Last updated

Sculpture Fur Toleranz ("for tolerance") by Volkmar Kuhn, Gera, Germany Fur Toleranz.jpg
Sculpture Für Toleranz ("for tolerance") by Volkmar Kühn, Gera, Germany

Toleration is when one allows, permits, or accepts an action, idea, object, or person that one dislikes or disagrees with.


Political scientist Andrew R. Murphy explains that "We can improve our understanding by defining 'toleration' as a set of social or political practices and 'tolerance' as a set of attitudes." [1] Random House Dictionary defines tolerance as "a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one's own". [2] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary associates toleration both with "putting up with" something undesirable, and with neglect or failure to prevent or alleviate it. [3]

Both these concepts contain the idea of alterity: the state of otherness. [4] Additional choices of how to respond to the "other", beyond toleration, exist. Therefore, in some instances, toleration has been seen as "a flawed virtue" because it concerns acceptance of things that were better overcome. [4] Toleration cannot, therefore, be defined as a universal good, and many of its applications and uses remain contested. [4] :2

Religious toleration may signify "no more than forbearance and the permission given by the adherents of a dominant religion for other religions to exist, even though the latter are looked on with disapproval as inferior, mistaken, or harmful". [5] Historically, most incidents and writings pertaining to religious toleration involve the status of minority and dissenting viewpoints in relation to a dominant state religion. [6] However, religion is also sociological, and the practice of toleration has always had a political aspect as well. [7] :xiii

Toleration assumes a conflict over something important that cannot be resolved through normal negotiation without resorting to war or violence.[ citation needed ] As political lecturer Catriona McKinnon explains, when it comes to questions like what is "the best way to live, the right things to think, the ideal political society, or the true road to salvation, no amount of negotiation and bargaining will bring them to an agreement without at least one party relinquishing the commitments that created the conflict in the first place. Such conflicts provide the circumstances of toleration... [and] are endemic in society." [8] :6 "The urgency and relevance of this issue is only too obvious: without tolerance, communities that value diversity, [9] equality, and peace could not persist." [10] [4] :1

An examination of the history of toleration includes its practice across various cultures. Toleration has evolved into a guiding principle, finding contemporary relevance in politics, society, religion, and ethnicity. It also applies to minority groups, including LGBT individuals. It is closely linked to concepts like human rights.


Originally from the Latin tolerans (present participle of tolerare; "to bear, endure, tolerate"), the word tolerance was first used in Middle French in the 14th century and in Early Modern English in the early 15th century. [11] The word toleration was first used in English in the 1510s to mean "permission granted by authority, licence" from the French tolération (originally from the Latin past participle stem of tolerare, tolerationem), moving towards the meaning of "forbearance, sufferance" in the 1580s. [12] The notion of religious toleration stems from Sebastian Castellio [5] and the Toleration Act 1688. [12]

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.jpg
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise. It is, therefore, that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Benjamin Franklin

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), adopted by the National Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution, states in Article 10: "No-one shall be interfered with for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their practice does not disturb public order as established by the law." ("Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, mêmes religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l'ordre public établi par la loi.") [13]

In the nineteenth century


In "On Liberty" (1859) John Stuart Mill concludes that opinions ought never to be suppressed, stating, "Such prejudice, or oversight, when it [i.e. false belief] occurs, is altogether an evil; but it is one from which we cannot hope to be always exempt, and must be regarded as the price paid for an inestimable good." [14] : 93 He claims that there are three sorts of beliefs that can be had—wholly false, partly true, and wholly true—all of which, according to Mill, benefit the common good:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion is an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion is not only true but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. Not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience. [14] : 95


Renan Ernest Renan 1876-84.jpg

In his 1882 essay "What is a Nation?", French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan proposed a definition of nationhood based on "a spiritual principle" involving shared memories rather than a common religious, racial, or linguistic heritage. Thus members of any religious group could participate fully in the nation's life. "You can be French, English, German, yet Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or practicing no religion." [15]

In the twentieth century

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. [16]

Though not formally legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced many national constitutions since 1948. It also serves as the foundation for a growing number of international treaties and national laws and international, regional, national, and sub-national institutions protecting and promoting human rights, including the freedom of religion.

Modern analyses and critiques

Contemporary commentators have highlighted situations in which toleration conflicts with widely held moral standards, national law, the principles of national identity, or other strongly held goals. Michael Walzer notes that the British in India tolerated the Hindu practice of suttee (ritual burning of a widow) until 1829. On the other hand, the United States declined to tolerate the Mormon practice of polygamy. [17] The French head scarf controversy represents a conflict between religious practice and the French secular ideal. [18] Toleration of or intolerance toward the Romani people in European countries is a continuing issue. [19] Pope Francis refers to the "admirable creativity and generosity" shown by people who put up with their lives in "a seemingly undesirable environment" and learn "to live their lives amid disorder and uncertainty". [20]

Modern definition

Historian Alexandra Walsham notes that the modern understanding of the word "toleration" may be very different from its historic meaning. [21] Toleration in modern parlance has been analyzed as a component of a liberal or libertarian view of human rights. Hans Oberdiek writes, "As long as no one is harmed or no one's fundamental rights are violated, the state should keep hands off, tolerating what those controlling the state find disgusting, deplorable, or debased. For a long time, this has been the most prevalent defense of toleration by liberals... It is found, for example, in the writings of American philosophers John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, Brian Barry, and a Canadian, Will Kymlicka, among others." [22]

Isaiah Berlin attributes to Herbert Butterfield the notion that "toleration ... implies a certain disrespect. I tolerate your absurd beliefs and your foolish acts, though I know them to be absurd and foolish. Mill would, I think, have agreed." [23] [ page needed ]

John Gray states that "When we tolerate a practice, a belief or a character trait, we let something be that we judge to be undesirable, false, or at least inferior; our toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone." [24] However, according to Gray, "new liberalism – the liberalism of Rawls, Dworkin, Ackerman and suchlike" – seems to imply that "it is wrong for government to discriminate in favour of, or against, any form of life animated by a definite conception of the good". [25]

John Rawls' "theory of 'political liberalism' conceives of toleration as a pragmatic response to the fact of diversity". Diverse groups learn to tolerate one another by developing "what Rawls calls 'overlapping consensus': individuals and groups with diverse metaphysical views or 'comprehensive schemes' will find reasons to agree about certain principles of justice that will include principles of toleration". [26]

Herbert Marcuse, in the 1965 book A Critique of Pure Tolerance , argued that "pure tolerance" that permits all can favor totalitarianism and tyranny of the majority, and insisted on "repressive tolerance" against them.[ citation needed ]

Tolerating the intolerant

Walzer, Karl Popper, [27] and John Rawls [28] have discussed the paradox of tolerating intolerance. Walzer asks "Should we tolerate the intolerant?" He notes that most minority religious groups who are the beneficiaries of tolerance are themselves intolerant, at least in some respects. [17] :80–81 Rawls argues that an intolerant sect should be tolerated in a tolerant society unless the sect directly threatens the security of other members of the society. He links this principle to the stability of a tolerant society, in which members of an intolerant sect in a tolerant society will, over time, acquire the tolerance of the wider society.

Other criticisms and issues

Toleration has been described as undermining itself via moral relativism: "either the claim self-referentially undermines itself or it provides us with no compelling reason to believe it. If we are skeptical about knowledge, then we have no way of knowing that toleration is good." [26]

Ronald Dworkin argues that in exchange for toleration, minorities must bear with the criticisms and insults which are part of the freedom of speech in an otherwise tolerant society. [29] Dworkin has also questioned whether the United States is a "tolerant secular" nation, or is re-characterizing itself as a "tolerant religious" nation, based on the increasing re-introduction of religious themes into conservative politics. Dworkin concludes that "the tolerant secular model is preferable, although he invited people to use the concept of personal responsibility to argue in favor of the tolerant religious model." [30]

In The End of Faith , Sam Harris asserts that society should be unwilling to tolerate unjustified religious beliefs about morality, spirituality, politics, and the origin of humanity, especially beliefs that promote violence.

See also


Definition of Free Cultural Works logo notext.svg  This article incorporates text from a free content work. Licensed under CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0( license statement/permission ). Text taken from Rethinking Education: Towards a global common good? , 24, UNESCO.

Related Research Articles

Secularism is the principle of seeking to conduct human affairs based on naturalistic considerations, uninvolved with religion.

Tolerance or toleration is the state of tolerating, or putting up with, conditionally.

Freedom of religion or religious liberty is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. It also includes the right not to profess any religion or belief or "not to practise a religion".

Religious intolerance is intolerance of another's religious beliefs, practices, faith or lack thereof.

Religious persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or a group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or their lack thereof. The tendency of societies or groups within societies to alienate or repress different subcultures is a recurrent theme in human history. Moreover, because a person's religion frequently determines his or her sense of morality, worldview, self-image, attitudes towards others, and overall personal identity to a significant extent, religious differences can be significant cultural, personal, and social factors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religious tolerance</span> Allowing or permitting a religion of which one disapproves

Religious toleration may signify "no more than forbearance and the permission given by the adherents of a dominant religion for other religions to exist, even though the latter are looked on with disapproval as inferior, mistaken, or harmful". Historically, most incidents and writings pertaining to toleration involve the status of minority and dissenting viewpoints in relation to a dominant state religion. However, religion is also sociological, and the practice of toleration has always had a political aspect as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edict of toleration</span> Declaration by a ruling power that members of a given religion will not be persecuted

An edict of toleration is a declaration, made by a government or ruler, and states that members of a given religion will not suffer religious persecution for engaging in their traditions' practices. Edicts may imply tacit acceptance of a state religion.

Secularity, also the secular or secularness, is the state of being unrelated or neutral in regards to religion. Origins of secularity can be traced to the Bible itself and fleshed out through Christian history into the modern era. In the medieval period there were even secular clergy. Furthermore, secular and religious entities were not separated in the medieval period, but coexisted and interacted naturally.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Michael Walzer</span> American philosopher (born 1935)

Michael Laban Walzer is an American political theorist and public intellectual. A professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, he is editor emeritus of Dissent, an intellectual magazine that he has been affiliated with since his years as an undergraduate at Brandeis University. He has written books and essays on a wide range of topics—many in political ethics—including just and unjust wars, nationalism, ethnicity, Zionism, economic justice, social criticism, radicalism, tolerance, and political obligation. He is also a contributing editor to The New Republic. To date, he has written 27 books and published over 300 articles, essays, and book reviews in Dissent, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harpers, and many philosophical and political science journals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Islam and other religions</span> Muslim attitudes towards other religions

Over the centuries of Islamic history, Muslim rulers, Islamic scholars, and ordinary Muslims have held many different attitudes towards other religions. Attitudes have varied according to time, place and circumstance.

<i>A Letter Concerning Toleration</i>

A Letter Concerning Toleration (Epistola de tolerantia) by John Locke was originally published in 1689. Its initial publication was in Latin, and it was immediately translated into other languages. Locke's work appeared amidst a fear that Catholicism might be taking over England, and responds to the problem of religion and government by proposing religious toleration as the answer. This "letter" is addressed to an anonymous "Honored Sir": this was actually Locke's close friend Philipp van Limborch, who published it without Locke's knowledge.

Religiocentrism or religio-centrism is defined as the "conviction that a person's own religion is more important or superior to other religions." In analogy to ethnocentrism, religiocentrism is a value-neutral term for psychological attitude.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religious persecution in the Roman Empire</span> Religious persecution in the Roman Empire

As the Roman Republic, and later the Roman Empire, expanded, it came to include people from a variety of cultures, and religions. The worship of an ever increasing number of deities was tolerated and accepted. The government, and the Romans in general, tended to be tolerant towards most religions and religious practices. Some religions were banned for political reasons rather than dogmatic zeal, and other rites which involved human sacrifice were banned.

The history of Christian thought has included concepts of both inclusivity and exclusivity from its beginnings, that have been understood and applied differently in different ages, and have led to practices of both persecution and toleration. Early Christian thought established Christian identity, defined heresy, separated itself from polytheism and Judaism and developed the theological conviction called supersessionism. In the centuries after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, some scholars say Christianity became a persecuting religion. Others say the change to Christian leadership did not cause a persecution of pagans, and that what little violence occurred was primarily directed at non-orthodox Christians.

Criticism of monotheism has occurred throughout history. Critics have described monotheism as a cause of ignorance, oppression, and violence.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atheism during the Age of Enlightenment</span> Aspect of history

Atheism, as defined by the entry in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, is "the opinion of those who deny the existence of a God in the world. The simple ignorance of God doesn't constitute atheism. To be charged with the odious title of atheism one must have the notion of God and reject it." In the period of the Enlightenment, avowed and open atheism was made possible by the advance of religious toleration, but was also far from encouraged.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paradox of tolerance</span> Logical paradox in decision-making theory

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society's practice of tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them. Karl Popper describes the paradox as arising from the self-contradictory idea that, in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance.

Political ethics is the practice of making moral judgments about political action and political agents. It covers two areas: the ethics of process, which deals with public officials and their methods, and the ethics of policy, which concerns judgments surrounding policies and laws.

<i>Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality</i> 1980 book by John Boswell

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century is a 1980 book about the history of Christianity and homosexuality by the historian John Boswell.

Karen Stenner is a political scientist specializing in political psychology. Stenner has studied the political activation of authoritarian personality types, and how that activation explains the contemporary success of some authoritarian political figures as well as enduring conflicts between some individuals and the broad tolerance that characterizes liberal democracy.


  1. Murphy, Andrew R. (1997). "Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition". Polity. The University of Chicago Press Journals. 29 (4): 593–623. doi:10.2307/3235269. JSTOR   3235269. S2CID   155764374.
  2. "Definition of tolerance". Retrieved 2 January 2023.
  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, tolerate verb, accessed 13 February 2024
  4. 1 2 3 4 van Doorn, Marjoka (2014). "The nature of tolerance and the social circumstances in which it emerges". Current Sociology. 62 (6): 905–927.
  5. 1 2 Zagorin, Perez (2003). How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN   978-0-691-09270-6. OCLC   50982270.
  6. Vahland, Joachim (2017). "Tolerance discourses". Zeno. No. 37. pp. 7–25.
  7. Gervers, Peter; Gervers, Michael; Powell, James M., eds. (2001). Tolerance and Intolerance: Social Conflict in the Age of the Crusades. Syracuse University Press. ISBN   978-0-8156-2869-9.
  8. McKinnon, Catriona (2006). Toleration: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge. ISBN   978-0-415-32289-8.
  9. "Diversity As A Core Value – What Does It Mean To Value Diversity?". Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  10. Vogt, W.P. (1997). Tolerance & Education: Learning to Live with Diversity and Difference. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.
  11. "tolerance (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary . Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  12. 1 2 "toleration (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary . Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  13. "Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen de 1789" (in French).
  14. 1 2 Mill, John Stuart (1859). On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son.
  15. Renan, Ernest (11 March 1882). "'What is a nation?' Conference at the Sorbonne" . Retrieved 13 January 2011.
  16. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights". United Nations. 1948. Retrieved 1 June 2007.
  17. 1 2 Walzer, Michael (1997). On Toleration . The Castle lectures in ethics, politics, and economics. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN   0300070195. OCLC   47008086.
  18. Bowen, John (February–March 2004). "Muslims and Citizens". The Boston Review. Retrieved 25 January 2011.
  19. "A long road" . The Economist. 18 September 2010. ISSN   0013-0613 . Retrieved 2 January 2023.
  20. Pope Francis (2015), Laudato si', paragraph 148, accessed 13 February 2024
  21. Walsham, Alexandra (2006). Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 233. ISBN   978-0-7190-5239-2. OCLC   62533086.
  22. Oberdiek, Hans (2001). Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. vi. ISBN   978-0-8476-8785-5. OCLC   45604024.
  23. Berlin, Isaiah (1969). Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-500272-0. OCLC   15227.
  24. John, Gray (2015). Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age. Routledge. ISBN   978-1-138-17022-3. OCLC   941437450.
  25. Gray (1995), p. 20.
  26. 1 2 Fiala, Andrew. "Toleration". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2 January 2023.
  27. Popper, Karl. "chapter 7, note 4". The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 1. ISBN   978-0-691-21206-7. OCLC   1193010976.
  28. Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice: Original Edition. Harvard University Press. p.  216. ISBN   978-0-674-01772-6.
  29. Dworkin, Ronald (14 February 2006). "Even bigots and Holocaust deniers must have their say". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2023.
  30. "Dworkin Explores Secular, Religious Models for Society". Virginia Law School News and Events. 18 April 2008. Archived from the original on 18 January 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2011.

Further reading