If neutralism is impossible, then bias is inevitable. So what am I saying? Should laws and rules and policies embrace bias? Is bias good?
Bias is in the nature of a rule, but some biases are appropriate and others are not. The rules of baseball are biased toward skill, and that is appropriate because skillful competition is what baseball is about; the rules of education are biased toward knowledge, and that is appropriate because the extension of knowledge is what education is about.
Mind you, rules can and should be fair. For example, we shouldn’t discriminate against a skillful player because of the color of his skin. But that is not the same as having no bias; the rules give the advantage to the exercise of skill.
What about the kinds of rules called laws? Surely they should have no bias, shouldn't they? Certainly not. They should be biased toward the common good, along with its corollaries, justice and the greatest possible protection of conscience. Lady Justice wears a blindfold not because she has no criterion of judgment, but because she is blind toward all other criteria. She doesn’t use her eyes because she is using her scales.
If we admit that rules cannot be neutral, then aren't we authorizing the tyranny of some religion, or coalition of religions, over others? We are certainly conceding the inevitability of religious influence, even of unequal religious influence, on public policy. But shall we protest this inequality? Why? What sane person would suppose that, say, Satanism, Voodoo, or Thuggee should have the same influence, say, as the classical theist religions, such as Christianity or Judaism?
But whether the influence of a religion will be irenic or tyrannical depends on the nature of that religion -- on just what supreme and unconditional commitment it proposes, and how it understands it. Take the early Christian writers, who gave distinctively Christian reasons for respecting non-Christian conscience.
"God does not want unwilling worship, nor does He require a forced repentance," says St. Hilary of Poitiers; "human salvation is procured not by force but by persuasion and gentleness," says Isidore; "no one is detained by us against his will," says Lactantius, "for he is unserviceable to God who is destitute of faith and devotedness .... nothing is so much a matter of free-will as [the virtue of true] religion, in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, [the virtue of true] religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist."
This is what I call the classical theory of toleration. It grounds toleration – in this case, religious toleration, but the same is true in every sphere of toleration – not on an incoherency, but on a paradox. Unlike liberalism, which tries to ground toleration on an impossible suspension of judgment about the good and the true, it grounds it precisely in making judgments about the good and the true.
For example, God really does desire only willing worship. Faith really cannot be coerced. True religion really is destroyed by compulsion. For just these reasons, some bad and false things must be tolerated. We may pass laws against some things that people do because of their beliefs – that is another sphere in which one must decide what to tolerate and what not to -- but we will not pass laws against the holding of certain beliefs.
For those of us who have been brought up to believe in the liberal rather than in the classical theory of toleration, in the incoherency rather than in the paradox, this is terrifying. We thought toleration was something that got us off the hook of making judgments. Now it seems that it hangs us on it.
But I think that is simply how it is. We have to get over our unreasonable fear of sound judgment. One must know something, at least, about the good and true in order to know whether to tolerate any bad and false things at all. Does God really desire only willing worship? Is faith really impossible to coerce? Is true religion really destroyed by compulsion?
One must know still more about the good and the true in order to know which bad and false things to tolerate, and which not to. The more detailed the decisions become, the more one must know.
Toleration turns out to depend not on suspension of judgment, but on judgment. The ancients were right after all. We must become wise.