Tolerance vs. pluralism

It's the difference between civility and mushy-headedness

Issue: "Islam and teroris," Oct. 27, 2001

No one these days can take a thoughtful look at another religion like Islam, as we seek to do in this issue, without also revisiting the issue of pluralism. It's a concept applauded not just by the politically correct, but by many who see it as an essential thread in the fabric of America.

That's why more than a few readers took exception when in our Sept. 22 issue I wrote that we Americans had made pluralism a false god. One woman noted the American Heritage Dictionary's second definition of pluralism ("A condition of society in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups coexist within one nation") and hoped that I was thinking of a different definition of the word, since "the U.S.A. is a country where the sort of 'pluralism' defined above rightly flourishes and is not a 'false deity,' as Mr. Belz opines. Indeed, it is not a deity of any sort."

To that friend, whose gentle spirit I appreciate, I respond the same way I did to James Taranto, who ably edits the "Best of the Web" feature on The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com. Mr. Taranto went so far (at first) as to call me an "anti-American" for deprecating pluralism-which he defined in much the same manner as the reader above: "If there is a quintessential principle that sums up the meaning of America, pluralism is it-and religious pluralism in particular. It is pluralism that allows everyone from evangelical Protestants to Catholics to atheists, from Mormons to Muslims to Jews, to live in the same cities and towns, free of religious wars that divide such places as the Middle East. To be against pluralism, it seems to us, is to be against America itself."

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Such a pluralism, I told Mr. Taranto, I applaud. I also thank God for it. But such a pluralism is also very hard to contain and restrain, for it contains within itself the seeds of a suggestion logically impossible and philosophically repugnant: that all those different religions are equally true and equally valid.

That's why I've always tried here in this column to make a clear distinction between "tolerance," on the one hand, and "pluralism" on the other. "Tolerance" gives me room to say, "I think you're wrong, but I'll defend your right to be wrong." "Pluralism" suggests, much more strongly than most folks admit, that there isn't any such thing as right and wrong-and no such thing as truth and error. As it is practiced more and more in America, pluralism tends to require that you not only leave room for your neighbor to believe what he believes, but that you also refrain from disagreeing with it. There's a world of difference between the two perspectives.

Tolerance promotes civility combined with clear thinking. Pluralism promotes civility combined with mushy-headedness. That's not just my conclusion. My desk dictionary includes a definition for "pluralism" that calls it a "theory that reality is composed of a multiplicity of ultimate beings, principles, or substances. Dualism."

If the phrase "multiplicity of ultimate beings" doesn't strike you as suggesting a shelf full of false gods, then maybe we don't have a lot more to talk about right here. That same disjunct is exactly why it has become so hard to carry on intelligent discussions these days.

But now, of course, this world is being shaken to its roots. Yet as the battle deepens, nothing is sillier than suggesting that the best thing we all can do is to repair to whichever ultimate being inspires the greatest confidence in us.

I'm planning to be civil toward any of my neighbors who may be heading for the local mosque. But no way will I accept the charge that to tell them of the truth of the gospel of Jesus is to jeopardize the pluralism that has made America a great springboard of freedom for so many generations.

And no way either will I concede the right-a right that has now become a duty-to tell them that the error of their thinking is profound. I will do that not because I hate them, but because I love them.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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