Basic Information on Religious Tolerance
and Religious Conflict: Past events
Someday, we plan to expand the following essay into a whole series of essays,
each covering a specific time interval or culture. But a brief overview of the
topic is all we can present at this time.
Prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire, religious intolerance was the norm.
Individual tribes had their own Gods and/or Goddesses who belonged to them and ruled over
their area. A person joining the tribe would be expected to abandon their old beliefs and
accept the tribe's deities. There are many accounts of vicious genocide by the
ancient Israelites against neighboring tribes that were at least partly based on
During much of the Roman Empire, the civil government enforced religious
tolerance. Within the empire, many religions flourished: the Greek and Roman Pagan religions,
mystery religions, Christianity, Judaism, Mithraism, etc. It required only that its citizens perform certain routine civic
duties. Unfortunately for the Christians, everyone was required to make nominal
sacrifices to the Roman Gods, and sometimes to recognize the Emperor as divine.
Many of the early Christians refused to meet these requirements, and so were
seriously oppressed under some emperors.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the
late 4th century, religious toleration ended:
||Pagan temples were
confiscated and their priests and priestesses either exiled or murdered.
||Jews were horribly persecuted. Initially, this was because all persons of the Jewish faith (past, present and future) were regarded as equally responsible for the execution of Jesus Christ. In reality, the
crucifixion appears to have been a routine execution by the Roman occupying forces. Yet
the descendants of 1st Century CE Romans, the Italians, were never blamed for Jesus'
unjust execution. Only the Jews were.
During the Middle Ages, Jews became a handy
scapegoat during the plagues. Often at the instigation of the Christian Church, Jewish
communities were invaded and many individuals massacred. The logical end-result of
centuries of anti-Judaism occurred during the Holocaust when the Nazis exterminated
about 6 million Jews.
Islam has a history of greater tolerance than Christianity. Jews were sometimes
subjected to additional taxes, but they were otherwise left in peace.
||Break-away Christian movements were viciously exterminated by the Christian Church.
These included the Cathars, Knights Templar and Huguenots.
||The Crusades resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of
Christians, Jews and Muslims.
||Followers of the Old Religion were ruthlessly hunted down by the Church. These
were followers of the religion of the ancient Celtic people (which Christianity had
replaced). A few hundred thousand Witches, other heretics, and innocent people were
arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake over the period circa 1450 to 1792
CE in Europe.
After the Reformation, the Protestants preferred to hang Witches.
||After the Reformation, many Catholic and Protestant countries slaughtering
each other's inhabitants in endless wars. Daniel Taylor wrote in Christianity
Today that some believe that religious tolerance: "...was invented in
response to the spectacle of Christians slaughtering each other in the name of
Christ. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe
led to the increasingly widespread conviction that there had to be a better way
to decide these things than with the sword. The answer was tolerance,
essentially a decision not to decide--that is, to decide on the private level
but not on the public." 4
||The European conquest of North America resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of
Natives by conquest or disease, and the forced religious conversion of many of the
survivors. It is only in recent years that a few Christian churches have begun to realize
the enormity of the crimes perpetrated against Natives, and have made formal apologies.
It is also only recently that Native spirituality has become widely appreciated and valued
The framers of the U.S. Constitution feared of the power of religious hatred
and created a wall of separation between church and state.
The state would be secular; the public would be free to choose any religious
faith, or none. The system has worked reasonably well in the U.S. ever since.
Except for oppression (and occasional killing or attempted murder) of Jews, Mormons
and Roman Catholics in the 19th century, and of Jehovah's Witnesses,
Jews, and Neopagans in the 20th century, North America has enjoyed relative
religious peace. Other parts of the world, from Northern Ireland to the
Philippines, from Kosovo to the Sudan continue to experience religiously-based
civil strife and warfare.
Religious tolerance has only been rarely present in the west. The few past examples of tolerance (e.g. the Roman Empire and the United
States) have been seriously flawed.
An external link:
The Adventist University of Health Sciences has an essay titled: "Respecting Religious Belief in the Hospital," at: http://online.adu.edu/
Related essays that might interest you:
Copyright © 1999 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally published: 1999-SEP-9
Latest update: 2017-JUN-23
Author: B.A. Robinson