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Minerva as a symbol of enlightened wisdom protects the believers of all religions (Daniel Chodowiecki, 1791)

In a general meaning, tolerance is the ability to accept something while disapproving of it.

In social, cultural and religious contexts, Toleration and tolerance are terms used to describe attitudes which are "tolerant" (or moderately respectful) of practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority. In practice, "tolerance" indicates support for practices that prohibit ethnic and religious discrimination. Conversely, 'intolerance' may be used to refer to the discriminatory practices sought to be prohibited. Though developed to refer to the religious toleration of minority religious sects following the Protestant Reformation, these terms are increasingly used to refer to a wider range of tolerated practices and groups, or of political parties or ideas widely considered objectionable.[1]



As a practical matter, governments have always had to consider the question of which groups and practices to tolerate and which to persecute. The [[Ed\ cts of Ashoka]] issued by Ashoka the Great in the Maurya Empire declared ethnic and religious tolerance. The later expanding Roman Empire faced the question of whether or to what extent practices or beliefs could be tolerated or vigorously persecuted. Likewise, during the Middle Ages, the rulers of Christian Europe or the Muslim Middle East sometimes extended toleration to minority religious groups, and sometimes did not. Jews in particular suffered under anti-Semitic persecutions in medieval Europe.[2][3] A notable exception was Poland, which served as a haven for European Jewry because of its relative tolerance - by the mid-sixteenth century, 80 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. [4]

An early champion of toleration in Europe was Pawel Wlodkowic, who at the Council of Constance advocated the pagan nations' rights.[5] However, the development of a body of theory on the subject of toleration didn't begin until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in response to the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion and persecutions that followed the breaks with the Catholic Church instigated by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli and others. In response to the theory of persecution that was used to justify wars of religion and the execution of persons convicted of heresy and witchcraft, writers such as Sebastian Castellio and Michel de Montaigne questioned the morality of religious persecution, and offered arguments for toleration. By contrast, Poland, which had been uniquely tolerant and ethnically as well as religiously diverse, officially confirmed its status as "a place of shelter for heretics" in the Confederation of Warsaw of 1573,[6] the first toleration act in Europe.[7]

A detailed and influential body of writing on the question of toleration was produced in Britain in the seventeenth century, during and after the destructive English Civil Wars. John Milton and radical Parliamentarians such as Gerrard Winstanley argued that Christian and Jewish worship should be protected, and it was during the period that Oliver Cromwell allowed the return of Jews to England. These early theories of toleration were limited however, and did not extend toleration to Roman Catholics (who were perceived as disloyal to their country) or atheists (who were held to lack any moral basis for action). John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration and Two Treatises of Government proposed a more detailed and systematic theory of toleration, which included a principle of Separation of Church and State that formed the basis for future constitutional democracies, but also did not extend toleration to Roman Catholics or atheists. The British Toleration Act of 1689 was the political result of seventeenth century theorists and political exigency, which despite the limited scope of the toleration it granted was nevertheless a key development in the history of toleration, which helped produce greater political stability in the British Isles.

The philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment, especially Voltaire and Lessing, promoted and further developed the notion of religious tolerance, which however was not sufficient to prevent the atrocities of the Reign of Terror. The incorporation by Thomas Jefferson and others of Locke's theories of toleration into the Constitution of the United States of America was arguably more successful.

Discussions of toleration therefore often divided between those who view the term as a minimal and perhaps even historical virtue (perhaps today to be replaced by a more positive and robust appreciation of pluralism or diversity), and those who view it as a concept with an important continuing vitality, and who are more likely to use the term in considering contemporary issues regarding discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, disability, and other reasons.

There are also debates with regard to the historical factors that produced the principle of toleration, as well as to the proper reasons toleration should be exercised, with some arguing that the growth of skepticism was an important or necessary factor in the development of toleration, and others arguing that religious belief or an evolving notion of respect for individual persons was or is the basis on which toleration was or should be practiced.

Tolerance and monotheism

One theory of the origins of religious intolerance, propounded by Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism, links intolerance to monotheism. More recently, Bernard Lewis and Mark Cohen have argued that the modern understanding of tolerance, involving concepts of national identity and equal citizenship for persons of different religions, was not considered a value by pre-modern Muslims or Christians, due to the implications of monotheism.[8] The historian G.R. Elton explains that in pre-modern times, monotheists viewed such toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards God. [9] The usual definition of tolerance in pre-modern times as Bernard Lewis puts it was that:

I am in charge. I will allow you some though not all of the rights and privileges that I enjoy, provided that you behave yourself according to rules that I will lay down and enforce."[10]

Mark Cohen states that it seems that all the monotheistic religions in power throughout the history have felt it proper, if not obligatory, to persecute nonconforming religions. [11] Therefore, Cohen concludes, Medieval Islam and Medieval Christianity in power should have persecuted non-believers in their lands and "Judaism, briefly in power during the Hasmonean period (second century BCE) should have persecuted pagan Idumeans". [11] Cohen continues: "When all is said and done, however, the historical evidence indicates that the Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to thirteenth century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom. This begs a more thorough and nuanced explanation than has hitherto been given."[11]

Tolerating the intolerant

Philosopher Karl Popper asserted, in The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1, that we are warranted in refusing to tolerate intolerance; illustrating that there are limits to tolerance.

Philosopher John Rawls devotes a section of his influential and controversial book A Theory of Justice to this problem; whether a just society should or should not tolerate the intolerant. He also addresses the related issue of whether or not the intolerant have any right to complain when they are not tolerated, within their society.

Rawls concludes that a just society must be tolerant; therefore, the intolerant must be tolerated, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls qualifies this conclusion by insisting, like Popper, that society and its social institutions have a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance. Hence, the intolerant must be tolerated but only insofar as they do not endanger the tolerant society and its institutions.[citation needed]

Tolerance as a spiritual virtue

Swami Tripurari states that the practice of tolerance leads to the ability to distinguish the jiva (soul) from the mind and body.[12]

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says "... the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception ... and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.[1] the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation."[2]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Vartan Gregorian, "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith", Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pg 26-38 ISBN 081573283X
  3. ^ Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.
  4. ^ Jewish Virtual Library - Poland
  5. ^ Britannica Online - Poland: The rule of Jagielo
  6. ^ Portal UNESCO, Poland - The General Confederation of Warsaw
  7. ^ Dzieje podzielone, Prof. Janusz Tazbir, Polityka 03-07-2004
  8. ^ Lewis (1997), p.321; (1984) p.65; Cohen (1995), p.xix
  9. ^ quoted in Cohen (1995), p.xix
  10. ^ Lewis (2006), pp.25-36
  11. ^ a b c Cohen (1995) p. xix
  12. ^ Swami Tripurari, "Tolerance: the Ornament of the Saints", Sanga, 1999.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

TOLERATION (from Lat. tolerare, to endure), the allowance of freedom of action or judgment to other people, the patient and unprejudiced endurance of dissent from one's own or the generally received course or view.

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Simple English

Tolerance is not taking action against people who do things one does not like. The opposite of tolerance is intolerance. Intolerance is often found in dictatorships. Tolerance is often about religion, sex, or politics.


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