woman writing letter

Craig Biddle’s “The Ground Zero Mosque, the Spread of Islam, and How America Should Deal with Such Efforts” (TOS, Fall 2010) lays out the facts and principles concerning this issue in the clearest manner I’ve seen. However, I suggest that one of Mr. Biddle’s ancillary arguments is mistaken. He describes “tolerance” as a vice, specifically, the vice of “refraining from passing moral judgment.” But this is not how the concept was understood during the Enlightenment, when John Locke and others talked about the importance of religious toleration. Nor is it how modern dictionaries define the term. The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, defines toleration as “Official recognition of the rights of individuals and groups to hold dissenting opinions, especially on religion”; and Webster’s unabridged dictionary says essentially the same, adding that toleration is the opposite of bigotry. Wikipedia states that, “In general usage, tolerance is the ability to accept the existence of something while still disapproving of it. In social, cultural and religious contexts, tolerance and toleration are terms used to describe attitudes which are ‘tolerant’ (or moderately respectful) of practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority.”

The concept as understood from the Enlightenment, through the early 20th century (Webster’s), to the late 20th century (American Heritage), to the current day (Wikipedia), is clear. Tolerance is not “refraining from passing moral judgment,” but recognition of the right to freedom of conscience or religion.

John Gillis
New York, New York

Craig Biddle Replies:

It is true, as Mr. Gillis implies, that John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers used “tolerance” (or “toleration”) to mean respect for the right to freedom of conscience (although, even then, the meaning of the term was vague, which is why Locke was able to advocate “toleration” yet deny that Catholics or atheists have the right to freedom of conscience). It is also true that many dictionaries contain similar definitions of tolerance. But neither Enlightenment usage nor dictionaries are the standard of a proper definition. The standard is the requirements of human cognition.

The purpose of a definition is to distinguish the things included under a concept from all other things. The goal is to draw a bright line between the units to be included and those to be excluded, so that when we use a concept or word, whether in thought or communication, we know what we are thinking or talking about.

A close look at today’s dictionary definitions of “tolerance” shows that they do not draw a bright line; rather, they blur crucial distinctions. This is to some extent evident in the Wikipedia description Mr. Gillis provides. What would it mean to be “moderately respectful” of practices such as, say, teaching children that Jews are dogs and pigs or that reason is the devil’s whore or that man is a blight on nature? There are people and groups who teach such evil. Should we be “moderately respectful” of them or their practices? How would that differ from withholding moral judgment? . . .

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