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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious tolerance

Is it really only religious indifference?

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bulletG.K. Chesterton:

"Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions."

bulletRichard R. Rathbone:

"I would like to speak up for the tolerance which arises from respect for the inherent worth of people -- tolerance which is not indifferent to the choices people make, the principles they live by, but accepts their right to make their own choices. This tolerance is not an easy indifference but a difficult balance between a passionate conviction in the worth of one's own cause, a compelling necessity to convert others, and the fearsome risk of being converted oneself. It is sustained not by an arrogant indifference to how life is lived but by a humble assertion of the worth and dignity of every person." 1

bulletFather Thomas Williams:
bullet"...what often passes for tolerance really isn't tolerance at all. What many deem tolerance is nothing more than indifference or skepticism." 2
bullet"True tolerance in no way implies indifference to the lot of our brothers and sisters." 2
bulletJane I Smith:

"[Archbishop of York George] "Cary stresses that toleration is not indifference, and cannot be insofar as indifference suggests lack of conviction. The greater the degree of personal (or faith) commitment, he says, the more painful will be the act of tolerance." 3

bulletOgden Nash:

"Sometimes with secret pride I sigh, To think how tolerant am I; Then wonder which is really mine: Tolerance or a rubber spine?" 4

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One of the recurrent themes found in this site's incoming Email is that the group operating this web site is only tolerant of the religious beliefs of others because we have no real religious convictions of our own.

After a few such Emails in as many months, we decided to write this essay to explore the connection between religious tolerance and religious indifference. Indifference towards religion certainly can generate tolerance. But that is only part of the story. Religious tolerance can also coexist with very strong personal beliefs.

This group consists of an Agnostic, Atheist, Christian, Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. We are only rarely able to reach a consensus on a theological concept. Each member holds their beliefs very strongly. Yet we are quite tolerant of each other.

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Religious tolerance can reflect religious indifference?

In some cases, tolerance can simply be a result of a lack of religious convictions -- i.e. a byproduct of indifference. Some people have few or no strong religious convictions of their own. They will probably be quite tolerant of other people's beliefs. They simply don't care what others think. Chesterton's quote may well be directly applicable to them.

However, Chesterton's quote is not necessarily universally true. It reflects only one of many possibilities. Chesterton should have known better, and probably did. But he might have been trying to make a point through exaggeration.

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Religious tolerance can reflect religious pluralism:

Most people tend to view religions other than their own primarily in one of three ways:

bulletExclusivism: One's own faith tradition is the only true religion.
bulletInclusivism: One's own faith tradition is the only completely true religion. Other religions are incomplete or partially developed faiths which have some truth.
bulletPluralism: All religions are legitimate, valid, and true -- when viewed from within their particular culture. All faith traditions are deserving of respect. More details

Pluralists may hold very strong personal convictions even while being "tolerant" of conflicting belief systems. They might feel that their own convictions are absolutely true and valid for themselves. But they believe that other people's belief systems are equally valid, if judged within their own cultures. So, an American Christian could hold very firm religious beliefs. She/he could also accept that Muslim belief systems are also true and valid within Islamic cultures. They could accept that Buddhist beliefs are true and valid for Buddhists. They are probably tolerant of non-Christian beliefs within all other religious groups, ranging from Agnosticism to Zoroastrian, including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, etc. They would be tolerant of other person's and groups' beliefs whether expressed within their own locality, elsewhere in their country, or in foreign lands.

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Religious tolerance can reflect dedication to religious freedom:

A person may hold very strong personal convictions and believe that other people's beliefs are either partly or totally false. Still they might respect the fundamental human right of religious freedom. Religious freedom includes:

bulletThe right to follow one's own spiritual and religious path,
bulletThe right for a person convert from one belief system to another.
bulletThe right to communicate these beliefs with the hope of converting others.
bulletThe right to assemble with others in religious services, seminars, etc.

So they will work to assure that everyone enjoys religious freedom. Ultimately, this is the only way to guarantee their own freedom of religion in the future.

They may reject the validity of other people's beliefs, even while valuing those people's humanity and elementary rights. They oppose discrimination and oppression against other faiths, and work towards a society that allows all belief systems to coexist. This is what some people, including this web site, define as religious tolerance.

They might be a Christian, and believe in the Trinity, the Resurrection, the virgin conception of Jesus and other cardinal doctrines. But if they see the government restricting the religious or other civil rights of Muslims or Native Americans who may believe in none of these, he/she will fight to preserve everyone's religious freedom. She/he values the rights of others to have different beliefs and to engage in novel religious practices even while she/he personally believes that those beliefs and practices are invalid. That position is not particularly easy for some people to take. However it is essential if religious peace is to be maintained in such countries as the U.S. and Canada where religious diversity is rapidly increasing.

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Religious tolerance can reflect religious skepticism:

Still another possibility is that religiously tolerant people may be religious skeptics. They observe the great diversity of religions in the world that are:

bulletDuotheistic -- believers in two deities,
bulletHenotheistic -- believers in a main God and many secondary deities,
bulletMonotheistic -- believers in a single deity,
bulletPolytheistic -- believers in many deities,
bulletTrinitarian -- believers in three deities in a single entity,
bulletTritheistic -- believers in three separate deities,

and conclude that all are probably limited human attempts to describe supernatural forces in the universe. Although skeptical that any are true, they also observe that religions bring a sense of purpose, comfort, stability, and security to people's lives. They might regard religious diversity as a positive force bringing social stability and cohesiveness. Thus, they might be religiously tolerant.

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References used:

  1. Richard R. Rathbone, "Tolerance and indifference," Unifier, 1999-JUN, at: http://bob.swe.uni-linz.ac.at/
  2. Father Thomas Williams, "Tolerance or a cheap substitute," Regnum Christi, at: http://www.regnumchristi.org/
  3. Jane I Smith, "Religious Tolerance," Duncan Black Macdonald Center, at: http://macdonald.hartsem.edu/ She is quoting George Carey's essay "Toleration," in Dan Cohn Sherbok, Ed., "Many Mansions. Interfaith and Religious Intolerance," Bellew Publishing, (1992), Pages 3 to 17.

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Copyright 2005 & 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-MAR-15
Latest update: 2006-SEP-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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