The Sphere of Between: Beyond Tolerance | Faith


I have always thought that religious tolerance was a virtue, stemming from freedom of belief. But, according to Stephen J. Gallagher, a philosopher living in North Carolina, tolerance is no longer a useful concept.

Writing in Free Inquiry, he says some aspects of tolerance are questionable at best and often dangerous. He writes: “Tolerance presupposes a condescending attitude on the part of those who tolerate the Other. But the tolerant, nonjudgmental “permission to be different” appears to some of the “others” as a condescending act of charity. From the perspective of the Other, being “tolerated” will not engender warm feelings of inclusion or understanding. At worst, the tolerant renders service to the Other.

“Tolerance is a one-way street. The tolerant graciously decides to tolerate the Other. The Other has no say; tolerance is therefore a more or less naked deployment of power.

“Perhaps most dangerously, tolerance is revocable at will. The tolerant, having all the power in the exchange, can choose at any time to no longer tolerate the Other.

“The religious nature of tolerance makes it a paternalistic gesture in which the Other is not accepted as an equal partner but rather subordinate, perhaps assimilated, often persecuted; and always misunderstood. Tolerance as a secular virtue is nothing more than an acceptable wrapper for the mandate that the right person must sometimes tolerate others. And sometimes not.

“So what’s the alternative?” If tolerance is a one-sided, arrogant and paternalistic power game, what should we develop in its place? Will we blindly accept everyone into the life of society?

I say no. Universal acceptance does not work. There are limits to what we can tolerate in a civil society. Katha Pollitt, writing for The Nation, asks, “Why can’t we all enjoy our differences? Well, ethnic cuisine and world music are nice, but fatwas, amputations and suicide bombings just don’t bring a smile to the day.

Do we have to accept everything? Can we? I do not think so. There must be another way to live together. But if we confess freedom of belief, it follows that we must coexist with people who believe differently. I see no alternative to this logical progression.

It is easy to tolerate different beliefs. I mean, what’s the problem? I stand here, a Muslim stands there, a Baptist here, a Buddhist there, and an atheist here. We all stand tall to tolerate each other. No problem, right?

No belief problem. Problems come with behavior. It’s not what you believe that matters to me, it’s what you do.

It seems to me that what people often tolerate poorly is behavior. Especially behavior that interrupts civilian life. Shoot, stab and slit the throat of Theo Van Gogh. Issue a fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Persecute Russian Jews at the point of a sword. Destroy the Muslims in Bosnia. Lynchings in the southern United States.

We could take inspiration from the settlers who abstained from any harmful behavior to live together and build a future. In 1776, when the frontier was almost overwhelming, it was only natural to rely on your neighbors – regardless of their religion – to help you raise a barn or fight bears, red coats and other dangers. In 1776 it was easier to see that we were all in the same boat.

I think it’s hard to see today. It’s hard to see because of our individuality and our focus on our own future. But I won’t have a future without you. More importantly, you won’t have it without me.

So what is the alternative to tolerance?

I am drawn to the word hospitality. Instead of being tolerant, why couldn’t we be hospitable? All hints of arrogance, partiality, paternalism and power disappeared with hospitality. There is an element of caring in hospitality. There is an element of provision for the Other. There is an element of decency.

The etymology of hospitality is fascinating. Going back through French and Latin, or even through Greek, we come to the root of the word, which means host. And invited. More exactly, it means “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”. I like this phrase, “reciprocal duties of hospitality”. This implies that we are interdependent hosts and guests. Interdependent. Host and Guest.

So let’s be more than just tolerant, more than accepting, more than understanding. Let’s be hospitable. Let us be both guest and host.

As a host, my duty is to welcome you as a guest, to include you in my life and to make you feel comfortable. I should give you some refreshment and maybe a quiet place to rest.

As a guest, your duty is even greater. You need to find a way to fit comfortably into my life, without fussing or heckling about everything you’re giving up to be with me. You must work to be polite, courteous and grateful. We both have to work to help each other be a good host and a good guest.

The Rev. Jeff Briere is a retired Unitarian Universalist pastor.


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