Humanism and Tolerance
Pecker, Jean-Claude, Free Inquiry
Intolerance and its corollary, the persecution of minorities, is not a modern phenomenon. Entire communities have the right to think for themselves, the right to live where they choose, and even the right to live. Being "different" was, for many, in essence, an a priori vice. "We" are better than "them." "They" are inferior to "us." "We" want to be the only rulers, the decision-markers, the survivors. "They" can go to hell, because, if "we" let "them" have the same rights as ourselves, society is endangered.
The list of intolerant treatments, often violent, is very long indeed. For dozens of centuries, the rule was, and still is, the biblical "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Intolerance appeared to many as the only way to reply to intolerance, and violence was the only reply to violence.
However, even in very ancient times, some advocated another attitude, not that of tolerance perhaps, but that of submission. Think of Socrates or Jesus. And Saint Paul, as strange as it may appear, went a step further. In his "Letter to the Romans," he considered that, even if pagans are abandoned by God himself to passions of the vilest nature,
it is a duty for us the strong men, to bear the weaknesses of those who do not share our strength, and not to look only at what pleases us. It is necessary, for each of us, to be friendly to his fellow beings - in view of their enlightenment
- of their conversion, to be clear (the emphasis being of course mine!).
Humanism developed, during the Renaissance, with men such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Rabelais, Leonardo, and many others. Humanism meant several things, of course; but, primarily, the unity of the human species and the necessary solidarity of men and women against the aggressiveness in the natural world and humanity. Humanism certainly did not claim that some faiths are better than others. After having said, "All men are equal . . .," it certainly will not add: "but some are more equal than others," as wrote the pigs of George Orwell's Animal Farm, not very far from what Saint Paul said himself.
It is clear that the roots of humanism and the beginning of mutual tolerance were simultaneous. From that period on, many books for tolerance were written. Some were energetic pleas that still force admiration, not only for their stylistic qualities, but for their courage, their willingness to fight generally accepted ideas, their eagerness for justice, and their deep love for humanity.
Tolerance and intolerance were first mentioned only in the religious context and limited more or less to the Christian world. The fight for a minimum tolerance was becoming the only response to violent manifestations of intolerance. Very briefly, let us present the positions of some of the main philosophers.
John Locke (1632-1704), in England, was deeply impregnated by a very strict definition of State, the authority in charge of tolerating or excluding. Locke had a systematic, juridical approach, and, because it was juridical, it was very pragmatic. So Locke worked at demonstrating that the function of the civil judges, of the official state power, was to allow to all individuals in the country the free use of their properties, but it was certainly not to take care of their souls or of their eternal salvation. In other words, religion was not a governmental affair (or should not be). It was a matter of conscience, and Locke fought for the freedom of conscience.
But there were aspects (such as the education of children, the right to work or not to work, even the right to polygamy and to divorce) that must be ruled by the law. One can forbid the publishing and propagating of some opinions, or worse, force someone to abandon an opinion or even to publicly abjurate. Still much worse, one could be forced to declare openly that he or she adopted the opposite opinion. For example, a magistrate could forbid the publication of an opinion when he or she judged that this may harm the government. …