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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Laura E. Shulman

Religious Intolerance:
Causes and Solutions. Some observations

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Why do people of different religions seem to hate each other so much? Perhaps because they are simply ignorant of how much they really have in common! I generally find that intolerance is a result of ignorance, and such ignorance and intolerance is often passed down to the next generation when people in positions of authority (parents, teachers, etc.) remain ignorant. Ignorance often leads to fear, fear can lead to hate, and hate can lead to violence. Knowledge is the key to avoid going down this path.

Conflict between people of different religions may begin with simple ignorance. People who do not really know anything about other religions just assume the others are very different. They are not aware that many religions share the same basic ideas. Thus these people assume that the other religions must be wrong. Some people have the idea that:

"If my religion is right then you and yours must be wrong (and we can't let people go around thinking they know the truth when they don't.")

Of course, they likely think the same thing of us, so who is to say who is right and who is wrong?. This attitude assumes that different religions are entirely different, mutually exclusive, and thus in conflict. Personally, I think there is some truth in all religions (but also things that are not true) and an overlap of common ideas. It behooves us to learn about such Truth wherever it might be found!

Selective knowledge is another problem. A really strong intolerance will often interfere with overcoming our ignorance because we may actually close our minds to new information that can change our perspective. We tend to see only what we want to see and then we can even take our knowledge and misrepresent it in speaking to others. These are the really dangerous types because they sound like an authority -- they may speak with the authority of one who knows more than we do. But they remain biased and present the facts in a biased way.

Add passion for one's faith to the ignorance of other faiths and you have a recipe for speaking out in favor of one’s own religion and against those others that one feels are wrong and actually leading people astray from the Truth. Naturally, the people in those other religions are just as passionate about their religion and that makes for some serious arguing and even fighting (conflict).

People of passionate faith who do know something about other religions, may focus more on the differences than the similarities. For some, the differences tend to stand out like a "sore thumb" and can often overshadow the similarities. I personally believe the differences are in the details and you know what they say about the details: "the devil is in the details." Now this issue is, I believe, far worse than simple ignorance. Simple ignorance is about just not knowing better. Selective knowledge (or selective ignorance) is an intentional ignorance, intentionally overlooking or ignoring the similarities. This then leads to (and is caused by) serious and unfair bias. These apparently knowledgeable but biased people can be very dangerous because they will often mislead the more ignorant (unknowing) people by speaking with an air of authority and knowledge but twisting that knowledge to suit their cause (their own religion). The unknowing people will then think they have learned something but they had bad teachers who have only created more biased people like them. We find this sort of perverted "teaching" going on at many websites that pretend to provide information about different religions but really have a more or less hidden agenda to simply paint the other religions in a bad light.

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Another reason for religious conflict is when there are some basic beliefs (or practices) in common but there are differences of opinion over the specifics. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in the same God but they believe some different things about this God. Thus they are like children fighting over the same toy, each claiming exclusive "ownership" of the full Truth. When religions are entirely different, they do not have anything to fight over since they often service different aspects of our life. Buddhism and Shinto, for instance, in Japan peacefully coexist mostly because they are just concerned with entirely different things. Japanese go to Buddhism for death and Shinto for birth and marriage. Shinto does not provide much alternative for death rituals and Buddhism does not provide much for celebration of marriage. In this case, the same people may turn to both religions for different needs, so it is like one child having two toys to play with rather than two or three children fighting over one toy.

The three "Abrahamic" religions are much more of a competition and ideological conflict that would thus sometimes lead to physical conflicts. In contrast, the religions in China are more complementary -- so different as to not even be on the same playing field. The Yankees and Red Sox (and their fans) are rival teams in the same sport, trying to play against each other on the same playing field. But the Redskins and the Nationals playing different games on different fields are not in conflict with each other. Folks in DC can be fans of both teams rather than pick sides. Or think in terms of business: there are the Coke vs. Pepsi wars or Kellogg’s vs. Post cereals, or Honda vs. Toyota, or Microsoft vs. Apple... When the "product" is similar, there is competition. But Coke is not in conflict with Nabisco - in fact, a soda and chips go together quite well. They are completely different and thus complement each other; so too with certain religions.

It is often noted that teaching tolerance has to begin at home, with the parents. But what if the parents are intolerant? How can we get intolerant adults to be more tolerant? I can think of several ways to deal with intolerant adults:

  • For one thing, we can model more tolerant attitudes by our own actions and the words we speak.

  • We can also share with others what we do know of other religions that they may not be aware of. A little education can go a long way to making someone think twice about their assumptions. We can start out with "did you know that..." or "it might surprise you to learn that..."

  • We can also begin by sincerely listening to their perspective, trying to understand why they feel and think the way they do. This would be a demonstration of our respect for them (more "modeling" of tolerance toward them). As the Golden Rule suggests: they just might "do unto us" as we are doing unto them. If we listen to them, then they may be more open to listening to our own alternative perspective. In this way we can start a dialogue and, in time, a bit of our own tolerance may rub off on the other.

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How you may have arrived here:

Home > Religious conflict, etc > Religious conflict, worldwide

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Originally written: 2016-NOV
Posted on: 2016-DEC-18
Author: Laura E. Shulman
, Adjunct professor of religion, Northern Virginia Community College.
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