Religious Liberty to Religious Tolerance

Tolerance is regarded as one of the great virtues of the age, and is also one of those convenient terms where its actual meaning can encompass a number of difference concepts. Thus in certain social fields (such as same-sex marriage), the exercise of ‘tolerance’ has come to mean the acceptance, and even endorsement, of practices that previously attracted social stigma, and conversely an increasingly intolerance of the previous view. This tolerance is actually a bludgeon, intended to mandate acceptance.

However ‘tolerance’ can work another direction, and it is this that attracts my thoughts today – that is the apparent use of the term religious tolerance instead of religious liberty. Neither of those are particularly new terms, of course, and religious tolerance was and is an improvement on most of history. What concerns me is that there is a subtle difference between the two terms. Religious liberty appeals to and stems from individual freedom, to declare that everyone is free to worship how, where and what they may. Religious tolerance, however, seems to move the emphasis to the rest of society – rather than being a question of how one chooses to exercise their freedom it becomes a question of what the rest of society is prepared to put up with. Rather than liberty to be exercised it is a case of permission – sometimes grudgingly, or not at all – to be extended.

I have little beyond personal perception to determine if one term is gaining ground, but articles like this in the Times concern me. It’d be a lot harder to declare that religious liberty has gone too far, but religious tolerance can sneak in the assumption that it’s not for the individual to decide, but rather somebody else. If I am to take seriously the concept that freedom of conscience is inviolate, and I do, it is unacceptable for this to depend upon the whim of others, especially a set of others who (as the article well shows) are becoming increasingly hostile to the display of religious faith.