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Why religions sometimes promote hatred, animosity and intolerance

An imbalance in believers' obligations.
How religions can reduce intolerance.

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bullet Reinhold Niebuhr: "The chief source of man's inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men."

Religious obligations on believers:

Most religions place four types of obligations on their followers: In the typical order of importance, they are often:

  1. Towards deity or deities: In Christianity, for example, many faith groups teach that a believer's obligations to God outweigh all other responsibilities. Depending upon the exact grouping used, about the first half half of the Ten Commandments deal with one's relationship to God. In Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus is recorded as saying that "the first and great commandment" is to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." Usually, no other obligation exceeds this one in importance.
  2. Towards fellow believers: Next in importance to one's obligations to God comes the obligation to one's fellow believers. Some examples from the Bible include:
    bullet Psalms 41:1 says: "Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble."
    bullet Hebrew slaves were released from bondage after six or seven years. Non-Hebrews slaves were kept in servitude forever.
    bullet Leviticus 19:18 says "...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
    bullet Galatians 3:28 says "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." This implies that there are to be no inequality of treatment among Christians; all are to be considered equal.
  3. Towards other humans which are not fellow believers: The Bible delivers a mixed message on this topic. For example, some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) record mass murders and crimes against non-Hebrews. Some examples:
    bullet The Book of Joshua has many descriptions of genocides against the residents of Canaan, where helpless, unarmed aged people, newborns, infants, children and youth were slaughtered without mercy.
    bullet 2 Samuel 12:26-30 describes the torture of non-Hebrew captives.
    bullet In Matthew 15:22-28 and Mark 7:25-30, Jesus is described as meeting a non-Jewish woman, (either a Canaanite or Greek/Syrophenecian depending on the gospel) who sought help for her sick daughter. Jesus cruelly replied to the desperate mother that it was not right for him "to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." i.e. it is not appropriate to take the Gospel, which was intended only for the Jews, and offer it to Gentiles as well -- here described as sub-humans, as dogs.

    However, there were other passages which suggest that non-Hebrews be treated with respect. Most notable is:

    bullet In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer quoted the Mosaic law, saying that one is to love God and one's neighbor as oneself. He asked Jesus "...who is my neighbor?" Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan -- a non-Hebrew who helped an injured Hebrew. (Samaritans were despised by Jews at the time). The message of the parable s that every member of the human race is one's neighbor.
  4. Towards the earth's resources. This is quite muted in most religions, although it is now rapidly gaining importance, as the environment degrades.
    bullet Genesis 1:28 has God commanding humans to: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." This has been interpreted in the past as giving humans the right to exploit the earth's resources without limit. More recently, it has been taken to mean that humanity should responsibly conserve the earth's resources.
    bullet Exodus 23:10-11 instructs the Hebrews to let their land lay fallow periodically, so that it can regenerate: "...six years thou shalt sow thy land...But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still..."

These responsibilities can be shown symbolically in the following image:

The length of each line represents the typical importance given towards each responsibility in many theistic religions.

We don't normally express our beliefs in our essays. However, we will make an exception in this case because it seems to us to be so fundamental and important.

bullet We do not promote the elimination of -- or fundamental change to the nature of -- any of these responsibilities.
bullet We do make the radical suggestion that a reduction in religiously-motivated violence and general quality of life would result if people's commitment to the four responsibilities were more evenly balanced, specifically by:

bullet Everyone treating the value and human rights of non-believers at the same level as one's fellow believers. Here, "non-believers" include members of other faith groups within the same religion, members of other religions, members of no religion, and Agnostics, Atheists, Free Thinkers, Humanists, etc.
bullet Everyone exhibiting greater concern for the environment.

Why organized religions offer the greatest hope for religious peace:

It is hopeless to expect religious leaders to modify their fundamental teachings in order to eliminate religiously-motivated conflict, mass murder and genocide. People have been murdered because of their religion for millennia.

Few religions have shown themselves willing to take steps to eliminate religious hatred from among their own followers. There are encouraging exceptions. Two examples are:

bullet The Southern Baptist Convention apologized to African-Americans for their denomination's past and present racist attitudes.
bullet Various Christian denominations in Canada apologized for the sexual abuse, physical abuse, and cultural genocide within their Native Canadian residential schools.

Pressure to reform will probably have to come from the believing public, rather than from their religious leaders.

What is needed is not so much a change in religious teachings. Rather, it is a different emphasis within the present teachings. In my opinion, religions need to stress appropriate behavior towards persons of different faiths, and to those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. In graphical terms, this means to equalize the importance of the four responsibilities shown in the above image.

Our feeling is that religions need to teach that:

bullet Followers of all religions, and of none, are fellow humans of equal worth.
bullet The value of the life of a fellow believer is equal to the value of every non-believer.
bullet All people should enjoy fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion. This involves the freedom to choose one's religion, to change one's faith and -- within reasonable limits -- to promote their belief system among other people.
bullet One's responsibility towards one's neighbor is of great importance, about the same importance as one's responsibility towards deity/deities.
bullet One's "neighbor" includes fellow believers, followers of other religions, and followers of no religion -- i.e. every human on earth.

Almost all religions have an Ethic of Reciprocity. This is a statement that one should treat others as they would like to be treated; one should not harm others. Consider Christianity as one example:

bullet It's Ethic of Reciprocity is called the Golden Rule.
bullet One expression of this ethic appears in Matthew 7:12: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
bullet If this rule were rigorously applied, then there would be little or no religiously-inspired violence. Unfortunately, followers of each religion often apply the Ethic only to fellow believers, and not to persons of other faiths, and to persons of no faith.
bullet In Luke 10:27, Jesus is recorded as saying: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." 1
bullet In Luke 10:33-37, Jesus is recorded as delivering the parable of the Good Samaritan. In essence, it teaches that every other human being on earth is one's neighbor and has intrinsic worth -- whether or not that other person is of the same nationality, race, or religion, etc. We might try to extend this to persons of all sexes and sexual orientations.

Our opinion is that all religious groups need to give greater emphasis to their Ethic of Reciprocity, and emphasize that it applies to everyone in the world: both to fellow believers, to persons of other religions, and to persons of no religion. They need to teach that is is quite possible to promote the right of a person to follow a different religion, even while rejecting the accuracy of another person's faith or lack of faith. That is, religious tolerance is quite independent of accepting the truth of other religions.

Some positive actions that religious leaders and followers can take to reduce religious hatred include:

bullet Organize community inter-faith groups throughout their area of influence.
bullet Pressure governments to eliminate religious discrimination in employment, accommodation, etc.
bullet Acknowledge that all religions, including their own, have performed evil deeds in the past.
bullet Teach that other religions have beliefs and practices that we can usefully learn from.
bullet Promote human rights generally, for persons of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, etc.
bullet Modify their educational programs to teach comparative religion so that their members will have a basic understanding of other faith groups.
bullet Remove sexist, racist and homophobic beliefs and practices from their own teachings and practices.

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References used:

  1. Quotations are from the King James Version. See also other passages at Mark 12:28-33, Matthew 5:43-47, Matthew 19:16-19, Matthew 22:35-40, Romans 13:9,

Copyright 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-23
Latest update: 2009-NOV-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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