by Vanja Ljujic

Because everything in the world - the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the showy display of one's means of life - does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world. (John, 1Jo, 2,16)

In order to present the following matter, I should first try to define the term "tolerance". The next step will be an examination of the sources and presentation of tolerance as the main and necessary factor, not only in democratic society; but also for existence of the principle of humanity in general. Tolerance, in this essay, is viewed in relation to behaviour, not thought. For example, being an admirer of Orthodox Christianity, I could deeply reject all other religions. This would not mean that I am intolerant. Intolerance concerns itself with external manifestations, actions and behaviours such as the persecution and maltreatment of a person of different mind.

There are two predispositions of tolerance: personal negative attitude about something and absence of inhuman acts against any person (or persons) that share positive attitudes about the same thing. Tolerance means bearing something that we do not accept, without strong reaction. It does not lead to the conclusion that we love or respect the object of tolerance. Mankind is composed of individuals who think and feel individually and whose perceptions of the world differ as well. In other words, human society is not an uniform category. Besides so many inevitable and unavoidable differences between individuals, there is also a strong imperative of living in community. Necessity of togetherness, on one side and the existence of each possible difference between individuals, on the other, could be resolved only on the principle of tolerance. From this point of view, tolerance is fundamental precondition for humanity as a whole.

The principle of tolerance is not only an essential characteristic of an individual, but a necessary condition for living in community. Therefore, it has to be seen not only in relation to an individual but also in its relation to a state. On micro (individual), as well on macro levels (state, international community), the problem of tolerance includes the same question, which is the crucial question of this Essay as well: Should tolerance be restricted, and if so, what are the limits? A great deal has been written about the necessity of restricting tolerance. Philosophers have mostly assumed that absolute toleration would be a problem because of its tendency to destroy its own core and lead to total absence of tolerance. (Hobbes has tended to assume that intolerance and violence are generic to the human condition.)


Tolerance figures as a strong imperative but within the certain limitations. These limitations, prescribed by law, serve to secure the universal validity of the principle of tolerance (seen as the right to differences) and to protect the right of people of different mind to express their thoughts, attitudes, opinions, etc. We do not have to share Hobbe's extreme attitudes toward human nature to conclude that violence is normally at the other end of persuasion, and a common means whereby individuals, groups or states seek to impose their will on others. Being the category of behaviour not thought, tolerance has to be restricted only in its relation to unjust human behaviour.

The problem of tolerance of intolerance is present in each sphere of human existence. However, its global importance is best shown on the grounds of religion and politics. In these spheres tolerance is essentially connected with existence of fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals. Tolerance as a high value is based on the principle of freedom and seen in that way it might be considered as condition for achieving both individual and aggregate common interests. Regarding the fact that human rights and freedoms belong to individuals as a consequence of being human, taking away or deprivation of such fundamental values unavoidably affects human dignity. From this point of view, intolerance can be seen as attack against humanity as whole.

Human rights and freedoms are not unreserved and unconditional. They are restricted as much as necessary to secure equal rights and freedoms for others. This is fundamental common link between rights and freedoms on one side and tolerance on the other. Excluded from the former context and considered separately from tolerance, freedom might lose its essential meaning. The following example confirms such an assertion. An individual, being free but not tolerant, may conclude that he has unlimited freedom to do whatever he wants, even to deprive another individual of his rights and freedoms. But, all human beings have equal right to be free and, in order to achieve such equality, the freedom of each individual has to be restricted. Unlimited freedom leads to the absence of freedom. An individual is therefore free to think and do in accordance to his own will until such tendency begins to affect the equal freedom of the other individual.

Only a state is able to secure such a double and controversial equality: equal promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms, and their equal restrictions. This discourse appeared with the French revolution and served as a basis for establishing a civil society. One of the best theoretical expressions of the civil insight into a relationship between an individual and state can be read in the works of Thomas Hobbes. The starting premise of Hobbes is constituted of the dichotomies of the natural (as warlike) and the state-like (as peaceful) state. Thus a State of God becomes completely irrelevant, and the earthly state fits without any exception into a lawful order of the universe, and can survive only if it is founded on the principles of reason. The individuals (supplied with reason) are the ones that should choose between chaos and order, and it is in their power to make peace (if they should choose it) a stable way of their state institutions.

At the end of this road, we are faced with the question: how much does the preferable limitation of the individual freedoms imposed by a state, affect the right to freedom of thought? When does the preferable limitation become misused limitation? Tolerance, as it has been concluded above, is an act of behaviour, not thought. The unjust (explicit or implicit) restrictions taken by a state against fundamental freedom of thought are essentially against the principle of tolerance as such. At first sight, it might seem hard to believe that human thoughts could be affected by state's measures. (However, the human opinion is explicitly influenced by and even depends of so many outer factors like family, school, media, and society in whole. It is seen as a social preference and necessary influence.) What we are dealing with here is indirect and implicit influence taken by a state in order to impose its own standards and values. In democratic states common and established values are in accordance to civil society and therefore preferable, but in undemocratic states, imposed standards and values are totalitarian and dangerous.

Spinoza has called attention to the fact that people might be influenced, even indirectly, by the words of the dominant individual so much that we can easily conclude that they are controlled by the will of others. For those who simply accept imposed attitudes and thoughts it is also easy to believe that they are their own, and furthermore to passionately fight for and defend them before others. One of the most significant examples of this process is brainwashing media manipulation in the totalitarian systems. On one side, manipulated individuals are losing personal consciousness and personal morals, and, on the other side, imposed principles become common moral principles and exist as universal truth. (The rare individuals who are aware of their freedoms are on the lower moral level and rejected by society.) How can individual be responsible for acts and behaviour that are being led and directed by someone else? From the other side, if an individual is not able to think and feel freely, then he or she is not free at all.

Democratic society has to create the conditions in which the freedom of an individual would be possible to achieve. An individual needs not serve the institutions, but to benefit from them. The institutions make it possible for individuals to develop their own thoughts, to comprehend their real interests, rights and abilities, and finally, to resist any form of manipulation. If the person is not aware of the rights that he is entitled to, then the rights can not be successfully realised in practice. The only guard against such dangerous tendencies is the fact that human beings are free. However, human beings are often not aware of the freedom they possess and consequently, they can not use the power they have. Manipulation, seen as an absence of freedom of thought, leads to negation of the freedom of thought as such. Therefore, tolerance - seen as a portal of equality - depends on personal emancipation of an individual.

The problem of tolerance is essentially controversial. Broad-mindedness has to be restricted in order to secure the principle of equality (comparable rights and freedoms of everyone). But necessary limitations must not affect the fundamental human rights and freedoms (such as right to life, liberty, security, thought, etc.) Still, we lack the common, universal answer to the question of where the borders of tolerance are. The historical background of the institutionalised separation of validity spheres offers a great number of different opinions, attitudes and answers on that question. Each of them has tried to satisfy a standard, which is in itself abstracted from everyday life at a particular historical moment. Michael Davis has illustrated it in a very significant way. The torment of dogs is nowadays a public act, prohibited by the law. On the other side, heresy is considered as a private (personal) choice and is not prohibited by the law. Three hundred years ago, it was the reverse: nobody thought to prohibit the torment of dogs, but the heresy was considered a terrible and punishable crime.

In order to find an answer to the question of where the limits of tolerance are, I will call attention to Aristotle. According to his doctrine, great worth is possible to achieve only between extreme (uncompromising and radical) standpoints. Unlimited tolerance as well as the absence of tolerance is a very dangerous discourse. If we tolerate intolerance, it might lead to the negation of the tolerance as such. Absolute tolerance does not only exclude discriminatory prejudices based on prohibited grounds like sex, race, origins, religion, etc., but includes toleration of torture, murder, rape and similar unjust acts. Freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom, but must not include freedom of hate speech.


Many philosophers share an opinion that tolerance in the domain of religion is not relevant nowadays and therefore the theoretical analysis of the problem is useless and anachronistic. I do agree that the importance of the contemporary problem of religious intolerance cannot even be compared with similar problems that occurred in the Middle Ages. However, the phenomenon of religious tolerance cannot be ignored today. The experience has shown that religion may be used as a powerful means for achieving political goals. It is not possible to analyse the problem of tolerance leaving out of consideration of tolerance on the grounds of religion.

Religion is essentially connected with a belief (faith) which is an inner, personal and irrational feeling. If you ask a believer why he believes, where the proof of God's existence is, etc., the answer would be that the believer does not need a proof, and the believer would not enter into temptation because of your question. (Satan has tempted Christ, but he resisted, so each true believer will resist also.) Reason is powerless before the true faith. Here we are faced with the first paradox related to the issue of religious tolerance. The total acceptance of a different religion would not be considered as a case of tolerance, though. It would lead to the negation of the former belief.

But, if we leave out of consideration the relationships between different religious groups, and concentrate on the relations between a state and a particular religious group, we will face even more complex and controversial problems. What if a religion includes rituals which are unjust and directly against the public morale or security? John Lock asked whether we could tolerate religious groups which sacrifice children or which members live in promiscuous communities. His answer was short and clear: no. A state whose laws prohibit similar acts cannot tolerate them only because they are a part of religious ritual. A church is independent in its relations with a state, but is not above the Law.

Each religion includes, more or less, so-called dogmatic attitudes. Therefore, if we accept a particular religion, it is not enough to believe, we should respect some particular rules, which are considered as an absolute, just and true and are not questioned by reason. But dogma itself has to be based on some reasonable as well as defined moral principles. Regarding the fact that the belief is an irrational category often far from reasonable consideration, the last arguments look paradoxical. It is possible to avoid this paradox by bearing in mind that religious feelings are not something that a person is born with. The belief has to be gathered; it has to be created during the lifetime of a person. In order to became a believer, a person has to accept given principles. At that moment, in order to be accepted, the religious principles have to be based more or less on logical and moral consideration. That is necessary for the beginning of the belief, but later the faith develops as a strong irrational attitude, independent of reason and logic. A person can not be forced by the outer effects - such as threats, mistreatment or by any other use of force - to believe.

During the Middle Ages, the Church used force in order to impose the belief. Church leaders have tried to justify the inhuman treatment and draconian punishment of innocent people by saying that it was the only way to deal with heretics. Serving for the sake of politics, the church gets political functions and uses political instruments "to take account of political opponents". People were tortured, killed and burnt up "in the name of God", even though the main principles of Christianity are love and mercy. That gap, which existed between original Christian ideas and the practice of the Christian Church, was the consequence of a strong relationship between church and state. According to John Lock, the civil and religious spheres have to be strictly separated, because putting together two such different and powerful institutions, as state and church are, unavoidably leads to human rights abuses. These two institutions are of different natures with conflicted goals and completely antagonistic interests. Needless to say, interests of state differ from the interests of the human soul.

Even though religion might dangerously serve politics, and is often used as a mask for political goals, which are explicitly opposite to religious authentic principles, the absence of the idea of God wouldn't positively affect the society. Lock has warned that revocation of the idea of God would destroy the high human values, which are based on moral principles. More precisely, the idea of God preserves a certain moral order in society and it may be seen as a positive social effect of religion. Unfortunately, that idea in reality often excludes the idea of freedom from human consideration and, despite the fact that individuals are indeed formally free, they become not free and inferior in their relation to God and imposed "heavenly order". Furthermore, in the atmosphere of religious intolerance, a believer is often not able to accept the existence of another religion without strong reactions. At least, he cannot accept the fact that the other religions are equal with his own. (This problem is, for instance, present even nowadays in the Balkans and the Middle East.) In order to avoid possible conflicts on these grounds, a state has to protect the freedom of religion of each particular individual.

Tolerance is not only the condition for achieving and maintaining the peace within a state, but also a portal for personal peace. The fundamental credo of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights portrays such an ideal: "All human beings are equal in their dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." The Holy Bible is even more explicit. "He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love."

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