The best religion is the most tolerant.

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During March 1770, the German Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, a central figure in the German enlightenment, penned a letter to the Swiss physician and mystic Jacob Hermann Obereit. Within this letter, Mendelssohn detailed the various benefits that he believed were offered by the Jewish faith. In order to emphasise these benefits, Mendelssohn distinguished Judaism from Christianity particularly, as well as from other faiths generally.

The chief benefit or advantage that Mendelssohn suggests Judaism offers is its rationality, which furthermore for Mendelssohn explains its pluralistic and tolerant ethos. Christianity, according to Mendelssohn, subscribes to a series of dogmas which prevent it from truly accommodating the modern, rational investigations, which operate outside its scriptures. Such investigations might include scientific undertakings, and what Mendelssohn refers to as those of “natural religion.” Conversely to Christianity, Judaism is portrayed by Mendelssohn as being receptive to external presentations of rationality, thereby exemplifying its own rationality.

In summing up this congruence with other structures of rationality, Judaism is described by Mendelssohn as tolerant. This tolerance, or inclusiveness, that Judaism embodies, demands for Mendelssohn that it is the best religion for all humanity. As documented in Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval knowledge and eighteenth-century enlightened jewish discourse (1975), tolerance is that which is said to distinguish the Jewish faith from other faiths accordingly:

The best religion for ourselves and our descendants…would be that religion which is the most tolerant, permitting us to embrace all mankind with equal love (Moses Mendelssohn, 1975 (1770)).

What is being quantified?

The notion of religious tolerance pervades political discourses in our current era. Such concerns could be interpreted to be, at least in part, a response to the increased prevalence of multicultural cohabitation (especially in urban centres). Whilst culture and religion are not straightforwardly mutually reducible concepts, it is apparent that with multicultural populations comes the sharing of public space by people of different religious faiths. One’s tolerance of the beliefs of others which differ incompatibly with one’s own, duly becomes necessary in maintaining social order and cohesion.

Within the consequent demand that tolerance should be exercised by the people of one faith or belief structure towards the people of another, debates have proliferated regarding which religions and cultures might be the most tolerant. Whilst the conclusions of these discussions vary, the claim that tolerance is a positive attribute for a religion to incorporate is seemingly now nearly ubiquitous.

For Mendelssohn, the identification of the best religion is not important simply in order to help navigate the fortunes of the present population. Rather, Mendelssohn is also considering what will be passed on to subsequent generations. The reason that Mendelssohn wishes to identify what is not only the best religion, but moreover the religion which is the most tolerant, is to engender a greater sense of collectivity amongst humans. This is the “embrace” between humans that we have seen him describes above.

Mendelssohn’s motivations are seemingly therefore not restricted to manufacturing a hierarchy of religions that will facilitate a critique of those religions which are deemed to not be the best. Rather, what we witness in his commentary is a concern to contribute to the prosperity of humanity. This prosperity, as he suggests in the above citation, will be more likely to be guaranteed if we examine which faith or belief structure will engender a greater collegiality amongst humans. The novel importance of such a faith should then be impressed upon all humans.

Such collegiality is, in Mendelssohn’s estimation above, observable in the “equal love” that is elicited between humans where tolerance is abundant. As notions of equality are introduced here, so, it must be said, are suppositions regarding quantification. If the love that individuals give, or receive, under the embrace of Judaism, is to be distributed in equal amounts, there must be a way of measuring or quantifying such amounts. It is only in this manner that the equality of such love could be proclaimed.

Mendelssohn does not explain how one might quantify such love. This presents a problem in evaluating his claim regarding Judaism. Rather than it being our focus, though, the notion of equal love is significant in the way that it presents as a symptom of a fundamental condition of quantification that drives Mendelssohn’s appreciation of Judaism. It is from this condition that the very possibility of equal love emerges for Mendelssohn.

In this regard Mendelssohn states that equal love is the effect of a religion that is the “most tolerant.” With the definition of a religion as being the most tolerant, comes the interpretation that it is more tolerant than any other religion. The implication of there being more, and therefore correlatively also less, tolerance in any particular religion, means that for Mendelssohn the underlying, quantifiable parameter, is tolerance. The suggestion is that Judaism has a greater amount of tolerance.

The concern regarding this quantification is that Mendelssohn has not clarified how he is measuring the tolerance that he identifies in, and compares between, religions. If tolerance is quantifiable, there must be measurable units of tolerance which comprise its quantification. These units, in being counted, aggregated, and compared, condition there being a quantity of the thing or the experience in question. Measurable units of quantified tolerance are not, however, identified by Mendelssohn.

How, then, might we consider whether Mendelssohn could possibly identify measurable units of tolerance?

Can tolerance be quantified?

Henri Bergson posits that the tendency to quantify things or experiences derives from social influence. This is because such quantification occurs through the measures and representations that have been installed by the institutions, perspectives, and languages, of human, collective existence. The sciences, and the social sciences, exemplify this quantifying tendency, in symbolising the world via calculable, comparable data. The integration of the sciences and the social sciences could therefore be helpful in determinations of Mendelssohn’s possible identification of measurable units of tolerance.

What must also be taken into consideration, though, is Bergson’s complementary concern that from this tendency are said to emerge quantifiable constructions of features of the world and our experience of it that might not really be quantifiable. This speaks to the tension between (i) what is perceived to be the socially constructed quantification of a thing/experience, versus (ii) what is presumed to be the real-natural state of a thing/experience.

In terms of tolerance, we can review four positions which operate from within this tension. This will allow us to appraise how Mendelssohn might identify the units which comprise a tolerance that they assume is quantifiable, and the responses that they would face. Click on each position below to expand/contract its supporting argument:

1. Extreme social constructionist. The social construction of tolerance misrepresents what is real-natural about tolerance.

i. Mendelssohn engages studies of tolerance to evidence the measurable units of tolerance.

ii. [Science study “y”] studies the physiological changes that are experienced when tolerance is reported to be experienced…or…[Social science study “z”] studies the behaviours that a society has defined as indicating tolerance.

iii. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of these physiological changes or behavioural patterns that comprise tolerance?

If no…

iv. Mendelssohn does not identify measurable units of quantified tolerance.

If yes…

v. Mendelssohn identifies measurable units of quantified tolerance.

The extreme social constructionist responds…

vi. The sciences are socially constructed institutions/perspectives.

vii. Socially constructed perspectives misrepresent what is real-natural about the world.

viii. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a socially constructed perspective of tolerance.

ix. Even if measurable units of quantified tolerance are posited by [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”], such units misrepresent what is real-natural about tolerance.

x. The tolerance that Mendelssohn quantifies misrepresents what is real-natural about tolerance.

This position is that scientific experimentation, techniques, perspectives, and theories, could have been developed in myriad ways, depending on relevant social influences. Consequently, the resulting scientific results must be dependent upon how society has shaped them. This contingently social factor in the production of scientific truths is contrasted from what are posited to be the necessarily timeless truths or realities of the world. By looking at tolerance through a contingently socially constructed lens (the sciences are interpreted to be such lenses), the extreme social constructionist’s position demands that the measurable units that might be posited scientifically regarding tolerance, never represent tolerance as it really, naturally is.

2. Exclusive social constructionist. The social construction of tolerance is all that tolerance ever is.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

The exclusive social constructionist responds…

vii. Tolerance is also a social construction.

viii. If tolerance is a social construction, and the sciences are social constructions, the scientific study of tolerance measures the only reality of tolerance.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of this tolerance?

If no…

x. Mendelssohn does not identify measurable units of quantified tolerance.

If yes…

xi. Mendelssohn identifies measurable units of quantified tolerance.

This position is that tolerance is a concept that societies have created. Societies define the criteria for what comprises tolerance accordingly. These criteria, either physiological, behavioural, or both, are the signs of tolerance. If a society conceives of tolerance by such signs, and tolerance is considered to be nothing but its social conceptualisation, then the measurement of these signs is duly interpreted to measure tolerance’s reality.

This differs from the extreme social constructionist position that is presented above in one key regard; the exclusive social constructionist avoids the supposition of a separate natural reality of tolerance that the social construction of it must explain, access, or discover. Rather, for the exclusive social constructionist, tolerance is a concept that is believed to only ever have a social reality.

This latter point presents the greatest issue with this position. Will it be adequate for Mendelssohn (or indeed for anyone), to state that tolerance is only a contingent, social construction, with no other reality? If Mendelssohn wishes to argue that tolerance has a reality beyond how a society has come to conceive of it, Mendelssohn then needs to tackle the contestation in position 1 from the extreme social constructionist.

3. Real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of tolerance is a part of what is real-natural about tolerance.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of tolerance.

If no…

x. Mendelssohn does not identify measurable units of quantified tolerance.

If yes…

xi. Mendelssohn identifies measurable units of quantified tolerance.

This position is that what is real-natural expresses itself in social ways. Society, which is a part of what is real-natural, declares through its languages and customs (including its scientific studies), that this feature (tolerance) of what is real-natural is quantifiable. The social construction of tolerance in quantifiable terms is a part of what is real-natural about tolerance. This interpretation resolves the problem of a real-natural world that social perspectives only misrepresent, as found in the extreme social constructionist’s position.

If what is social is real-natural, and vice-versa, then not only is the social construction of tolerance a part of what is real-natural, but also, what is real-natural about tolerance is a social reality. If the real-natural, as society, is said to conceive of tolerance quantifiably, and to identify tolerance’s measurable units, then what is real-natural about tolerance is that it is quantified via measurable units.

Not incidentally, this position intersects most coherently with what might be referred to as the “realist” position. The realist would posit that our scientific impressions of what is real-natural do accurately represent what is real-natural. This point must be qualified with the observation that the realist might baulk at the definition of scientific production merely as a contingent, socially constructed, institution. Given that Counting sheep is occupied with Bergsonian-inspired concerns regarding the tendency to socially (mis)construct all features of the world quantifiably, this realist position, in avoiding themes of social constructionism, is not included in these considerations.

4. Incorrect real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of tolerance is a part of what is real-natural about tolerance, but is incorrect about tolerance.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of tolerance.

If no…

x. Mendelssohn does not identify measurable units of quantified tolerance.

If yes…

xi. Mendelssohn identifies measurable units of quantified tolerance.

The incorrect real-natural social constructionist responds…

v. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural and is incorrect that tolerance is quantifiable.

vi. Mendelssohn does not identify measurable units of quantified tolerance.

Alternatively, the interpretation might be that what is real-natural, socially posits that tolerance is quantifiable when actually it is not. The curiosity in this position is that what is real-natural is presenting as a social form of the real-natural, which in perceiving a feature (tolerance) of what is real-natural, is incorrect about that feature (tolerance) of what is real-natural.

What is forwarded in this position is not that incorrect socially constructed quantifications of tolerance represent a mutual exclusion between (i) the social, scientific, perspective/construction of tolerance, and (ii) what is real-natural about tolerance. Instead, as per position 3, both the social construction of tolerance, and what is real-natural about tolerance, are simultaneously social and real-natural. Whilst units of measurement do not exist for this feature (tolerance) of what is real-natural, what is socially constructed is not said to be excluded from what is real-natural when conceiving of tolerance incorrectly (quantifiably).

Rather, what is being forwarded in this position is that what is real-natural comprises all possible social perspectives/constructions of this feature (tolerance) of what is real-natural. Every social perspective/construction, according to this position, comes from nowhere but from what is real-natural, after all. One of these perspectives/constructions is that which posits that tolerance is quantifiable, even when there are actually no measurable units comprising such quantification, and therefore no quantification of tolerance whatsoever.

A reason that such units of measurement do not exist, and that the quantification of tolerance is incorrect, could relate to the way in which tolerance manifests. Mendelssohn perceives a difference in the degree or size of the tolerance that manifests. However, for this position it could be stated that tolerance emerges environmentally, structurally, and circumstantially. With each set of different circumstances comes a different kind, rather than a different magnitude, of tolerance.

If the kind of tolerance that manifests is contingent upon the environment in which it manifests, there can be no standardised units across differently manifested tolerances. This problematises the possible quantification of, and comparison between, an individual’s manifestations of tolerance over time. Similarly it contests the possibility of comparing the tolerance between different individuals. Each instantiation of tolerance is instead qualitatively incomparable, if it is deemed to manifest circumstantially.

If Mendelssohn was to be receptive to this position, his claim that Judaism, and by association, the people of the Jewish faith, were the most tolerant of all religions, would need to be reevaluated. Without the measurable units of tolerance that are required to comprise a quantifiably comparable tolerance, the position to be held would instead simply perhaps be that Judaism was a tolerant faith. This would not entirely compromise the legitimacy of its installation as the “best religion” for humanity, however such a claim would need to be qualified via a different parameter/feature than the supposed comparability of respective religions.



Categories: Religion

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