AskDefine | Define toleration

Dictionary Definition



1 a disposition to tolerate or accept people or situations; "all people should practice toleration and live together in peace" [syn: acceptance, sufferance]
2 official recognition of the right of individuals to hold dissenting opinions (especially in religion)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the tolerance of the beliefs or the culture of others
  2. the official recognition of an individual's right to hold dissenting opinions, especially in religion
  3. lenience or forbearance

Extensive Definition

Toleration and tolerance are terms used in social, cultural and religious contexts to describe attitudes and practices that prohibit discrimination against those practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority. 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, such as the toleration of sexual practices and orientations, or of political parties or ideas widely considered objectionable. The principle of toleration is controversial. Liberal critics may see in it an inappropriate implication that the "tolerated" custom or behavior is an aberration or that authorities have a right to punish difference; such critics may instead emphasize notions such as civility or pluralism. Other critics, some sympathetic to traditional fundamentalism, condemn toleration as a form of moral relativism. On the other hand, defenders of toleration may define it as involving positive regard for difference or, alternately, may regard a narrow definition of the term as more specific and useful than its proposed alternatives, since it does not require false expression of enthusiasm for groups or practices that are genuinely disapproved of.

Historical development

As a practical matter, governments have always had to consider the question of which groups and practices to tolerate and which to persecute. The earliest known example of ethnic and religious tolerance is found in the Cyrus cylinder, which was declared by Cyrus the Great after he founded the Persian Empire. Similarly, the Edicts of Ashoka issued by Ashoka the Great in the Maurya Empire also declared ethnic and religious tolerance. The later expanding Roman Empire faced the question of whether or to what extent they should permit or persecute the local beliefs and practices of groups inhabiting annexed territories. Jewish or Christian 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.
In Europe, 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.
A detailed and influential body of writing on the question of toleration however, was first 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. 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.

Recent development

Though developed to refer to the religious toleration of minority religious sects following the Protestant Reformation, the terms "toleration" and "tolerance" are increasingly used to refer to a wider range of tolerated practices and groups, such as the toleration of sexual practices and orientations, or of political parties or ideas widely considered objectionable. Changing applications and understandings of the term can sometimes make debate on the question difficult.
For example, a distinction is sometimes drawn between mere "Toleration" and a higher notion of "Religious Liberty":
Some philosophers [. . .] regard toleration and religious freedom as quite distinct things and emphasize the differences between the two. They understand toleration to signify no more than forbearance and the permission given by the adherents of a dominant religion for other religions to exist, even though the latter are looked upon with disapproval as inferior, mistaken, or harmful. In contrast these thinkers recognize religious liberty as as the recognition of equal freedom for all religions and denominations without any kind of discrimination among them [. . .] in the case of religious liberty, no one is rightfully possessed of the power not to tolerate or to cancel this liberty.
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. 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. The usual definition of tolerance in pre-modern times as Bernard Lewis puts it was that:
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. 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". Attempts to increase tolerance by applying different rules to different people would ultimately be self defeating.
Many universities, in attempting to enforce certain political and ideological viewpoints through means other than instruction and debate have been come to be viewed by some as intolerant.

Historically important documents

(Listed chronologically)


Further reading

  • Beneke, Chris (2006) Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Budziszewski, J. (1992) True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgement (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers).
  • Cohen, A.J. (2004) "What Toleration Is" Ethics 115: 68-95
  • Jordan, W. K. (1932-40) The Development of Religious Toleration in England (New York: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.)
  • Kamen, Henry (1967), The Rise of Toleration (New York: McGraw-Hill).
  • Kaplan, Benjamin J. (2007), Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Belknap Press).
  • Laursen, John Christian and Nederman, Cary, eds. (1997) Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration Before the Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Mendus, Susan and Edwards, David, eds. (1987) On Toleration (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Mendus, Susan, ed. (1988) Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • Mendus, Susan (1989) Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press).
  • Murphy, Andrew R. (2001) Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (College Park: Penn State University Press).
  • Nicholson, Peter P. (1985) "Toleration as a Moral Ideal" in Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus (New York: Methuan).
  • Stetson, Brad and Joseph G. Conti, The Truth about Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, (2005)
  • Ten, C.L. (Chin Liew) (2004) A Conception of Toleration (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International).
  • Walsham, Alexandra. (2006) Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (Manchester University Press).
  • Walzer, Michael (1999) On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  • Zagorin, Perez (2003) How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
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toleration in Simple English: Tolerance
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