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Intolerance: Harbinger of a New Dark Ages for Humankind

February 1, 2011

The Enlightenment philosopher and ethicist, Denis Diderot, defined intolerance as: “a violent emotion inciting people to hate and persecute individuals with erroneous notions.” (His essay still rings with a call for tolerance and acceptance. The complete text is available online at Intolerance.) Along with his colleagues, collectively known as the philoshopes, Diderot was aware of the enormous dangers to humanity wrought by intolerance—religious, racial, ethnic, sexual or otherwise. His insights are as valid today as when they were published in 1765.

Religious tolerance seems as wanting in the 21st Century as it was in the 18th Century.  Whilst the intolerance amongst Christian peoples is, for the most part, no longer the burning issue in the contemporary world, religious intolerance and its attendant violence are remain alive and well. A quick review of recent international conflicts provides ample evidence for my claim:

  • Three decades of “the troubles” between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland
  • Genocide of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu in Rwanda
  • Muslim, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Religious civil war among Muslims, Christians and Animists in the Sudan
  • Sri Lanka, East Timor, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast, Tibet, Uganda, the Middle East, and the list goes on and on

Diderot’s definition of intolerance has lost none of its applicability.  The frightening increase in the United States to ‘hate and persecute individuals with erroneous notions”— political liberals vs. conservatives, pro-choice vs. pro-life advocates, freedom to marry vs. family values supporters, to name but a few—would be equally abhorrent to Diderot and the philosophes.

We are inheritors of The Age of Reason, but are we reasonable? We are children of The Enlightenment, but are we enlightened? Are we slipping incrementally back into a Dark Ages of absolutism, intolerance and oppression? What would Diderot do with access to a global, online “Enlightenpedia?” What will we do?

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