In an excellent post over at The Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella defends both religious toleration and the proposition that toleration has its limits.
I agree entirely, but for entirely different reasons. Vallicella defends religious toleration, because “the existence of these competing worldviews is a good and enriching thing in that it helps us clarify and refine and test our own views and practices and helps us progress toward truer and more life-enhancing systems of thought and practice.” What Vallicella describes, however, is not really religious toleration, but intellectual diversity, which may be a necessary precondition to intellectual honesty but not necessarily to religious integrity.
My argument for religious toleration is naggingly formal. Arguments in defense of Revealed Religion are forever circular, and thus can never be decided—by those inside or outside the circle.
Hillel Halkin makes this point brilliantly in his new Jewish Encounters biography of Yehuda Halevi. Halevi’s most famous book was The Kuzari (ca. 1140), a vindication of Judaism. While Christianity and Islam “make claims for a single savior or prophet that cannot be empirically justified and demand an act of faith on the part of the believer,” the book argues, according to Halkin, Judaism by contrast “is based not on faith but on historical experience.” God handed down his Torah in front of six hundred thousand Israelites who witnessed Mount Sinai’s smoking. Judaism is attested to, in short, by “many miracles,” and not just one.
But of course, as Halkin goes on to note, Halevi’s reasoning in The Kuzari is circular:
My view is that arguments across the circles are fruitless. There is no possible means of settling the religious dispute over first principles. Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence. Note, however, that toleration differs subtly from tolerance. The latter is an act of weakness, and seems much like indifference as a consequence. Toleration, though, is always from a position of power. Religious opinions that differ from the established view (from my own religious commitment, that is) are granted the freedom to express and spread themselves, because they are not a threat. They are not a threat precisely because their arguments, spilling out from within a different circle, cannot serenade me with any degree of persuasion. When they become a threat because they are backed by violence, then and only then have the limits of toleration been reached. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Daniel Huff are surely right that Islamists’ death threats should be a criminal offense.
My idea of toleration, then, is very close to Miriam Burstein’s third way between the positive and negative varieties: “in which everyone keeps their mouth shut while feeling rather grumpy.”
Within the circle of faith-accepted premises, Vallicella’s “good and enriching” arguments can occur. Perhaps they are the antidote to grumpiness. But you must first accept the premises to have your understanding of what follows from them “clarified and refined and tested.”
In short, religious argumentation (or theology, for that matter) is a lot like fiction. (That’s how Halkin blocks the objection to Halevi’s circular logic, in fact. The Kuzari is a work of fiction.) You must accept a donnée before you can be instructed or delighted or both at once. And this is the whole of what I have to say on the question of religious toleration.