A Catechesis for the Tolerant

By arguing that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated, a new book inadvertently demonstrates that liberalism grounded in personal autonomy is the least tolerant religion of all.

Read literally, this book is a series of obviously self-refuting assertions (one of which Nehushtan himself characterizes as “childish”). Yet Nehushtan’s writing is subtle. Clearly, this book is not to be read for what it says but for how it says it. While ostensibly arguing that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated, he has ably demonstrated that a particular strand of tolerant liberalism grounded in personal autonomy is the least tolerant religion of all.


By arguing that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated, a new book inadvertently demonstrates that liberalism grounded in personal autonomy is the least tolerant religion of all.

Yossi Nehushtan thinks we can build more tolerant societies if we just stop tolerating the intolerant. In the very first sentence of his new book, Intolerant Religion in a Tolerant-Liberal Democracy, he identifies what he considers the chief enemy of tolerance: religion. He then undertakes to “explain why religion should not be tolerated in a tolerant-liberal democracy.”

In support of this conclusion, Nehushtan proffers three propositions. The first, which is foundational to the other two, is “that illiberal intolerance should not be tolerated in a tolerant-liberal democracy.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. According to this logic, a tolerant-liberal democracy will become intolerant (by virtue of not tolerating the intolerant) and therefore should not be tolerated. You’re tempted to jump to the conclusion that Nehushtan has knocked himself out before ever landing a punch on his target. But Nehushtan insists that conclusion would be “awkward” for you. You cannot judge intolerance. Only the tolerant are able to identify “the true intolerant person and the unjustified tolerance that should not be tolerated.” You are missing the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of intolerant tolerant-liberalism.

The values of tolerance are complex, you see. Nehushtan identifies three reasons for tolerance: (1) the idea that tolerance is a right, (2) pragmatic concerns, and (3) pity. Tolerance as a right entails that tolerance has limits. Tolerance is neither a value nor a virtue nor a moral duty; it is neither good nor bad, and it “might be unjustified or even morally wrong if things that should not be tolerated are tolerated.” Therefore, “the limit of liberal tolerance is illiberal intolerance,” and the “illiberal intolerant should not be tolerated by the liberal state.”

This follows from the principle of reciprocity, Nehushtan asserts. Of course, it does not follow from the usual formulations of reciprocity according to which one is to treat others as one would want to be treated, etc. Nehushtan states three of those classical formulations before inverting them. For Nehushtan, “Reciprocity means acting contrary to what X initially requires towards those who act contrary to what X requires.” This entails that the state must not tolerate those who reject the justification for tolerance.

Personal Autonomy: The One True Justification for Tolerance

Now you’re thinking, That would make the state intolerant. On that logic, we should not tolerate the state. This is an argument for anarchy. Well, no, because Nehushtan argues that only those who deny the true justification for tolerance are intolerant. Those who act against tolerance for the sake of the only true justification for tolerance are tolerant, including the tolerant-liberal state, notwithstanding that they are not tolerating.

Tolerance, it seems, is conditional, while the One True Justification for tolerance is absolute. This One True Justification is that personal autonomy is valuable in itself and its exercise should not only not be thwarted but must be actively assisted whenever possible.

In support of this premise, Nehushtan relies upon the influential work of Joseph Raz. The problems with Raz’s claim about autonomy are well known, having been considered in print by Donald Regan, Robert George, and others. Raz himself has pointed to some fundamental problems with the view that personal autonomy is intrinsically valuable.

Nehushtan does not confront those problems. Nor does he address the inconvenient difficulty that Raz’s account of autonomy is a formidable argument for political freedom, including the freedom of those who choose religious authority and other moral commitments over unfettered freedom to do whatever one wants at any moment. In other words, Raz’s argument cuts against Nehushtan’s.

This does not dissuade Nehushtan, who perceives little to be gained by trying to persuade those whose minds are darkened. “Instead,” he says of his own view, “the validity of this position will just be assumed.” Nehushtan suggests that because those who do not believe in liberal values “do not acknowledge that autonomy has any particular value, they necessarily cannot recognize tolerance as a value or as a right.” Infidels . . . er, the unregenerate . . . anyway, intolerant people cannot grasp so numinous an idea.

And those people, those who reject or diminish the One True Justification for tolerance, are the ones who are being intolerant and should not be tolerated—not the tolerant state that does not tolerate the intolerant in order to preserve autonomy. That’s tolerant.

Aren’t There Other Justifications for Tolerance?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That’s special pleading. And that’s true. Many, many, many justifications for toleration have been offered over the centuries that are grounded in moral and religious principles other than personal autonomy. Many, many, many have been offered by religious people on explicitly religious grounds.

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