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Religious tolerance

Compared to other types of tolerance.
What it involves and doesn't involve.

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The English language has many words to describe various forms of bigotry, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. But it has no single word to refer to forms of bigotry based on a person's religion or faith group.

We feel that the English language needs a new word. We suggest:

"Religism", meaning "the expression of fear towards, hatred towards, or discrimination against, persons of a specific religion affiliation, usually a minority faith."

The word is gradually catching on. Until English speaking people reach a consensus on a new term we can always use "religious intolerance."

More information on "Religism."

In this web site:
The meaning of the term "religious tolerance" does NOT involve:

bullet Believing that all religions are the same. In fact, it is obvious that religions differ greatly in their beliefs and practices. So do divisions (denominations, traditions, sects, groups, etc) within a given religion.
bullet Believing that all sets of religious beliefs are equally true. Again, religious differ greatly. Many people consider their own beliefs to be true and others to be at least partly false.
bullet Believing that all faiths are equally beneficial and equally harmless to society. In our opinion, some religions are less beneficial to society society because they teach racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religism, etc.
bullet Believing that all religious groups are equally beneficial and equally harmless to their followers. Some religions expect their members to follow practices that are hazardous to their mental and physical health, and may shorten their lives. Examples are avoid obtaining medical assistance, spouse beating, child beating, rejecting children because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, etc.
bullet Refraining from criticizing religious practices of others. Some religions teach their followers to actively discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. Such practices, in our opinion, should be open to analysis and criticism.
bullet Refraining from talking about your beliefs to others. One should feel free to discuss beliefs of all types. Of course, if the other person indicates that they don't want to talk about religion, then continued discussion could  degenerate into harassment.
bullet Ignoring your own religious ideas. It is not necessary, nor is it desirable, for an individual to suppress their own religious beliefs, in order to accept the right of another person to follow a different religion. It is not necessary to accept others' beliefs as valid. A tolerant person merely extends to all people fundamental human rights: freedom of religious belief, freedom of religious speech, freedom of religious assembly, freedom of religious practice, and freedom to proselyte.

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In this web site:
The term "religious tolerance" can apply to governments, religions, faith groups, individuals, etc. It can involve:

bulletAllowing others to freely hold different religious beliefs. This includes granting everyone freedom of personal belief, and freedom of religious speech
bulletAllowing others to freely change their religion, or denomination or beliefs.
bulletAllowing children to hold religious beliefs that are different from their parents to a degree that depends on their age.
bulletAllowing others to practice their religious faith, within reasonable limits. This includes granting everyone freedom of assembly and freedom to practice what their religion requires of them.
bullet Refusing to discriminate in employment, accommodation etc. on religious grounds.
bullet Accepting that followers of various religions consider their own beliefs to be true.
bullet Making a reasonable effort to accommodate other people's religious needs. For example:
bullet Allowing an employee to work overtime in order to take off a religious festival or holy day that is significant to them.
bullet Scheduling meetings so that they do not conflict with common holy days.

You, of course, may wish to define religious tolerance differently. In the field of religion, there is often a lack of consensus on the definitions of terms. We have seen as many as 18 conflicting definitions for the term "witch" for example.

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Situations in which religious tolerance can generate conflict:

One of the main religious conflicts in the U.S. at this time is a byproduct of the increasing number of states that allow both opposite-sex and same-sex couples to marry. A typical scenario has involved a same-sex engaged couple going to a baker asking to purchase a wedding cake. There are conflicting factors here:

  1. It is very likely that the owner of the bakery has a secular or religions belief that includes following the Golden Rule: to do onto others as she/he would wish to be treated by others. Following this rule would require the baker to accommodate the couple's request and bake the cake.

  2. The fourth bullet point above involves the baker's freedom to follow what her or his religion teaches. If the baker is a religious conservative, her or his religion may teach that same-sex marriage is profoundly immoral. The baker may wish to act on their religious belief and reject the couple's request.

  3. Many states have passed human rights legislation that requires public accommodations to refrain from discriminating among their customers. (Public accommodations are individuals or companies that provide goods and/or services to the general public.) These laws typically prohibit discrimination based on race, skin color, nationality, religion, gender, etc. Some of these states' laws also include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups. If a baker or other public accommodation decided to discriminate against a customer, they could be charged with violating the human rights legislation. That could lead to a trial before a human rights tribunal, and a hefty fine. We have noted about a dozen such violations by bakers, wedding photographers, and owners of wedding venues.

Some states have attempted to pass what are often called the "freedom to discriminate" laws which allow public accommodations to follow their genuine religious beliefs and freely discriminate among their customers. More information.

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Various definitions and discussions of "Religious Tolerance"

bullet The Concise Oxford Dictionary's (1960) defines religious toleration as, in part:
bullet "recognition of right of private judgment in religious matters,
bullet liberty to uphold one's religious opinions and forms of worship, or
bullet to enjoy all social privileges etc. without regard to religious differences."

This definition views religious toleration as a human rights issue. A person is tolerant when they respect the right of others to hold different religious beliefs. A person might believe that their own faith is the only valid religion - the one fully approved of and created by a particular God. They might consider all other religions as profoundly evil. Yet, they can still be religious tolerant towards others if they recognize that all individuals and religious groups have the basic human right of religious liberty -- to freely follow their faith's beliefs and practices.

bullet Apologetics Index: This is an Evangelical Christian counter-cult web site. Webmaster Anton Hein defines religious tolerance as:

"Acknowledging and supporting that individuals have the right and freedom to their own beliefs and related legitimate practices, without necessarily validating those beliefs or practices." 1


The Free Dictionary discusses religious tolerance:

"Historically, religious tolerance has been the most important aspect of tolerance, since religions tend to be intolerant of each other, and religious intolerance has led to innumerable wars, purges and other atrocities. The philosophers and writers of the enlightenment -- especially Voltaire and Lessing -- promoted religious tolerance, and their influence is strongly felt in Western society. Nonetheless, the lack of religious tolerance causes problems in many regions of the world today."

We are religiously tolerant when we give others the freedom to do things and believe things, even though we feel that they are wrong! To some people, this is not easy. Some feel that their religion is the only true faith, and that to oppress followers of another religion is to promote God's will in society. We support their right to believe this. But we oppose them if they want to take action to oppress others. That path leads in the direction of rape, murder and crucifixions by ISIS, the Islamic State, the killing fields of Bosnia- Herzegovina, the massacres in East Timor, the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and numerous other horrors.

The difference between religious tolerance and religious validation:

People in religiously diverse cultures like the United States and Canada have different and conflicting religious beliefs and practices. In order to make society work, we do not all have to agree on religious matters; we do not have to accept all religious beliefs as valid. But, in the opinion of the OCRT -- the group that publishes this web site -- it is important that we respect the rights of other individuals and groups to hold different beliefs. Unless we respect the right of others to follow their own faith group, there is no reason why we should expect them to reciprocate by respecting our freedom to be different from them. The Supreme Court of Canada expressed this well in a 2002 ruling concerning the access to books by students in the Surrey School District in Surrey, British Columbia:

"...the demand for tolerance cannot be interpreted as the demand to approve of another person's beliefs or practices. When we ask people to be tolerant of others, we do not ask them to abandon their personal convictions. We merely ask them to respect the rights, values and ways of being of those who may not share those convictions. The belief that others are entitled to equal respect depends, not on the belief that their values are right, but on the belief that they have a claim to equal respect regardless of whether they are right. Learning about tolerance is therefore learning that other people's entitlement to respect from us does not depend on whether their views accord with our own. Children cannot learn this unless they are exposed to views that differ from those they are taught at home." 2

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Anton Hein, "Religious Freedom, Tolerance, and Intolerance," at:
  2. Supreme Court of Canada, "Chamberlain v. Surrey School District," No. 36 [2002] 4 S.C.R. 710, Paragraph 66. Online at:

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Copyright 1998 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2020-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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