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April 2, 2001

Religious tolerance starts with
a definition

By Eric Rangus


Religious tolerance, a staple of much of the world’s discussion on human rights, is a difficult and complex issue, Harvard professor David Little admitted during his lecture “Rethinking Religious Tolerance,” Monday, March 26, in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

So Little, Dermot Professor of the Practice of Religion, Ethnicity and International Conflict at Harvard Divinity School, devoted much of his 55-minute lecture to clarifying what “tolerance” means and whether it is possible to enforce an idea that, by its nature, is so difficult to interpret.

David Chidester, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, took the podium after Little and offered a brief, good-natured response.

“Rethinking Religious Tolerance” kicked off a weeklong symposium titled “Holy Wars: Conflict and Tolerance in the Religious Imagination.” Shortly after the speakers left the Jones Room, they journeyed to the Emory Hotel and Conference Center for the first of three nightly seminars on religion, ethnicity and human rights.

“We are blessed to have these two distinguished scholars here,” said University Secretary Gary Hauk in his introduction. Between the two, Hauk said, they have written more than 100 articles and books, and both have also served as mediators during religious conflict.

Little and Chidester remained on campus through Saturday and engaged members of the Emory community in several panel sessions, lectures and more informal gatherings.

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Department of Religion, the Humanities Council, the Graduate Division of Religion and the provost’s office. Religion chair Laurie Patton called the event “a culmination of a year’s work on conflict and religion.”

Opening his discussion, Little said one of the most thorny matters about rethinking tolerance is that the word “tolerance” is difficult to define and—in some cases—not defined at all. For instance, Little noted, in some official international human rights documents, the words “tolerance” and “discrimination” are used interchangeably. In other places they are distinct terms.

Little came up with two definitions of tolerance. The first, he said, is “a response to a set of beliefs that are originally thought to be objectionable, with disapproval but without using force or coercion [to change them].”

“It is natural,” said Little, who comfortably stepped out from behind the podium several times during his lecture to speak to the full Jones Room crowd more personally, “for us to punish people we do not agree with. To repress that impulse is tolerant.”

Little’s second definition of tolerance was similar to the first, but, for reasons he would explain, much tougher to deal with. In the second definition, tolerance not only does not use coercion or force against an opponent, but a tolerant person respects the other’s viewpoint. Little used the term “sublimated disapproval.”

As far as enforcing these ideas of tolerance, Little said the first definition is much more enforceable since it deals specifically with the use of violence. Legislating tolerance using the second definition would be much more difficult, he said, since it relies on people working things out among themselves through debate or discussion. “You cannot make virtue a law,” Little said.

Chidester’s brief, 10-minute response centered not only on the idea of rethinking tolerance but of rethinking the concepts of coercion and respect. A native of California who has spent the last 17 years teaching in South Africa, Chidester referred frequently to his adopted homeland in his remarks.

He also worked a Disney reference into his talk. Saying the primary cause of intolerance is misunderstanding on both sides of a conflict, Chidester mentioned how the animated film Pocahontas sketched out the differing viewpoints of Native Americans and white Europeans, which were based on a complete lack of knowledge of the other’s culture.

The audience chuckled, but Chidester’s point was well made.


Back to Emory Report April 2, 2001