The New Tolerance

Tolerance is a word that is commonly used today to mean something it was never intended to mean. Today, when you hear the word tolerance it most likely is used in the context of acceptance and approval. But this is not what the word was intended to mean.  Staying true to its meaning, to tolerate means to “put up with error.”  Toleration, in its purest sense, refers to the ability to “live with” something we don’t approve. In order to tolerate, we must first disapprove, dislike, or disagree.

I don’t tolerate steak. I tolerate brussell sprouts.

I don’t tolerate chocolate. I tolerate coconut.

I don’t tolerate air conditioning. I tolerate high temperatures and humidity.

I don’t tolerate the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. I tolerate the smell of cigarettes.

Paul Copan states it well, “We tolerate what we disapprove of or what we believe to be false or erroneous.” If disappointment or dislike didn’t exist then we would not have a need for toleration. To quote Copan again, “It is because real differences exist between people that tolerance become necessary and virtuous.”

The common understanding of tolerance today, however, is born out of relativism and has resulted in changing the meaning of tolerance to accepting anything and most everything. This warped understanding dovetails with the notion that there are no absolute truths. Therefore, toleration has come to refer to the exalted virtue of never passing judgment. When toleration is understood in this way, any reasonable dialogue becomes useless.

True tolerance allows people to dissent. True tolerance, while not sharing a belief, implies respect for varying beliefs.  If I tolerate your view, I am not saying I agree and accept it; rather, I am saying you are free to hold that view. If I tolerate your belief, I may desire to enter into a dialogue on our differences and perhaps attempt to persuade you, but I will not force you to agree with me. Toleration does not mean that I approve or agree.

The way people try to impose this new meaning to toleration is actually a violation of its purest meaning. If toleration means accepting anything then toleration—in its traditional sense—is no longer tolerated. Ironically, those who preach this view of toleration are not tolerant—regardless of how the word is defined—of those who do not share the same view. The so-called “tolerant” are now exclusivistic.

The new “toleration” is birthed out of the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth. The absence of absolute truth is birthed in relativism. Paul Copan, in his book “True For Your, But Not For Me,” lists seven types of relativism:

Forms of Relativism

  • Objective relativism:      Beliefs can be “true” for one person or group, but not necessarily for another.
  • Religious relativism:        One religion can be true for one person or culture but not for another.
  • Moral relativism:              There are no moral absolutes and no objective ethical right or wrong.
  • Cultural relativism:          What is immoral in one culture is not necessarily immoral in another culture.
  • Historical relativism:        Historical truth differs over periods of time.
  • Scientific relativism:        Scientific progress is nothing but one theory being replaced by another.
  • Aesthetic relativism:       “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

When relativism runs rampant, the belief in absolute truths fade away. When truth is absent, dissent, debate, and discrimination are no longer required or valued. Toleration becomes blind acceptance of everything. Copan shares three key implications of relativism:

Implications of Relativism

  1. Persuasion is prohibited.
  2. To be exclusivistic is to be arrogant.
  3. Tolerance is the cardinal virtue.

The relativist may say “Everything is relative.” But does she truly believe it? Would she say her belief is true? If so, she has contradicted herself. “Relativism misses on the crucial test of internal consistency.” I can’t help but smile at how Copan states this: “In this case the relativist is unwilling to relativize his own relativism.”


Each one of us lives our lives believing there is truth—we must. We believe that if we fail to stop for red lights we will crash. If jump off the cliff, we believe we will die. If our child does not study, we believe she will fail. Every day we make decisions based on what we believe to be true. Truth does exist. Copan writes it this way:

Truth is true—even if no one knows it.

Truth is true—even if one admits it.

Truth is true—even if one agrees what it is.

Truth is true—even if one follows it.

Truth is true—even if no one but God grasps it fully.

Tolerance is needed in life. Tolerance, however, must be understand in the traditional sense that allows for discriminating judgment of what is right and wrong. Whether it is in parenting, health or faith, we must be able to discern between what is good and what is not. Truth matters.


Jack Bruce lives in Greater Atlanta, Georgia

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brad Hobbs on July 31, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Good blog Jack.

    Tolerance has been redefined over decades. JFK defended tradition when he said “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs”. As Kennedy fades, liberal tolerance morphs into forceful “acceptance”. Acceptance applying to all beliefs except Judeo-Christian, and traditional “American”. I would be interested in knowing your thoughts on how this is occurring. Is it a contrived plan? Or just human nature?


    • Posted by jackwbruce on July 31, 2010 at 11:04 am

      Brad, thanks for your comments. Great quote from JFK. I would agree with JFK that tolerance does not require that we abandon our own beliefs. In fact, tolerance requires that we have beliefs. If we don’t have beliefs then what are we tolerating?

      I also agree that there are some segments of our society, (which I will not publicly name here), that do contrive to redefine tolerance for the sake of their own agenda–which may be a moral or anti-moral agenda. However, the greatest reason for the redefinition–in my opinion–of tolerance is the whole notion of political correctness. Copan, in his book, has a great chapter on “judging” and makes a case for why we must “judge.” Yet, the common thought of so many today is that we not pass judgement, not have any moral absolutes, not believe some things are right and some things are wrong, and that we certainly refrain from offending anyone by suggesting that they may be in error. Sadly, tolerance has come to mean blind acceptance and, in many cases, support for any and all beliefs.


  2. First off, I believe that it is of the utmost importance that we understand the definitions of the words that we use. I was excited to read about the examination of the definition of a word. (I just confessed my nerd credentials) Tolerance is used so frequently that it has diminished meaning while achieving “catch phrase” status. Anyway, I appreciate the topic. Now for my disagreement, I don’t believe that relativism is such a negative thing. While I believe that there are absolute truths, the truth can also be relative. You may believe it to be true that homosexuality morally incorrect. That may be your truth. (I am not saying for certain that this is your truth, but for the sake of argument….) Yet the homosexual would hold the opposite truth, which truth is true? Can both be true, absolutely? Is that even possible? Does it even matter? Does one truth have to be true? Or, can relative truth be an acceptable compromise? I suppose the point I am trying to make is this, not everyone shares the same viewpoint or moral attitude and aside from truth that causing physical harm to or defrauding someone is morally unacceptable, people are going to have different truths. I think this is a good thing. I mean, if everyone agreed, who the hell would I argue with?


    • Posted by jackwbruce on August 1, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Brett, Thank you for commenting. Thank you, also, for providing the perfect illustration of modern day relativism. You say you “believe that there are absolute truths” while at the same time believe that contradictory “truths,” (“my truth,” “your truth”) can be equally true. If this is accurate, then what is the meaning of truth? In this sense, “truth” becomes empty—void of any meaning beyond “view” or “belief.” You appear to be saying that truth only exist in matters “causing physical harm to or defrauding someone.” Where do you get this limited scope? What proof is there is that truth is limited to these ambiguous areas of life? The real problem with relativism is that we often don’t want to face the truth, and be socially, spiritually, and morally responsible, and so we try to come up with reasoning for taking a relative view of truth. I encourage us to seek out the truth no matter how if may affect our lives going forward.


      • First, I will address your observation about my assertion that truth only exists in “matters”. I operate on the principle that a human being has the right to live their life in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to do the same. So, in my book, as long as people abide by this rule, anything else that they decide to do is just fine. You could say that this is my truth. Does any other truth matter? Why would any other truth matter? Now I understand that when dealing with things like mathematics or certain matters of law etc, that there are absolute truths that cannot be denied. I am pretty sure that this is not what we are discussing here though. So the question remains; if my truth doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s ability to have their own truth, what is wrong with the rest of our truths being relative? There must be SOME reason that a person would desire to have their truth be the absolute truth. Hmmmmmm…. What reason could that be? Oh wait! I know the reason! It is because if an individual or group claims something to be the ABSOLUTE TRUTH then they can use it to enforce these truths upon others. Examples; Pornography is evil and that’s the truth! So we need to ban pornography! Homosexuality is a sin and that’s the truth! So it is ok to oppress homosexuals! Drugs are bad and that’s the truth! So we must arrest the drug users! This is a problem. You cannot prove that pornography is evil or that homosexuality is a sin. Therefore, if it cannot be proven, it cannot be the truth. This is not to say that you can’t believe it to be true, but in reality, it is merely an opinion, and I do not care to be governed by someone else’s opinion. So in the end, it is my truth that most truth (when it comes to social, spiritual, and moral subjects) is relative. What do you think?

      • Posted by Lee on August 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm

        Brett’s premise in the comment that “if it cannot be proven it cannot be truth” is flawed. Just because I can not prove it doesn’t mean that no one will ever be able to. My lack of access to knowledge doesn’t invalidate a truth. In fact the application of proof to moral judgements (this is evil, that is sin) is nonsensical as well. Such proof would require complete knowledge beyond the perceptive abilities of an observer into intangible attributes like motivation. What the rational have to accept in order to function in societies with a population greater than one is an assumption of truth which is in itself an opinion. This assumption he confuses with truth. In practical terms we are all governed by opinion whether we like it or not. We have limited knowledge.Therefore I would offer substituting the word faith for opinion. You take it on faith that this is not evil or that is not a sin and act accordingly. Others take it on faith that they are. One may be aligned with a truth. The other may not be. Neither position however affects the nature of the truth itself.

        Another false assumption is the imposition of interpretation. This not a given. You certainly cannot advocate the ability of one to choose truth and then assume a behavior is demanded by that position. Even if it were an imperative it still is not a basis for the invalidation of underlying truth.

      • Posted by jackwbruce on August 14, 2010 at 10:23 am

        In the words of David K. Clark in “Dialogical Apologetics,” “Faith derives its value not from the intensity of the believer but from the genuineness of the one she believes in.” Truth is truth regarldess of opinion, faith, or depth of faith. Our goal should be to find discover the truth.

        Thanks, Lee, for your comment.


  3. Yup, as a friend of mine says, “If you don’t *mind* it, you don’t get points for *tolerating* it.

    Coconut, huh?!


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