Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How to Be Intolerant: Beyond Simplistic Liberalism

Christopher A. Haw

Amidst surges of right- and left-wing populisms—from Trumpian Tea Parties to Black Lives Matter—one cannot avoid hearing accusations that one or another opponent is “divisive” and intolerant. What one faction today considers anti-racism in defense of the marginalized, another denounces as intolerant liberal mobs of cancel culture. In all of this we find there is a paradox to tolerance: even the most supposedly inclusive of movements are inevitably intolerant of certain things. No matter how cosmopolitan or pluralistic a society might wish to become, it will inescapably involve intolerance. This suggests our challenge in democratic societies today is not whether or not to be intolerant, but how should we be intolerant?

My book, Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics, explores these challenging mechanics of exclusion by grappling with one the deepest and most misunderstood symbols of intolerance: monotheism, the exclusive belief in only one God. This belief, laced with a combative sense that the other gods are somehow false, dates back into even the first millennium B.C.E. And it has often been regarded as a source of intolerance, violence, and a threat to plurality and diversity. Champions of pluralism, like William Connolly today among others, advocate polytheism to undergird a politics of inclusion: we must reject such monocratic intolerance and embrace the generous dictum that “there is not only one god.” In reaction, believers and defenders of monotheism have often emphasized how the shared belief in the One True God paves a common ground for peaceful coexistence.

But both approaches, however, fail to grasp how monotheism’s intolerance involves both danger and liberation. Today we need to grapple with this subtle, ambivalent intolerance. While our modern, liberal democracies have laudably tried to create exclusion free societies, we are at the end of our societal rope in the culture wars, obsessed with inclusion and incapable of theorizing exclusion. We do not merely need more tolerance but a profound kind of intolerance that can be described as the intolerance of Absolutism. And one of the ironic sources for teaching us such intolerance monotheism itself.

Monotheism emerged in a world where the gods had long been woven in with governments. Indeed since the birth of human culture itself, the gods have always been linked with the violent unity of the group. To be patriotic was to be a booster for the group-god; to be zealous for the gods was to be in harmony with the political unit. Gods and power emerged together in the long haul of human evolution. But a massive break between the gods and politics began to emerge in the religion flowing from the Moses legend, recorded in the Bible: this was a god who eventually came to be seen as not one of the gods, entirely transcendent to political power, and entirely unrepresentable in a god-king or government. Although as volatile as plutonium, this biblical intolerance helped break away the divine from political power. As ancient historian Jan Assmann has provocatively argued, monotheism’s intolerance of idolatry ultimately created ways of thinking that refuse to grant Absolute status to any representative, to any government.

As the Belgian political theorist, Chantal Mouffe, puts it, pluralism requires “refusing to claim a monopoly on the foundations of society.” A mature pluralism does not merely aim for consensus and group unity—in vague appeals to “can’t we all just get along?” This just leaves power relations as they are. Rather, genuine pluralism is more sensitive to division, asking, “can’t we just argue?” A great exemplar of this is Martin Luther King Jr. and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” There, he rejected the white moderates who told him to tone it down, stop polarizing society, and cease being so divisive. His response was that genuine love seeks to evoke the hidden divisions in society—provoke conflict, even—so as to pursue the truer justice. This gives perspective to why Jesus, the supposed “prince of peace,” said he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword and division. This suggests to us today that our challenge is not merely to cool everything down and appeal to squishy notions of tolerance. There is little substance to the complaint that someone is divisive or intolerant—when they may be, for all we know, helping break up all our illusions, idolatries, and oppressive regimes. Rather, instead of trying to abolish intolerance, we need to cultivate a mature, agonistic pluralism that intolerantly unearths the hidden divisions we would rather paper over. As we are coming to find that there is no such thing as pure, neutral tolerance, a mature monotheism that refuses to divinize any powers may help us navigate our pressing challenge today—of how to be intolerant.

Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics by Christopher A. Haw
Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics by Christopher A. Haw

About The Author

Christopher A. Haw

Christopher Haw is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton....

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