What Does It Mean To Tolerate Others?

History, ancient and modern, is littered with corpses, intolerance and hatred of others. One of my most shocking discoveries was reading about Roman Catholics in sixteenth century Europe who went on a rampage against Calvinist Protestants to rip their tongues out for singing the Psalms. We are a blood-thirsty and often cruel species. The words of Jesus to “love your enemies” have seldom been taken seriously, certainly not in “Christian Europe” where men slid out of the trenches to murder someone who may well have been of the same denomination. In our historical moment of febrile facing up to systemic racism woven into the fabric of our societies, it might help if we considered what is demanded of us if we are to mutually respect others. Habermas can assist us.

In his illuminating chapter, “Religion as pacemaker for cultural rights,” in J. Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion [2008], Habermas examines how it has come to pass that religious tolerance is the pacemaker for cultural rights. Historically speaking, the concept of “tolerance” begins in the 16th century. Its first meaning, a beginning toddler step, governments issued tolerance edicts. People were legally compelled to tolerate other religious confessions (Lutherans, Huguenots, Papists, Anabaptists). The majority religion could not persecute minority options.

But this position would not be the end of the matter. Habermas observes that this legal definition persisted into the French Revolution era, moving in Forst’s words, from a “permissive concept” to a “respect concept.” For Spinoza and Locke push this concept further. They move from the idea of unilateral declaration toward a “right to exercise one’s religion freely based on the mutual recognition of everybody’s religious freedom, which entails a right to protection against the imposition of alien religious practices” (p. 251).

Again, this “mutual recognition” does not come to human beings easily on a silver platter. Many theocratically-inclined Islamic countries such as Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not tolerate religious minorities. In fact, Goethe thought tolerance was an “insulting and patronizing form of benevolence” (p. 253). Here lies the paradox: limits can be set for what is tolerable and what is not. “Only the idea of equal freedoms for all and a definition of the domain of tolerance that all concerned find equally convincing can draw the sting of intolerance from tolerance” (ibid.). Setting the bar very high, Habermas states unequivocally that: “Only if they find intersubjective recognition across confessional divides, can such norms provide justifications that trump the subjective ground for rejecting alien religious convictions or practices” (ibid.). Intersubjective recognition has not come easily to world religions that proclaim their revelation as the supreme truth. Consider only the terrible bitterness of the Tudor period in English history where Roman churches were ransacked and religious images defaced, statues of Christ beheaded, paintings scratched. At the heart of this iconoclasm lay the dispute over how one ought to worship God. The Protestants wanted idolatrous images stripped from their houses of worship. They want unadorned access to the Word proclaimed into white silence.

Fundamentally, to achieve the desired goal of mutual respect, citizens must grant each other “freedom of religion” (p. 254). Once again, we are pressed to consider the educational implications of this affirmation. The legal act of mutual toleration “fuses with the virtuous self-obligation to behave tolerantly” (ibid.)—but how is this virtue formed pedagogically? How far can we expand the idea of mutual toleration? With reference to how a nation-state defines state enemies, Habermas reminds us of how Nazi Germany defined its “enemies.” It could not open itself to mutual respect of all citizens and ethnicities. Revelational and political purity are gained by demonizing the other.

Habermas identifies three components of the modern concept of tolerance—rejection, acceptance and repudiation. Spelling out the rejectionist components, Habermas says that we need to “respect the fellow-citizen in others even when we regard their beliefs or ideas as false and the corresponding way of life as bad. Tolerance protects a pluralistic society from being torn apart as a political community by conflicts over worldviews” (p. 258). Thus, for Habermas, the goal of this learning process is to cultivate “esteem for others and their otherness” (ibid.). Once discrimination has being overcome, tolerance can begin. “By contrast,” Habermas avers, “once the corresponding prejudice against people of color, homosexuals, or women are overcome, no components of ‘otherness’ remain to which a justified rejection that was generally recognized as legitimate could refer” (p. 259).

Living in a multifaith and pluralistic secular society demands a lifeworld curriculum that would enable religious citizens to realize their own ethos “only within the limits of what everyone is equally entitled to: on the other had, he must also respect the ethos of others within these limits” (p. 261). The demands placed on religious faith-communities and educational institutions are serious and demanding. “Every religion is originally a ‘worldview’ or, in Rawls’ terminology, a ‘comprehensive doctrine,’ also in the sense that it claims the authority to structure a form of life in its entirety. At this critical moment of global unrest, another “great awakening” to accept everyone as fully human must occur within all confessional and educational spaces. Any form of theocratic intrusion into political life must be rejected.

Religion must renounce the “claim to structure life in a comprehensive way that also includes the community once the life of religious groups becomes differentiated from that of the larger political community within the pluralistic societies. The major religions must reappropriate the normative foundations of the liberal state on their own premises even if, as in the case of the Judeo-Christian legacy in Europe, a genealogical connection exists between the two” (p. 262). This means, Habermas thinks, that some religious communities might have to revise dogmatic assumptions about, say, abortion. “Thus, in the case of abortion, for example, Catholics must allow the public courts to ascribe to them as part of their particular ethos a conception that, in their view, rests on moral judgments that claim universal validity” (ibid.). These matters remain unresolved. In the recent Canadian federal election, held in October 2019, the Progressive Conservative candidate who holds an anti-abortion perspective, raised the ire of many in the public who thought he had not been forthright about his commitment to leave this as a “private” matter.

Habermas offers a sobering and important comment for our reflection: “For the believer who travels with heavy metaphysical baggage, the good may enjoy epistemic primacy over the right. The validity of the ethos on this assumption depends on the truth of the worldview in which it is embedded. The exclusive validity claims of the underlying worldview are accordingly bound up with different ethical existential orientations and competing forms of life. As soon as one’s conception of the good life is shaped by religious notions of salvation or metaphysical conceptions of the good, a divine perspective (or a ‘view from nowhere’) opens up from which (or where) other ways of life appear not only different but mistaken. When an alien other is not merely evaluated in relative terms, but is judged in terms of truth and falsity, the demand to show every citizen equal respect regardless of his ethical self-understanding and his way of life represents an imposition. In contrast with competition between values, therefore, contradictions between ethical truths call for tolerance” (p. 263).

In conclusion, we are now brought to consider “tolerance” after considering reasons for rejection and reasons for acceptance. Habermas states bluntly: “The reasons for excluding intolerant conduct reveal whether the state respects the imperative of neutrality and whether legislation and the administration of justice institutionalize tolerance in the right way” (ibid.). There are many disputes over what might not be appropriate in liberal pluralist societies. In Canada, Quebec passed Bill 21 in June 2019, which forbids the wearing of religious headgear such as the hijab and niqab while working in various public domains such as teaching or the law courts. And the French republican tradition leans heavily towards defining what counts as legitimate “religious” behaviour (such as wearing particular clothing).

With reference to multiculturalism, Habermas thinks that it hinges less on slights to “religious minorities” than on “’flashpoints’, such as regulations concerning national holidays and official language(s), the promotion of school instruction in the mother tongue for ethnic or national minorities, and quotas for women, blacks, and indigenous peoples in politics, in the workplace, or in higher education. From the perspective of equal exclusion of all citizens, however, religious discrimination takes its place in the long list of cultural and linguistic, ethnic and racial, sexual and physical discrimination” (ibid.). For me as a Canadian historian and critical theorist, “civil equality” has been an incredibly arduous journey from our origins as a white settler colonial state that glorified everything “British” and had no doubt that Indigenous people were inferior and could never be accepted as full human beings.

The Canadian white settler state did not accept the integrity of Native peoples’ collective identities. They were marginalized, disrespected and abused. Indigenous people were not permitted a “full and unqualified social membership” (p. 268). They could not reproduce their “language and form of life as desired …” (ibid.). Thus, the “struggle for the equal rights of the administration of justice, the struggle for the equal rights of religious communities [the Christian missionaries who ran the residential schools tried to destroy native sacred life] furnishes arguments and inspiration for an extended concept of ‘multicultural’ citizenship” (ibid).

Habermas draws this powerful conclusion. “The equal coexistence of different forms of life must not lead to segmentation. It calls for the integration of all citizens and the mutual recognition of their subcultural membership within the framework of a shared political culture” (p. 270). Under the conditions of secular, pluralist conditions of life we may legitimately affirm our “distinctive cultures only under the condition that they all understand themselves, across subcultural divides, as citizens of one and the same political community. The same constitutional basic norms in terms of which cultural exemptions and authorizations are justified also define their limits” (ibid). This is a poignant learning challenge facing us in societies that often segment ethnicities from each other (whites up the hill, Indians on the reserve at the outskirts of town).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.