alone.

Tolerance Level 2

The problem that I see with tolerance level 1 is that it’s not as useful a definition modernly because we rarely speak of tolerance in such a limited way. Under tolerance level 1 a modern skin-head group – so long as they don’t break laws – is “tolerant” because they aren’t in the government enacting laws nor breaking existing laws. But is this really what we mean when we speak of “tolerance” today?

As I mentioned before, all too often what we mean by “tolerance” today is some fuzzy undefined feeling. And all too often the word “tolerance” is really just hiding it’s own form of “intolerance” because it’s being used to shut down a minority view through it’s own form of hate and public humiliation. I think it would be tragic to let “tolerance” come to mean “intolerance towards disliked minority views.”

So I propose this list on what “tolerance” should mean today. This is the best list I could come up with so far, though it’s probably incomplete.

Tolerance Does Not Mock Other People’s Beliefs

One of the most obvious examples of this for me, as a Mormon, is when various Christian denominations intentionally take things sacred to my own LDS religion, such as our temple, and show them in public in mocking ways to get people to laugh at them.

On the other hand, there is an old joke told by Mormons about “what would Catholics do if Jesus had been killed by stoning.”

There is simply no place for mocking in tolerant conversation. Instead, choose to disagree with others respectfully and civilly.

I need to make a dividing line here between mocking a belief or belief system and being a “harsh critic” of a belief or belief system. The first is always intolerance but the second could be tolerance if handled civilly. “Harshness” is not intolerance in and of itself.

Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs

Clearly tolerance allows no room for lies – even of the half-truth variety. Now of course it’s not always possible to get your facts straight, so you may inadvertently say something untrue about another religion. (I’m guilty as charged.) But once you find that what you are saying is not true, do not continue to spread the lie because it supports “the cause”? Do you find a way to justify the lie? Also, ask yourself, “do I at least make an attempt to confirm information I hear about other religions or am I so anxious to spread something bad about a religion that I’d rather not know if it’s true or not?”

I’ve known many people that claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 people will be saved. This is a half-truth meant to deceive. I’ve known many people to say that Mormons worship many gods. This is not really true either. The list could go on and on.

I think the single most common example of this tactic is the one where a Christian of a more orthodox denomination calls a Christian of a non-Orthodox denomination a “non-Christian” but refuses to clarify that they are using a specialized definition. If a person knowingly chooses to label a group in a way that causes people to misunderstand what that group really believes, it is deception.

Tolerance Does Not State Other People’s Beliefs in Ways Meant to Get a Negative Reaction

This is related to mocking, but is a lighter form of it. It’s also related to deception.

Again, we need to give some latitude to people as they may honestly not know how to best state the beliefs of another religion. But all too often it’s clear that people state other people’s beliefs in a negative way simply to deceive, mock, or scare others.

Here are some real life examples:

  • An atheist stating that Christians are American’s second and Christians first so they can’t be trusted politically.
  • Referring to the Christian communion as “ritualistic cannibalization” of Jesus.
  • Muslims commenting that Christians are polytheists because they believe in the Trinity. They also like to claim that Christians believe God had sex with Mary because Jesus was begotten of God.
  • Protestants claiming that Mormons believe in merit for their works because Mormons don’t believe that salvation was a transaction that happened once and for all upon accepting Christ.
  • Claiming that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers.

These are all examples of taking a true belief of one religion and twisting it until it’s no longer even recognizable. We must do better than this form of misrepresentation of other’s beliefs if we are striving to be tolerant.

Tolerance is Being Respectful and Civil in Your Communication to People of Another Belief

Treat people as you want to be treated yourself. Yelling and screaming is never tolerant. Talking down to people and calling them stupid or childish (or implying as much by saying something like “you need to use your brain.”) isn’t tolerant either. Any form of name calling or disrespectful labeling is intolerant.

A common example of this is the use of the word “cult” amongst some Christians. The word cult literally would encompass every religion in the world, if properly understood. Yet it’s well known that people take it as an insult, which is how I imagine it’s intended. One poster on the Internet pointed out that if you neighbor only referred to you as an “animal” they would be both technically correct and intentionally insulting you.

Tolerance Does Not Use Stereotypes

This is another hard one, because sometimes there is truth in a stereotype. The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are universally false, but that they are not universally true. This is precisely why we must avoid stereotypes.

Now we are getting to the essence of what “prejudice” is. The word “prejudice”’s root is to “pre judge.” It’s to assume something about an individual because he or she is part of a group rather than judging the individual on their own actions and merits.

I would submit that spreading stereotypes about a group is intolerant because of the damage it does to individuals, even if the stereotype has some truth to it. We all know that often the stereotypes end up having little or no truth to them; but even if there is truth to them, it is still intolerant to spread or use stereotypes.

Examples of this are abundant:

  • Assuming a member of one race is less smart than another
  • Assuming that a member of a group is more violent than average
  • Assuming that a member of a group is more likely to steal or shoplift
  • Assuming that a member of a group is sheep-like
  • Assuming that all members of a religion believe the same
  • Assuming that a member of a group will say or do stupid things

I think a great recent example of this form of intolerance in it’s most ugly form was those that claimed Mitt Romney was incapable of being President because only an idiot would believe in Mormonism. I see no difference between such a view and the most vile forms of racism. Please note, this would not exclude people from thinking Mitt Romney was incapable of being president on other grounds based on things actually known about him personally rather than assumptions about him based on a group he was a member of.

To use a real life example, it would be intolerant for me to say that “Evangelical Christians are all bigots.” That’s a stereotype and it’s unfair. But it’s not intolerant for me to raise the issue that many self identified Evangelical Christians I have met –- but not all of them or even most of them –- misrepresent Mormon beliefs in deceptive or bigoted ways and often do so after learning what to say in classes supplied by their ministers. The first is a stereotype, the other is a legitimate issue that needs to be raised and discussed even though it’s uncomfortable. Tolerance is never a reason to not address real issues.

Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them

It’s amazing how often we violate this rule of tolerance. I was once discussing religion with a Protestant that clearly hated me for being LDS. He told me that I didn’t believe in hell. I told him I did. He then –- in an amazing display of arrogance –- claimed that I didn’t know what I believed because he had a book somewhere that quoted Brigham Young saying that there is no hell. (He didn’t have the quote handy, but presumably he was using a quote that really just stated there was no traditional hell of fire and brimstone. But of course, regardless, it hardly matters what Brigham Young said or didn’t say if we are talking about my personal beliefs and I personally believe in hell.)

I asked this Protestant if he he’d studied LDS beliefs as long and as much as I did. Of course not. I explained that I had numerous statements, yes, even from Brigham Young, about the reality of hell. Did he budge? Nope. He didn’t want to talk about what I believed in, only in what he thought I should believe. It was somewhat humorous and very scary. If only this had been an isolated event for Evangelical Protestant Christians.

The truth is that we’re all the worldwide experts on our personal beliefs. If I believe in hell, then that means I do. Period. He is being silly to tell me what I believe. On the other hand, he did have the right to give me the quote and let me explain how I fit it or don’t fit it into my beliefs. But due to his lack of interest in doing that, we never went there.

Not allowing people to state their own beliefs is so common that I’m willing to bet every single one of us has violated it as some point. It’s almost comical how often this rule gets violated. For some reason, this rule is really hard to recognize in our own selves but easy to recognize when someone does it to you.

That being said, it’s not the most common form of intolerance I’ve noticed. The most common form would be:

Tolerance Does Not Use Dual Standards

This one is the most difficult of all, because no one ever believes they are using a dual standard. No matter how much of a dual standard you support, you’ll always deny that you have a dual standard at all. So unlike the rules above, which are generally obvious and very straight forward -– at least in retrospect -– this one is extremely difficult to live. Thus we need to cut people some slack over this rule.

A real life example of a double standard was when some non-Mormon Christian demanded to see the Gold Plates that the Book of Mormon was translated from and had a good laugh over an angel having taken them away so that there was no proof. To them it was obvious that God would never do such a thing. But then why didn’t Jesus just show himself to the world today and end all doubt about his resurrection. What we have here is a dual standard.

Atheists seem particularly susceptible to dual standards because they prefer to think of their beliefs as “not a religion” and thus they think it correct to silence other belief systems in politics while allowing their own to be discussed.

One poster on Yahoo Answers said of “people with religions” (excluding himself from this category): “Christians and people of all religions needs to stop making policy and political decisions based on their religious beliefs.” Apparently it’s okay to make political decisions based on the morality and ethics of atheists, but not for people who believe in God.

Another poster suggested that perhaps if every country in the world were “secular” that maybe atheists and Christians would not be at odds. He asked, “are you opposed to religion or people who use religion to dominate politics?” The “best answer” he choose said “People should be free to believe in whatever faith or religion they choose to. Trouble only arises when they try to insist everyone else should believe the same way–or when their way of thinking actually affects the rest of society–like lobbying politicians to enact laws based on the religious superstitions–like blocking stem cell research.”

Clearly these atheists believe that if Christians just left their religion (i.e. system of belief and moral compass) at home when voting that things would be better. But it doesn’t occur to these atheists that they themselves are a religion of sorts (i.e. a set of beliefs) that contains at least one member: themselves. Should they also leave their beliefs and their moral compass at home when they vote?

Let’s take the example of stem cell research. Some Christians, but by no means all, believe that a fertilized egg is already equivalent to a human being. Some atheists, but by no means all, believe that until the unborn child breathes it’s really just part of the woman’s body. Who’s right? Are they both wrong? And how can well tell?

The frank truth is that science can’t help us here. The egg and sperm cell are alive even before they join and then there is a gradual but steady process of formation into a baby. So does an unborn child deserve some or all legal protections of a born child? Why or why not? Is there really no moral difference between cutting your hair and aborting a baby? Why or why not?

These strike me as very obvious and very legitimate political issues. I see no alternative to working out societal standards on a divisive issue like this but through the political process. In short, I encourage everyone to use their set of beliefs and moral compass and vote their conscience. The suggestion by these atheists that Christians are some how forcing their beliefs on others misses the point that frankly the reverse would be atheists forcing their beliefs on Christians. Do atheists really expect Christians to stand by and watch human life be killed (as some Christians believe –- rightly or wrongly) and do nothing at all? Accepting this is nothing short of asking the political system to favor one religion over another by allowing one to speak up and the other stay silent.

Is Tolerance Always a Virtue?

One word of caution about tolerance. It may sound like I think tolerance to be a universal virtue. I’m not sure it is.

Charity is an example of a universal virtue. There is never a time or place to be uncharitable. Conversely, it is not hard to think of cases where we should not “tolerate” at all. Should we be “tolerant” of child pornography? This strikes me as a difficult question and I’m not sure I have the answer to this question yet.

Tolerance is a very important virtue when it comes to freedom of beliefs and religious practice but it may not be a virtue in all circumstances.


In reality, all these “rules” on how to be tolerant are very straightforward. They could be boiled down to this: Tolerance is treating others how you want to be treated.

Or to put this another way: Tolerance is being consistent. Indeed, “inconsistency” and “intolerance” are very nearly the same thing when it comes to discussing beliefs.

While this is easy in principle, it’s difficult in practice due to the prejudice that lives in all of our hearts. Only actively working against our prejudices can allow us to overcome them and to be tolerant in our actions and words.

And perhaps this is the most important point I can make. We all practice intolerance. I do it all the time. It’s nearly impossible to be perfectly tolerant even in situations where you believe you should. So don’t make the mistake of labeling yourself as “tolerant” as if it’s something you either are or you aren’t. Instead work at being it.


So what do you agree or disagree with? Can you advance your own contrary definition of tolerance? Do you disagree with any of my examples? Would you add anything to my list? Would you remove anything?

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