The Catholic Thing
The Rights of Error and the Death of Tolerance Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 07 June 2013
Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”

Many years ago I was a guest on a national radio show to discuss one of my books. I forget which one, but I vividly remember an encounter I had with a listener who called the program. He was clearly upset that I was offering reasons for the sanctity of unborn human life, that I was explaining in some detail why I believe that the preborn human being has a personal nature and that abortion is unjustified homicide.

After some initial small talk, and my answering his question about human personhood, the caller asserted with obvious exasperation: “Dr. Beckwith, you’re just intolerant. You seem so sure that you are right, and that everybody else is wrong.” For someone like me, who moonlights as a philosophical comedian, this sort of assertion is almost too good to be true. It’s the type of clichéd, mindless platitude that has kept the book I wrote with Gregory P. Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, in print for fifteen years.

I answered the caller by asking this question, “Am I wrong in thinking this way?” It is an interrogative response that Greg and I have employed on numerous occasions and have shared with many an audience. The caller replied, “Yes.” I then said, “Then, you’re exactly like me. You think you’re right and I’m wrong. The difference is that I actually admit I believe something is true. You, on the other hand, believe something is true, but act as if you really don’t.”

He then tried to restate his accusation, but stumbled badly. He couldn’t find a way to say it without collapsing into self-contradiction. At this point, he confessed, “I can’t say what I want to say without sounding ridiculous.” I replied, “That’s because it is ridiculous.”

Notice that the caller completely ignored the substance of my case, though I was not surprised. Most people I encounter – even those who have earned graduate degrees from elite institutions – do not care much about arguments, despite the fact that they often claim to be champions of “reason” and enemies of “religious superstition.”

Of course, they also claim to defend “diversity” and “multiculturalism” while maintaining that justice demands that all institutions, private and public, look exactly alike in their ethnic and gender compositions as well as in their fundamental beliefs about human sexuality, knowledge, and the role of the state.

This is why the Catholic Church’s refusal to change its views on the male priesthood, marriage, the sanctity of life, contraception, and the commodification of reproduction is met with such hysterical invective rather than with a call to celebrate the distinctive contributions that Catholicism brings to our multicultural society.

Because the Church’s critics confuse cosmetology with anthropology, they wind up calling for forced conformity in diversity drag. What appears to many of us as a hostile demand for liberal hegemony, they claim is merely an invitation to revel in our pluralism.

My conversation with that critical caller is a microcosm of this incoherency. Most people with liberal sensibilities, like this caller, often call for “tolerance” without really appreciating what that entails in a liberal democracy such as ours. 

Tolerance, if it is a civic virtue, requires that we believe that those with whom we disagree are mistaken. For when a fellow citizen and I agree, we don’t tolerate each other. We agree. Yet, ironically, many in our society believe that judging another to be mistaken – whether on religious matters or issues involving the propriety of one’s sexual powers – is itself an act of intolerance.

Under this definition of tolerance, agreement, rather than disagreement, becomes a necessary condition for being tolerant. In that case, tolerance is turned on its head, and has become, paradoxically, intolerance. 

Many of my liberal friends, like the caller, often claim that we ought to be skeptical about the confidence we place in our own judgments on matters over which reasonable people disagree. But it is precisely on those issues that some of their friends are the most judgmental, unforgiving, and punitive. They seem, ironically, to emulate the very sort of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that they often attribute to what they pejoratively call “Christian fundamentalists.” While claiming to reject institutions and ways of life that exclude those who are different, they do not practice what they preach, and in fact make it a point to exclude those that do not toe the party line.

Tolerance cannot be endlessly elastic. Both liberals and conservatives agree on that point. But if on disputed questions, for which liberalism was invented to supply a modus vivendi, tolerance cannot be coherently applied, then we have arrived at a point at which liberalism has embraced what at one time it claimed to reject, “Error has no rights.” 

In that case, tolerance is dead. 

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he also serves as Resident Scholar in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) is the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics – The Hadley Arkes Festschrift (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Randall, June 07, 2013
The relativist's edifice is a house of cards. Their self-contradictions will bring it down, as always.

I recall hearing a very young priest give a homily a couple of years ago where he remarked on the Middle Ages and how "there was more diversity in the Middle Ages than you can even dream of." That must have been a shock to those in the pews who have been brainwashed to assume the Middle Ages were a time of rigid conformity.

I offer that digression to illustrate the intellectual quality of many of our young priests - those "John Paul II priests." With God there is always, always hope. Lies inevitable run aground. Truth will triumph. Forever.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam!
written by Stanley Anderson, June 07, 2013
To those who reason that "if you disagree with me you are not simply mistaken, but must be evil, incurably stupid, or demented" (a seemingly ubiquitous position these days -- has it always been thus, or is it an artifact of the internet?), I have often used the example of Einstein debating for decades with Niels Bohr about the implications of quantum physics. Einstein was apparently wrong (that is a conclusion requiring lots of caveats and subtle distinctions of course), but few people would consider him to lack intelligence, good-heartedness, or sanity. He was simply (again, cautiously using such an adverb in this context) mistaken.

But being mistaken does not seem to be a choice in this post-mortem philosophy (as I might punningly describe your last sentence), let alone the possibility that the other party might actually be right.

And of course the "logical" extension of that forcibly amputated trilemma is that argument is pointless from this point of view. For one does not argue with a mad person, or an incurably stupid person, or an evil person. There can, by definition, be no "mistakes" to correct by reasoned debate or argument.

The inescapable self-contradiction of the argument-laden paragraph above for those who subscribe to that view is not lost on me. It is not unlike the conundrum in which I have found myself when asked by frustrated interrogators, "Stanley, is there any possible question you can answer with a simple 'yes' or 'no'?". The unfortunate "true" answer seems to be 'no', and it is the perfectly clear answer that could be easily stated by anyone in the world except for one person, i.e., the very person to whom the question is addressed. Oh well, I guess my only recourse is to proclaim, Mr. Beckwith, that you are simply mad, incurably stupid, and evil, all three simultaneously, and be done with it since there is nothing more to say on the matter. Either that, or to praise you for another simply -- no qualifications needed on the adverb this time -- wonderful column.
written by Tony, June 07, 2013
The most intolerant and bigoted people I know are all academics. Why is that so? Why should that not surprise us?

Some reasons:

1. Academics are in complete control over who gets to be an academic. Having given over objective standards of truth and even competence, they accept politics in their place. So third-rate minds doing "hot" work in eighteenth century erotica will get the job, and not somebody deeply and broadly educated.

2. Academics are insulated from the humility-inducing demands of hard physical labor or of tasks requiring considerable technical skill. That is, they do not build buildings, or lay out roads, or carve masterpieces; and so they usually look down on those who do.

3. Academics even in their own fields are pygmies by comparison with their predecessors, and on some level they know this; so they react by promoting their political agendas all the more aggressively.

written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 07, 2013
Once you examine the basic assumptions you are unwittingly making when engaging these "intellectuals" the futility of it all becomes apparent. I began realizing this with regard to all discussion by and about Obama and his partisans.
We make the erroneous assumption that they are seriously concerned and interested in things like: reason, facts, truth, logic, etc., etc. These types are interested in one thing and one thing only: raw, unadulterated power. They will name-call, guilt-monger, and confuse because what they want is the upper hand and not the truth.
written by Peter Northcott, June 10, 2013
Well, I'm a bit of a "Stand to Reason" junkie, and Greg Koukl's Tactics are brilliant, too.

However, it struck me, after listening to Greg's 'Relativism' talk up on Veritas (where I came across STR in the first place) Protestantism (qua denominationalism) is simply a form of relativism, too, isn't it?

Greg constantly gives examples of pluralist/liberal Catholic priests, Rabbis, etc. (e.g., "Truth is not Ice Cream"... presentation), to show himself as being in an invulnerable position when, it seems to me, he simply ignores or has a blind spot for the pluralism (denominationalism) and division within his own denomination and Protestantism itself.

in other words, isn't he actually throwing stones from within a glass-house which he's just made to look, cosmetically, solid?

It seems to me his examples are unfair because he universalises the liberal (dissenting) Catholic Priest or Rabbi, for example as representative of the set, but then parades himself as representative of his set when neither is the case?

Yes, Greg actually believes something is true (and I admire him for that), but the generalisations he employs are merely a 'smoke and mirrors' trick, aren't they?

So, when we turn his argument back on himself and his own religious position, it seems to fall apart, doesn't it?
written by spudnik, June 10, 2013
I have never seen anyone be relativistic on those matters in which they perceive a risk of harm in the event that they might be mistaken. So I conclude that relativism in the areas of God and religion is mere unbelief that lacks the courage or honesty to declare itself.

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