Book review: Carson’s Intolerance of Tolerance

“Tolerance” has taken on an idolatrous golden calf status in our culture as of late, being the predominant ideology in nearly all areas of life. In his recent (January, 2012) book The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson tackles the elephant in the room, arguing against the current form of tolerance, which ironically is no tolerance at all.

Birthed out of a series of lectures Carson has given across the Western world, the main argument of the book is that tolerance has come to be the prevailing mantra of our time. However, tolerance no longer means what it used to, and the new form of tolerance is not very tolerant at all; at its best it is veiled intolerance and at its worst it borders on the absurd. Carson describes the old tolerance as a stance that acknowledges the existence of both right and wrong, and discoverable, defensible truth. This tolerance accepts “that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist” (p. 3). This tolerance respectfully engages in debates and criticisms. However, as Carson deftly argues, a new tolerance has taken over that is intolerant of the old tolerance.

The new tolerance, Carson argues, is tolerant of all things on the surface, so long as no dogmatic, absolute, judgmental, critical, or disparaging remarks are made. This new tolerance has become part of the unquestioned plausibility structure; it accepts all opinions and renders them all equally valid. But under this new tolerance, right and wrong cease to have any meaning. It does not acknowledge any specific truth, and labels any religion or system of thought that claims to be true as intolerant. Thus, any disagreement – let alone claims to exclusive truth – is demonized as intolerant, leaving no room for anything but a spineless, tyrannical tolerance. The irony, not lost in the title of the book, is that the new tolerance is actually quite vehemently intolerant of anything that isn’t tolerant of the new tolerance: “no absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism” (p. 13).

Of course, tolerance is not really an abstract, personified ideal, but is the dominant thinking of the Western world, and that’s not to our credit:

“Cultures in other parts of the world often see in Western (new) tolerance, not a mature and civilized culture worth emulating, but a childish and manipulative culture that refuses to engage with serious moral issues…Far from bringing peace, the new tolerance is progressively becoming more intolerant, fostering moral myopia, proving unable to engage in serious and competent discussions about truth, letting personal and social evils fester, and remaining blind to the political and international perceptions of our tolerant cultural profile.” (p. 139)

Well researched, engagingly written, and utterly reasonable, Carson provides myriad examples of how this new tolerance has influenced all areas of life. Copious examples of the absurd and maddening new tolerance are given in the religious, educational, political, academic, and news media spheres. But Carson isn’t a paranoid alarmist decrying the loss of the modern age or the takeover of secular humanism. Instead, he firmly engages with popular and academic sources, building his case throughout the book that the old tolerance is necessary for a truly free society, while the new tolerance spirals into inconsistency and even tyranny.

The final chapter offers some practical reflections on what to do about the new tolerance, which was helpful. On a personal note, I especially enjoyed his section on the demise of postmodernity, as well as his discussion of the rampant narcissism in our world and in the church. On a more minor note, it was also refreshing to read an “outsider” lamenting the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that Michael Horton, Christian Smith, and others have been drawing attention to.

Though it is a shorter book, Carson’s argument is so tight and his argument so cogently intertwined throughout the book, I find it difficult to review. The only blemish in it is his minor digression on democracy and his reflections on the separation of church and state. He lost me a little bit with his church/state discussion.

I really enjoyed it, as it is intellectually stimulating without being stuffy or overly academic. It is also written from a Christian perspective without being overtly so. It reads like how his lectures would be: given to a mixed audience of academics and the public, Christians and skeptics. Carson is a gifted writer with deep insight. I’d heartily recommend it to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an objective, but not necessarily positive, review.

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