A Catechesis for the Tolerant


By arguing that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated, a new book inadvertently demonstrates that liberalism grounded in personal autonomy is the least tolerant religion of all.

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Yossi Nehushtan thinks we can build more tolerant societies if we just stop tolerating the intolerant. In the very first sentence of his new book, Intolerant Religion in a Tolerant-Liberal Democracy, he identifies what he considers the chief enemy of tolerance: religion. He then undertakes to “explain why religion should not be tolerated in a tolerant-liberal democracy.”

In support of this conclusion, Nehushtan proffers three propositions. The first, which is foundational to the other two, is “that illiberal intolerance should not be tolerated in a tolerant-liberal democracy.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. According to this logic, a tolerant-liberal democracy will become intolerant (by virtue of not tolerating the intolerant) and therefore should not be tolerated. You’re tempted to jump to the conclusion that Nehushtan has knocked himself out before ever landing a punch on his target. But Nehushtan insists that conclusion would be “awkward” for you. You cannot judge intolerance. Only the tolerant are able to identify “the true intolerant person and the unjustified tolerance that should not be tolerated.” You are missing the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of intolerant tolerant-liberalism.

The values of tolerance are complex, you see. Nehushtan identifies three reasons for tolerance: (1) the idea that tolerance is a right, (2) pragmatic concerns, and (3) pity. Tolerance as a right entails that tolerance has limits. Tolerance is neither a value nor a virtue nor a moral duty; it is neither good nor bad, and it “might be unjustified or even morally wrong if things that should not be tolerated are tolerated.” Therefore, “the limit of liberal tolerance is illiberal intolerance,” and the “illiberal intolerant should not be tolerated by the liberal state.”

This follows from the principle of reciprocity, Nehushtan asserts. Of course, it does not follow from the usual formulations of reciprocity according to which one is to treat others as one would want to be treated, etc. Nehushtan states three of those classical formulations before inverting them. For Nehushtan, “Reciprocity means acting contrary to what X initially requires towards those who act contrary to what X requires.” This entails that the state must not tolerate those who reject the justification for tolerance.

Personal Autonomy: The One True Justification for Tolerance

Now you’re thinking, That would make the state intolerant. On that logic, we should not tolerate the state. This is an argument for anarchy. Well, no, because Nehushtan argues that only those who deny the true justification for tolerance are intolerant. Those who act against tolerance for the sake of the only true justification for tolerance are tolerant, including the tolerant-liberal state, notwithstanding that they are not tolerating.

Tolerance, it seems, is conditional, while the One True Justification for tolerance is absolute. This One True Justification is that personal autonomy is valuable in itself and its exercise should not only not be thwarted but must be actively assisted whenever possible.

In support of this premise, Nehushtan relies upon the influential work of Joseph Raz. The problems with Raz’s claim about autonomy are well known, having been considered in print by Donald Regan, Robert George, and others. Raz himself has pointed to some fundamental problems with the view that personal autonomy is intrinsically valuable.

Nehushtan does not confront those problems. Nor does he address the inconvenient difficulty that Raz’s account of autonomy is a formidable argument for political freedom, including the freedom of those who choose religious authority and other moral commitments over unfettered freedom to do whatever one wants at any moment. In other words, Raz’s argument cuts against Nehushtan’s.

This does not dissuade Nehushtan, who perceives little to be gained by trying to persuade those whose minds are darkened. “Instead,” he says of his own view, “the validity of this position will just be assumed.” Nehushtan suggests that because those who do not believe in liberal values “do not acknowledge that autonomy has any particular value, they necessarily cannot recognize tolerance as a value or as a right.” Infidels . . . er, the unregenerate . . . anyway, intolerant people cannot grasp so numinous an idea.

And those people, those who reject or diminish the One True Justification for tolerance, are the ones who are being intolerant and should not be tolerated—not the tolerant state that does not tolerate the intolerant in order to preserve autonomy. That’s tolerant.

Aren’t There Other Justifications for Tolerance?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That’s special pleading. And that’s true. Many, many, many justifications for toleration have been offered over the centuries that are grounded in moral and religious principles other than personal autonomy. Many, many, many have been offered by religious people on explicitly religious grounds.

Yet those are impostor tolerations, false substitutes for the genuine article. Nehushtan defines true tolerance in various ways. (One definition of tolerance seems to be not sufficiently capacious to communicate its characteristics.) Sometimes intolerance means causing harm to someone based on a negative attitude toward that person. Harm is broadly defined to include both acting to make someone’s condition worse and failing to act to make someone’s condition better “when (a) others prevent him from doing something or force him to do it, or (b) when he needs help for any reason.”

Sometimes “the term ‘harm’ refers to any negative attitude towards the other” coupled with limiting another’s freedom in any sense. This limitation “can be emotional, mental, psychological, physical, economic or other.” In these instances, harm is defined with reference to the subjective preferences and desires of the person who is not being tolerated. A person is harmed “if his condition is worsened from his own perspective.” He has not been tolerated if by some action or omission “he is forbidden to do something he wants to do (such as smoking) or if he is forced to do something that he does not wish to do (such as studying).”

The Great Mystery of Tolerance

Now you’ve noticed a different problem. What some people want to do is to be intolerant and what some people do not want to do is tolerate. So an intolerant person has been harmed and is the victim of intolerance if on the basis of a negative attitude toward him someone else has omitted to enable him to be intolerant or has forced him to tolerate. Tolerance itself is intolerant.

Yet Nehushtan elsewhere asserts that intolerance does not necessarily entail harm. That person Y is “acting with an intention to harm X alongside making an adverse judgement about X are the only necessary and sufficient conditions” for judging, or in Nehushtan’s word, “seeing” that Y is intolerant. Alternatively, “the truly intolerant person is one who unjustly infringes the autonomy of others or unjustly harms or offends others, because he has a negative view about the other’s values, way of life, identity and so on.”

At one point, Nehushtan declares that intolerance consists of merely “offending” someone.

These definitions makes clear that all of us are by nature intolerant. Clearly, none is without intolerance, not even one and if we say we are without intolerance then we deceive ourselves.

There seems to be a great mystery to tolerance. The mystery is perceived only by those whose minds have been illumined by the light of liberalism. Well, tolerant liberalism. Well, the tolerant liberalism that does not tolerate intolerance in order to protect autonomy. Only those whose minds have been enlightened by the grace of autonomy can perceive the mystery of the Tolerant Liberalism That Does Not Tolerate Intolerance.

Why Religion Must Not Be Tolerated

And this is why religion must not be tolerated. Religious people do not have tolerance. Religious people, Nehushtan asserts repeatedly, are inherently racists, homophobes, aspiring totalitarians, and oppressors of the weak, and this is why they should not be tolerated.

Thus Nehushtan’s second proposition is that “there are meaningful, unique links between religion and intolerance, and between holding religious beliefs and holding intolerant views,” and his third proposition is “that the religiosity of a legal claim is normally a reason, although not necessarily a prevailing one, to reject that claim.”

Now you’re saying to yourself, Nehushtan has just articulated an adverse judgment about religious people alongside a proposal to harm religious people by omitting to help religious people get what (he thinks) they want. Therefore, according to his own definition, Nehushtan is intolerant and should not be tolerated. But hold off on that judgment, for he’s not yet finished developing his doctrine. Nehushtan has empirical research showing links between religion and intolerance.

Nehushtan surveys that research in three stages. (Nearly every list in Nehushtan’s book is a set of three, which demonstrates his commitment to completeness and the reliability of his testimony.) A handful of studies in the second and third stages show that people who use religion as an extrinsic end to achieve self-serving means tend to be more prone toward racial prejudice, while those who are actual believers, i.e., those who view religious belief as valuable in itself, are not prejudiced against blacks and racial minorities, but are sometimes prejudiced against behaviors that their religions characterize as sinful.

Wait. I know you’re thinking, Even if they are credible, those studies show that true believers are not intolerant but rather morally sincere, very nearly the opposite of what Nehushtan claims. Yes, but another study shows that religious people are less supportive of “civil liberties” than non-religious people.

Yes, yes, I know: There are many reasons for recognizing legal limits on “civil liberties” that have nothing to do with intolerance. Yes, but . . .

Reductio Ad Absurdum

Well, just yes. At this point, the argument runs out of nuances to outmaneuver its obvious flaws. The rest of the book consists of non sequiturs and other sophistry; mischaracterizations of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that range from the simplistic to the ridiculous; criticisms of neutrality and equality between religion and non-religion; and an argument for imposing various legal and political disabilities on religious people. You see, there are no rights of conscience, only privileges that the state extends to religious people “as a matter of grace,” which is to say “tolerance.”

Read literally, this book is a series of obviously self-refuting assertions (one of which Nehushtan himself characterizes as “childish”). Yet Nehushtan’s writing is subtle. Clearly, this book is not to be read for what it says but for how it says it. While ostensibly arguing that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated, he has ably demonstrated that a particular strand of tolerant liberalism grounded in personal autonomy is the least tolerant religion of all.

I confess that I did not discern his message until I got to page forty, where Nehushtan expresses the view that “not all people deserve an equal amount of respect” because some, especially religious people, are not “rational agents” or “moral agent[s].” Surely no serious scholar of jurisprudence would communicate such a cartoonish view of his fellow human beings on the understanding that it be read as his own view, nor would any serious publisher publish it on that understanding. By the time one gets to Nehushtan’s “findings” about and “characteristics of” monotheistic religion in Chapter Five, one realizes that one must be reading a work of subtle comedy. That chapter contains a badly-drawn caricature of religion as destructive and irrational, making it seem that Nehushtan and the book’s reviewers have neither stepped inside a synagogue, mosque, or church nor ever met a monotheist, much less studied monotheistic religions.

The only possible conclusion is that this book was meant as a parody of a liberal-tolerant argument, designed to show where personal autonomy leads, reductio ad absurdum. As a parody, the book is brilliant and convincing. By the end, I was prepared to affirm Nehushtan’s sub-textual message: Let us all stop tolerating intolerant liberal “tolerance.”

Adam MacLeod is an associate professor at Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and author of Property and Practical Reason (Cambridge University Press).

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