On Tolerance

by Brian 16. June 2013 03:48

I find my tolerance waning over the misuse of the very word itself in contemporary discourse. Tolerance used to be a virtuous quality. Yet to be associated with the modern attribute is not particularly impressive. In this post I will attempt to correct a couple lexical and conceptual errors and restore tolerance to its good and proper meaning. As long as the distortion continues, productive dialog will have to deal with this unnecessary barrier.

From etymology we find the word tolerance has its origin in the Latin tolerantia for endurance and forbearance. In the context of discourse where there are conflicting views, endurance and forbearance are often essential to a productive outcome. One does not need to forbear if they are simply going to hate and ridicule their opposition. In the original and virtuous sense of the word, tolerance was about how one behaved and held up under confrontation. One was tolerant if he or she was able to engage someone with a conflicting position, even one contrary to their deeply held belief, and do so with gentleness and patience. Likewise, intolerance was the complete lack of endurance or forbearance when confronted with any creed, belief, or opinion that differed from their own.

Given the traditional meaning, tolerance is a quality we ought to have.  Unfortunately today the word often means something very different. Merriam-Webster says tolerance is: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own. In addition to being sympathetic or indulgent today: One is tolerant if he or she is accepting of opposing views - where accepting implies holding your view in such a way that you permit without restriction the practices associated with a contrary view. Someone is intolerant in a moral disagreement if their position in any way restricts the practices of the one holding the opposing view. Without this restriction caveat, though arbitrary, any disagreement might be considered intolerant on today's view.[i] 

Of course the restriction-caveat is silly. Take Valerie the vegan. She has a strong moral conviction concerning the slaughter of cattle. To her, it is morally wrong to kill animals for food. She is doing what she can to prevent it. She is using every social and political means at her disposal to prohibit the consumption of beef in the US. Then there is Marty the meat eater. He has a contrary view to Valerie and feels strongly he should have the right to eat beef. Yet Valerie is telling Marty his actions are morally wrong. She votes yes on Prop-7: The Protection of Cattle Act. This law would prohibit Marty from doing what he wants to do – that is, eat beef. The law is restrictive. Valerie’s view, according to Marty, is restrictive. So here’s the question: Is Valerie an intolerant bigot? Of course not! Merely because one’s view is more restrictive of social practices than the opposition, it does not follow the holder of said view is intolerant. You and I might disagree with Valerie; we might find her animal-rights presuppositions false, that they are based on bad information or ignorance. But Valerie sincerely believes her presuppositions and the views that logically follow from them. How can we charge her with some kind of hate-based character flaw merely on these grounds? Honestly and rationally you cannot.

So how do we demarcate tolerance from intolerance? When you present your view thoughtfully and carefully and opponents respond with hate and name calling – they are intolerant. When you try to honestly and thoughtfully articulate your position and are then attacked, yet you persevere with the same positive attitude – you are tolerant. When someone gets easily offended, says you are intolerant and drops out of the discussion merely on the grounds that your view is contrary to theirs – they are intolerant. How ironic it is to find those who carelessly throw the word intolerance around are often the same ones who lack the endurance and forbearance to consider the beliefs and opinions of others.


[i] I am ignoring the epistemological relativists out there as they are far too unreachable on this topic anyway. If everyone has a private-truth on every issue, then even the charge of intolerance is just an opinion without any objective substance. This post is meant to reach the majority of sensible folks who hold some notion of a correspondence theory of truth. I am also leaving out the unfortunate fact mere restraint from restricting behavior is often not enough to prevent being labeled intolerant. There are those who expect you to celebrate the diversity of views and the practices that follow – or keep quiet.  


Lincoln on Euclid

by Brian 13. May 2013 21:50

I recently saw Lincoln share his philosophy on equality. In the latest movie bearing his name, I watched Daniel Day-Lewis make the argument men are equal because a two-thousand-year-old Euclidian law reveals the truth of our equality. My jaw dropped at this point in the film. Lincoln may have had high regard for Euclid, enough to keep a copy of his work in his saddlebag, but I am fairly certain nothing like the account in the movie was ever a basis for Lincoln’s view on equality. If Lincoln had operated within a worldview of mere mathematics, mechanics and physical laws, he might have reached a very different position – and most likely not the one presented in his Gettysburg Address. (1)

So what was the argument Lincoln presented in the movie? Well, it is difficult to state clearly because the line of reasoning was disjointed. If there was a reasonable argument to parse from the script, I could not find one. The following lines are Lincoln’s (verbatim) from the movie:

Euclid's first common notion is this: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other." 

That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is "self-evident."

You see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical (2) law: it is a self- evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That’s balance, that's fairness, that's justice.

Starting from the top: Lincoln, by way of Euclid, tells how we may determine if things are equal. For example: If each element of the set {P1, P2,…,Pn} is equal to Q (such that P1=Q, P2=Q,…,Pn = Q) then one can infer each element in the set is equal to the other elements in the set. This much is obvious. But if people, men and women of all creeds and races, are members of the set {P1, P2,…,Pn}, then what is Q? Here Lincoln has nothing to say about Q. He simply moves straight to the conclusion “We begin with equality. That’s the origin isn’t it?” Yet without addressing Q, he has proven nothing by way of Euclid. I challenge the reader to come up with a suitable Q – some entity all men are equal to other than themselves. In the absence of a suitable Q, on Euclid alone, we are left agnostic on the matter of our equality.

Then there were the two references to “self-evident,” both irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. Upon hearing the lines in the movie you are likely taken back a few score, as I was, to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I can’t help but think the authors of the movie were trying to conjoin in the minds of the viewers the self-evident quality of Euclid’s principle with the use of “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, the modern secular mind may agree with Euclid’s principle being self-evident, but I seriously doubt it would find certain unalienable Rights, endowed by the Creator, to be self-evident.

It is no surprise as a Christian theist I find common ground with Lincoln on the issue of equality. We agree with Scripture that God created man in his own image. Our intrinsic value, whatever it is, is established by the Creator and we, the created, have not been given a means to discern the difference. And that of course is assuming there is any. So when Lincoln in the movie said “we begin with equality,” he at least got that right. You just don’t get there from Euclid. Bias only properly comes in with knowledge and in the case of created man, it is knowledge we do not possess.

I suppose there is little doubt as to why Lincoln believed all men are equal. The movie’s portrayal of his philosophy was an irrational fabrication. If we take Lincoln out of his theistic worldview and drop him into one appealing solely to mathematics, mechanics and physical law, he might have sided with the Confederates. Given the philosophical influence of natural selection a few decades later, I think such a man would have fit in nicely with the Eugenicists. Survival of the fittest hardly supports equality. The only thing we can draw from nature and Euclid is inequality. I did not see the real Lincoln of history the other night, at least not in this segment. The movie simply got it wrong.


[1]Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

[2] Yes, he said “mechanical” and not “mathematical.”

My Testimony

by Brian 26. December 2012 02:09

My worldview has seen considerable change. I grew up in a home where faith was never discussed or practiced. I hung around mostly irreligious friends. I practically never went to church. Raised in a single-parent family, my grandparents were prominent role models. Grandmother loved to play chess and I have many fond memories of our time together. But we never dug deep into any topic. My grandfather was a staunch pragmatist who introduced me to science on Christmas day at the age of ten. From that day forward, it was a primary indoor pursuit. As for the outdoors, there were no role models or rules. As a young man I had my last conversation with Granddaddy at a St. Petersburg, Florida diner. He emphasized that morning the importance of being practical and taking charge of one’s future. Sadly, he died not long afterwards from cancer, having rarely discussed with me anything beyond the tools of worldly success. But I could not have agreed with him more at the time about the value of practicality and expediency. It was upon this foundation my worldview was built.

During my childhood I was also introduced to Christianity. I don’t recall the details, but I joined my best friend for a few Sunday morning services. It shouldn't surprise anyone a handful of hours in church do not stack up against years of secular pursuits and influences. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I had shed most of my openness to anything supernatural. In my late twenties I was firmly nontheistic. I was never an activist who promoted atheism. I did not go around claiming God’s nonexistence. This may be due to doubting the rationality of such an unsubstantiated position. I was more of a condescending weak-atheist. If asked to summarize my position, I would say: God probably does not exist, but whatever works for you makes little difference to me. Though I could describe the Christian Gospel in theory, I believed it was a harmless delusion in reality.

I did not expect the extreme worldview makeover on my horizon. I thought things were going exceedingly well. My career in software development was taking off. I met my wife and married her at the age of twenty-eight. We had just built a new house together. Surely this was what my grandfather meant by “being in charge.” No question as to what I believed at the time: I was the master of my fate; I was the captain of my soul. So when I began to have troubles in marriage, I did not view it much differently than running up against a defect in software - I just needed to fix things and move on. With enough skill, intellect and effort, I thought I could face any problem and solve it. But it did not turn out that way. I reached a point at the age of thirty-one when I knew my marriage was terminal. I could not undo the damage. I believed divorce was inevitable and this change in perspective opened the door to a wider view.

My rebirth happened one night as I was contemplating the sale of our house. My wife had moved out and I was at home alone. A Florida thunderstorm rolled in that evening as I was lying in bed brooding over things. Suddenly a nearby lighting-strike knocked the power out. As I lay there I began to realize how much of my life was really beyond my control. The notion of being in charge of one’s destiny seemed utterly foolish as I stared into the dark that night. I thought there had to be a greater purpose which transcended my matter-of-fact life. I thought back to my childhood on the Christian message of the sacrifice of Jesus and the reconciliation with God for those who believe. While I dwelt on that thought, it was like a light switch turning on. It happened that fast. What seemed untrue and irrelevant before was now true and momentous. As quickly as the lightening had taken out the power, I was transformed. The words of Paul reflect my experience well: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.

With transformation came a mission. I went to a nearby church and met with the pastor. I did not know at the time he would become a mentor to me over the next decade. He explained some of the basic tenets of Christianity and we prayed together. I also tracked my wife down and brought her home. We spent the next year rebuilding our relationship. More than twenty years later our marriage is as strong as ever and full of blessings including two beautiful daughters. But returning to just a few months after becoming a follower of Christ, my wife and I joined a study group together. One evening we were talking about faith and reason and I emphatically proclaimed they were utterly incompatible. I half-jokingly professed how my left brain would handle reason and the right half would be in charge of my new faith. At the time I honestly believed the two domains did not intersect. What I omitted that evening was how unsatisfying this arrangement was for me. I thought it was just a burden I would have to carry. Yet I was on a mission, a path with Christ I had no intention of deviating from. A little intellectual dissonance was something I thought I could work out later.

A book by C. S. Lewis was a young woman’s response that night to my proclamation of the incompatibility of faith and reason. It was titled The Problem of Pain and looking back it hardly seems like a proper first-choice. But it did the trick. After reading Lewis and several other excellent writers, I was excited to learn of the congruity between Christian truth-claims and a reasoned view from science and philosophy. My previously perceived conflict was a matter of ignorance. This was so liberating that I dove head first into further study to unite the true aspects of my previous worldview with the Christian faith. The book Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, was a significant growth point. It not only dealt with many of my misunderstandings, but it also helped me put faith and reason into their proper role. I also learned about the reality of doubt. The truth is; anyone with a substantive worldview will encounter epistemic tension and conflict. I certainly had to deal with this as a nontheist and I still do as a Christian. But today I enjoy a significant unity between how I see the world through the special revelation of the Christian faith, and how I see things through the deliverances of reason. I have learned there is compatibility.

It is a misconception to think apologetics is only good for pre-evangelism: Tear down the roadblocks to the Gospel and more will be saved. Remove the obstacles at the doorstep and the door will be opened. To be sure, this happens. I have met several Christians over the years where apologetics played a significant role leading up to their conversion. But my testimony tells of another aspect of the apologetic enterprise. You may have heard the parable of the sower in Mark 4 where some of the seed fell on rocky soil. In such conditions the roots cannot take hold and the plant dies under the slightest environmental pressure. The same goes for a faith that is not integrated well into one’s worldview. Here apologetics helps to till the soil and tear down the fictions which prevent the flourishing of our faith. In the same parable, other seeds fell among the thorns which choked the plants springing up. I believe today the thorns are not just worries and temptations, but ideas. The cultural milieu we find ourselves in today, with its books, movies, social media, and education, is full of thorns contrary to the Christian worldview. Again, apologetics plays a critical role in clearing away falsehoods so our faith can grow with less impediment.

In conclusion, I offer a warning. As much as I appreciate the benefits of philosophical study over the last fifteen years, I also recognize some pitfalls. As a new apologist I was enamored by the ability to annihilate atheist arguments. But I have since learned nothing ever good comes out of a heated engagement. Today I rarely debate staunch unbelievers unless there are third-party observers who may be persuaded by cordial and rational discourse. Merely winning arguments is not profitable. On the other hand, discussing philosophical issues with honest seekers using 1-Peter-3 gentleness and respect has proven beneficial. All of this being said; we ought to consider our dedication. Spending a disproportionate amount of time in apologetic activities, neglecting other Christian disciplines, is a mistake. It has in the past taken me out into the arid desert for a dark night of the soul where one yearns for a single draft of living water. We should not neglect meeting with the Saints for encouragement and worship. Wrapping up a debate online or posting a blog is incomparably disappointing to one moment in the still presence of God. But if God occasionally chooses to use an apologetic approach through me, I'm good with it.  



About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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