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Toleration must include understanding


Religious tolerance graphic

Observed from a distance, Australia’s treatment of religious pluralism in the last few months has been surprising and difficult to digest. The recent repeal of the burka ban in the national parliament brought an end to a period of ad hoc, knee-jerk tokenism. 

The whole fracas, including woeful comments from ignorant senators, and an obvious lack of real governmental consultation with Australia’s Muslim communities, spotlighted an embarrassing level of illiteracy with regard to Islam. 

But now that the general atmosphere of scandal has subsided, we might take the opportunity presented by these antics to reflect on how we think of - and practise - toleration in Australia, especially when it comes to religious traditions. The time seems ripe to ask: does ‘toleration’ as we commonly envision it encourage people to learn about religious traditions; or is the view of toleration that we put forward one that actually entrenches incomprehension?

We’re used to thinking of religious pluralism in terms of our rapidly diversifying Western societies, where demographic change has transformed cities like Sydney and Melbourne into sites of inter-religious encounter. So pluralism is often dealt with through reference to law, the questions being asked centring on how the state should relate to religious groups and the proper demarcation of the ‘civic’ and ‘religious’ spheres. (Think of the conflicts over public display of religious symbols in France and Italy). 

It’s easy to come to the view that maintaining stable pluralism requires only the right legal framework enforcing the boundaries of ‘the acceptable’, and that with this in place we can just get on with it.  

What the last few weeks, with their burka bans and Jackie Lambies, have really prompted us to confront is the challenge of understanding

In sustaining a stable pluralism, how do we encourage people to form some understanding or literacy with regard to each other’s moral, religious or cultural traditions? And by this I mean making efforts to learn, to come to some familiarity, perhaps even some nascent sympathy, with things profoundly alien to them. What if our doctrines of neutrality and ‘tolerance’ are actually keeping us complacent and stopping us from enquiring into the sources that shape or inform other traditions? 

Modern pluralistic Australian society is bound by principles that determine the boundaries of acceptable speech and action. One of the most important is that of toleration, which we tend to think of in terms of ‘toleration as non-interference’. That is, we can tolerate the ‘moral stranger’, a member of another cultural or religious tradition, without further engagement being necessary. 

We most readily think of toleration as an act of omission, an act of restraint or forbearance. Such toleration ceases, of course, when we encounter those whose agenda is forcibly to draw all within the bounds of a single tradition, in the way that ISIS has attempted in Iraq through mass gun-point conversions of Yazidis. 

The point here is that we tolerate each other across the distance of incomprehension. I may not understand another religious tradition, but, in ‘virtuous’ adherence to the principle of toleration, I ‘put up’ with it nevertheless; I am willing to share geographic and political space with its adherents. So, toleration is often expressed in terms of restraint or ‘silence.’ It means to refrain from the possibility of demonstrating intolerance.   

Nobody would deny that toleration is a vital principle in sustaining concord in Australia. But we need to re-arrange our understanding of what is required for the maintenance of such concord in our multi-cultural and multi-religious society. 

We need to move beyond straightforward ‘tolerance’ paired with incomprehension of the religious other, to promote a more engaged understanding that entails some comprehension of how traditions – particularly religious traditions – fit together. And this effort has to be public. It has to be sustained by all of us. 

It’s possible for toleration to be interpreted so as to promote an asymmetry of responsibility. As the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has noted, under the rubric of ‘toleration’ it falls upon religious citizens to make efforts of translation so as to make their own traditions publicly intelligible. 

It’s an effort that non-religious citizens are largely spared. This asymmetry, says Habermas, threatens to produce a ‘secularist view’ of religion, which fails to take religious language and reasons seriously. In other words it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘tolerant’ but disdainful incomprehension. 

Of course, religious citizens are as much in danger of demonstrating ‘disdainful incomprehension’ as anyone else. The point is that the realisation of a stable and healthy pluralism can’t rely only on the adherents of religious traditions making attempts to render their codes and customs intelligible to the public at large. 

It also relies upon the wider public making efforts to engage with and interpret the traditions with which they share communal space. This effort of understanding, to be directed at all of Australia’s religious traditions, should be a natural part of our public culture. 

We should all attempt to come to some more detailed understanding of the faith-shaped lives of Australian Muslims, including the tradition of sharia. And that means breaking the ‘silence’ of toleration in its current popularly interpreted form, and taking up the challenge of dialogue. 

Dialogue in Australia already takes place in many contexts – in a formal sense, through the interfaith meetings of religious leaders and simply through everyday coexistence in neighbourhoods around the country. But we can certainly make it more explicit as a principle of our common life. 

When Australian school pupils are introduced to the idea of Australia as a ‘liberal-democratic-tolerant’ country, they need to be introduced to the practices and principles that will make this possible in the future, two of which are surely learning and dialogue. 

In the cause of making the principle of dialogue more public, it’s encouraging to see the new Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, communicating the importance of inter-religious friendship so early in his tenure. 

When we talk of multiculturalism in Australia, we tie it closely to an abstracted view of tolerance. Multiculturalism is reduced to a vision of living alongside each other without ‘interfering.’ But multiculturalism is also multi-religiosity, and both of these conditions demand energetic learning so as to improve mutual understanding, not only between faith communities but between religious and non-religious publics. 

Australia accommodates a great diversity of religious communities, which have played a vital role in developing the cultural, political and material fabric of the country. Surely what we need is to espouse a principle of toleration that encourages engaged understanding, rather than ‘tolerant’ incomprehension. Tolerance can’t be silent, something that sits undemanding in the space between otherwise alienated citizens. More proactive efforts are necessary.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a postgraduate student at Balliol College, Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Coleridge

Religious tolerance image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, tolerance, religion, culture, Islam, Habermas, sociology, multiculturalism, Lambie



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Existing comments

Most decent, educated and tolerant Australians would, I hope, wish to live in a tolerant and cosmopolitan society. One of the things many people don't realise, in a largely secular and libertarian age, is how long it took us to get here. Religion, of whatever sort, despite its apologists, has never been, in its official form, in the forefront of this movement. In fact, looking at Western Christianity historically (Catholic or Protestant) and Islam today (Sharia not differentiating between secular and sacred, and, in fact, combining the two in an enforceable legal entity) you can see this quite clearly. I always find the abrogation of religion to the Churches so that they are the major religious educators and instigators of interreligious dialogue a bad thing. I wish it were possible to study Theology at a secular university, without being religiously "committed", as you can in England. I wish we could teach the History and Culture of Religions (all religions, including Indigenous Religion) at all schools without the religious nutters of the Christian Loony Tune Right being able to sabotage things. We don't need a big "initiative" from Archbishop Fisher down. We need to educate ourselves and others at grassroots level. We also need to be proud of our liberal, secular, pluralistic democracy. We need to foster its values.

Edward Fido | 24 October 2014  

While I have always thought the noun of 'tolerate' to be 'tolerance', I do agree that we often imply that it means 'to put up with' and that we need to move past this when engaging with people of other faiths. For me, the word 'respect' implies that all of us have dignity and worth. All of us are able to embrace our religious beliefs and practices. And yes, engaging with one another, learning of each other's faith/s will enable us to find common ground and embrace common goals that help promote peace and harmony.

Lorna | 24 October 2014  

As Edward has noted below the importance of a comparative and inclusive pedagogy is vital to extend our notions of tolerance to one of mutual understanding. Unfortunately however, one of the main contexts in which religious dialogue takes takes place in Australia is a media environment dominated by a lack of diverse representation and a reliance on gross generalistions (if not outright bigotry in some cases). For an entire generation their lives are saturated in a complex discourse of normativity that includes television, social media and a digital world in which confirmation bias is an easy trap to fall into. While a comparative religious studies curriculum is vital, it may require the complementation of a critical media studies of sorts, in which students are taught how to discern reliable and valid sources of information frm the barrage of textual hegemony they are subject to.

Jeff Baker | 24 October 2014  

"Toleration must include understanding." Certainly. And the understanding must begin at home. Everyone that is brought up from birth in a particular religion tends to think: 'This is the one and only response to the call of God'. Only when everyone realises that God's Call is Constant and Universal, can there be harmony between members of all religions. What is important is not What is believed, but Why it is believed. Usually it results from mixed motivation, including a feeling of solidarity with fellow believers, but the important element is an awareness somehow of the presence of God. God is calling each individual to start from where they are, with whatever degree of spiritual development they then have. Hopefully this will develop as they respond to the call, until it becomes clear that we are all God's Children, and should be respected as such. While religious solipsism reigns, God's Will of Family Love and Harmony will prove elusive.

Robert Liddy | 24 October 2014  

Why don't we discuss the real issue with the Burka - the degrading and dehumanising way that it treats both men and women. It enslaves women under a cover that few, and certainly no men would choose to willingly wear in the open, prevents the wearer from fully enjoying the gifts of life, forms a barrier to communication. As a supposed form of modesty it degrades men by transferring all the responsibility for good and right interpersonal relationships from men to women by effectively saying that men are unable to control themselves in the sight of a woman. Jesus on the other hand stressed personal responsibility and personal true freedom. Freedom cannot exist for women who are enslaved under a burqa. This should be the real issue in dealing with the burqa.

David | 24 October 2014  

To David re your idea that we need to discuss the burqa. The article wants us respect each other's faith traditions and practices. My question is: You complain about Muslim men telling Muslim women what they MUST WEAR, how does it help to have non-Muslims telling them what they may NOT WEAR?

Lorna | 24 October 2014  

The recent publication of Morrow's The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with Christians of the World is a useful book for those interested in relations between Islam and People of the Book. The second paragraph of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians states: “To the followers of Islam I say: Carry out my command, protect and help the Nazarenes nation in this country of ours in their own land.” The significance of these words is that the Prophet Muhammad (p) recognized the Nazarenes (Christians) as a people and a nation existing with the confines of the Islamic Ummah. As the author comments: “Rather than try to homogenize the Islamic world, making it all Arabic-speaking Muslims, the Prophet recognized that there were nations and peoples within the Muslim ummah. Such a concept never materialized in the West until the end of the twentieth century when countries like Canada finally recognized that Quebec was a nation within the country of Canada….Whether they were Jews or Christians, and later Hindus and Buddhists, these communities represented a kind of United Nations under Islamic rule.” That the loons do not obey this is evidence that they do NOT obey shariah.

Bilal | 24 October 2014  

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