Religious Tolerance logo

Teachings of religious tolerance
and intolerance in world religions

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bullet Edward de Bono: "We can no longer afford to be held back by dogmatic ignorance."
bullet Eric C. Shafer: "So many bridges to build. So many walls to break down."

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The irrationality of religious hatred, intolerance and violence:

The amount of religious hatred, oppression and violence in the world is not only appalling. It is also difficult for many people to understand.

Nobody doubts that one’s religion is largely the product of one’s birthplace and of early teaching in their family of origin. Most people inherit their religion like their eye color, What they learn as a child is very difficult to change when they grow up. As John Hick puts it:

"A person born in Egypt or Pakistan is very likely to be a Muslim; one born in Burma or Tibet is very likely to be a Buddhist; one born in most parts of India is very likely to be a Hindu; and one born in Britain or the U.S.A. is likely to be a Christian. If God is omnibenevolent and just ... he would not put a newborn to a disadvantage. This seems to mean only one thing: All religions give a person the same chance for salvation."

Why then should anybody become an enemy just because he or she professes a different religion? What is the root cause of intolerance?

Religious intolerance scarcely existed before the rise of monotheism. 1 Ancient polytheistic religions worshipped numerous gods but never involved doctrinally precise professions of faith. There was no such matters as orthodoxy or heresy. 2 The gods were mutually tolerant of one another, and the worshippers were eclectic, moving from one shrine or cult to the next without the slightest feeling of inconsistency. In Tarsus, where St. Paul grew up, as in all the towns of the ancient world outside of Judea, the gods were not jealous. They insisted that they must be offered punctiliously all honors due to them, but they did not worry about what honors were paid to other gods or men. 3 Much later, Attila the Hun allowed members of his horde to follow whichever gods they wished, so long as they didn’t interfere in each other’s freedom of worship. Attila as model for religious tolerance?

In today's world, the religions of wisdom (the Eastern religions) appear to be far more tolerant than their Western counterparts, the religions of revelation. The Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who look to the Bible and the Qur’an for guidance, find hundreds of passages that can be called upon to bolster their claims that violence and hatred against enemies are not only justified but reflect the will of God. 4 Let us have a look:

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The following comments based on the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) also refer to Judaism.

There are at present over 2,400 different Christian faith groups. Most teach that their ‘way’ is the only way. 5 There can be no more than one group that is completely right. But if all but one group are wrong, then perhaps all are wrong. Most religions do not accept any beliefs differing from their own. And although their own tenets or dogma proclaim that faith, hope, and love are their foundations, many of them still commit atrocities in the name of some unseen God who, they claim, demands it.

One point of conflict comes from how the Bible itself is viewed. Many progressive and mainline Christians, believe that numerous biblical passages are not factually accurate, are ethically doubtful, conflict with other statements, or allow a diversity of interpretations. Many conservative Christians maintain that Scripture is God's Word: Their authors were directly inspired by God. Thus, their writings are inerrant. It remains a puzzle why the creator allowed the Bible's authors to produce statements that are so ambiguous that thousands of individual belief systems have resulted.

The Bible contains many commandments inciting religious intolerance, such as: Exodus 23:32, Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 5:7, Deuteronomy 6:15; Deuteronomy 7:25, Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Deuteronomy 17:2-7, 2 Chronicles 15:13, Jeremiah 10:2, Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23, and Romans 16:17.

In order to become more tolerant, we would have to ignore some biblical passages. As a minimum, these would include:

bullet The commandments inciting people to kill, such as Deuteronomy 13:6-9; Deuteronomy 17:2-7; 2 Chronicles 15:13.
bullet The commandment telling us to avoid unbelievers (Romans 16:17).

It would also be helpful if Christians were skeptical of:

bullet Passages in the Bible derived from other religions, such as those in nearby Middle-Eastern Pagan cultures, Egyptian religion, Mithraism, etc.
bullet Events, beliefs and policies which were typical for the society and conditions prevailing in biblical times but are no longer applicable today.

It must be recognized that we must be prepared to abandon dogmas and teachings unworthy of the present age, however important part of the creed they seem to be. It can be done. In North America, we painfully abandoned human slavery as profoundly immoral in spite of the many biblical passages allowing, regulating and condoning it. Most denominations have abandoned the instruction to be fruitful and multiply by allowing couples to regulate their family size. Canada and the U.S. have extended freedom to religious minorities. We no longer execute homosexuals and Witches. Most denominations allow women to enter almost any profession, including the ministry.

Early Christians were guided by the compassionate teaching of Christ. However, the situation degenerated during the 4th century CE when, following Constantine’s conversion, Christianity was first accepted as a legitimate religion, and later became identified with the state.

Perhaps one of the most intolerant of the early Christian leaders was St. Ambrose (c.339-397), one of the four original Doctors of the Western Church. In his debate with Ambrose in the Roman senate, the pagan Symachus argued eloquently for religious tolerance. In reply, Ambrose maintained that there was only one "correct religion." All the others should be viciously and quickly stamped out. 5

Another important person was Hypatia (circa 370 - 415 CE). She was the head of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria. A physicist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and spokesperson for the Alexandrian library, she was known for her un-Christian idea of refusing to marry and to "be fruitful and multiply." On the suspicion that she had set the pagan prefect of Alexandria against the Christians, fanatical Christians, inspired by the archbishop of Alexandria Cyril, dragged her from her chariot. In front of her friends and students, they cut away the flesh from her bones, burned her remains, and destroyed her work.

During the Renaissance, tens of thousands of people, mostly women, were arrested on charges of heresy, and were burned at the stake (in Catholic countries) or hanged (in Protestant countries).

In more modern times, the Bible was used to provide the European settlers with an ideology that justified exterminating Native Americans. Particularly remembered is the famous speech by Cotton Maher in 1689 given to the armed forces, when he accused Natives of murdering Christians. 6 Native Americans were almost wiped out by the Europeans who understood Indians as Amalekites and Canaanites, Indian land as equivalent to Canaan, and themselves as God’s chosen people.

In another part of the world, Palestinian Christians are shocked when the Bible is used to justify the Israeli occupation of their homeland.

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Unitarianism (called Unitarian Universalism in the U.S.) was once considered a very liberal Christian denomination. It has since become a multi-faith group, whose members may personally identify themselves as Christian, Buddhist, Native American, Pagan, Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, etc.

Unitarianism is necessarily bound to oppose any form of dogmatism and finality. It tends to reject those religious belief systems that claim to have one final prophet with whom divine revelations are 'sealed.' Unitarians believe that people must be free "to work out their own salvation" and to formulate their own beliefs in the light of their own experience. The latter may be gained by studying with open mind the Bible (which is not considered infallible), some other holy text(s), or simply by serious thought, prayer and dialogue with others. The three fundamental principles of Unitarianism are: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance.

As stated by John Hostler:

"Unitarians have gone beyond the toleration of other denominations, and have embraced the ideal of religious freedom. They insist that even in Unitarianism shared beliefs are not essential, and every member of a religious community ought to be completely free to hold and develop his own convictions." 7

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Prior to the early 20th century, religious minorities in predominately Islamic countries were treated reasonably well. Non-Muslims were required to pay a special tax. However, they were not subject to the intense persecution that religious minorities experienced in predominately Christian countries.

Khalid Baig writes in his essay on religious tolerance:

"Not only that the Muslim history is so remarkably free of the inquisitions, persecutions, witch hunts, and holocausts that tarnish history of other civilizations, it protected its minorities from persecution by others as well. It protected Jews from Christians and Eastern Christians from Roman Catholics. In Spain under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid Khalifahs, Christians and Jews enjoyed a freedom of religion that they did not allow each other or anyone else."

"This exemplary tolerance is built into Islamic teachings. The entire message of Islam is that this life is a test and we have the option of choosing the path to hell or to heaven. Messengers were sent to inform about the choices and to warn about the consequences. They were not sent to forcibly put the people on the right path. The job of the Muslims is the same. They must deliver the message of Islam to the humanity as they have received it. They are neither to change it to make it attractive, nor to coerce others to accept it. In addition, the results in the hereafter will depend upon faith. For all good acts are meaningless in the absence of the proper faith. And faith is an affair of the heart. It simply cannot be imposed." 8

Muslims believe that the Islamic faith is grounded in beliefs which are absolute and final. The Qur’an is regarded as the literal word of God, a divine utterance that is uncreated and co-eternal with Him. The Qur’an contains, in addition to purely Islamic materials, a number of passages that are paralleled by those in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments). However, Islamic teaching maintains that the Divine message as preserved in the Bible is corrupt and distorted. The belief that the Qur’an is the word of God renders the discussions of Biblical sources of the Qur’an irrelevant for Muslims.

Belief in the Qur’an is not based on reason, logic or philosophy. It is to be accepted without question or condition. The name Islam is derived from the Arabic word "salam," which can be translated as "submission." Muhammad-Baqer Majlisi, one of the greatest doctors of Shi’s theology, wrote: "A man who thinks is sending signals to Satan." Theological dialogue is often considered the prerogative of theologians who clarify issues for believers. 9

The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, contains verses requiring Muslims to express tolerance towards other religions, particularly towards Jews and Christians. All three are the "people of the Book" who share a reverence for Abraham. But there are other verses which close to door to any possible understanding between Muslims and followers of other religions:

bullet The main verses supporting the acceptance of the other monotheistic religions are: II.59, II.257, III.77, and CIX. Less supportive are verses XXIII.56 and LXXIII.10.
Note that verse XI.257 "There shall be no compulsion in religion" is followed by a verse indicating that the unbelievers will be brought into the shadows and will remain in the fire forever.
bullet The main verses clearly advocating intolerance and containing injunction to fight unbelievers are: II.187, III.27, III.114, IV.91, IV.144, V.37, V.56, VIII.65, IX.5, IX.29, IX.125, XXV.54, and XLVII.4. These verses are very unambiguously stated.

Those verses in the Qur’an that indicate a positive attitude towards other monotheistic religions are often quoted by Muslims to show that Islam is a friendly religion intent on peaceful cooperation with other religions. Ahmad Mahmud Soliman states that:

"Islam orders its adherents not only to tolerate the opinions and creeds of others, but also have a firm belief in the orthodox principles of all heavenly religions. A Muslim who disbelieves the other apostles (such as Jesus or Moses) is not a true Muslim. Islam forbids the ill treatment of the followers of other religions and regards it as sinful to do them harm." 10

Unfortunately, it is the other verses that are more frequently quoted by radical fundamentalist mullahs. These verses imply that there can be neither relationship nor friendship, not even peaceful co-existence of Muslims with non-Muslims. These include verses such as:

bullet IX.29 "Fight those who do not believe.",
bullet IX.5 "Slay the pagans wherever you fight them", or
bullet II.187 "Slay them wherever you catch them".

Islamic theologians use the principle of abrogation to determine the correct Qur’an teaching. Abrogation, which is based on Sura II.100, is not expressly stated in the Qur’an. Its criteria is if there is a discrepancy between two Qur’anic texts, the more recent text cancels out the earlier one. By extension, the Qur’an is claimed to abrogate all previously revealed Scriptures. Similarly, Muhammad’s prophethood supersedes the missions of all previous prophets.

Unfortunately, there are serious problems with the application of this principle:

bullet How can there be a discrepancy in an inerrant text dictated by an Archangel?
bullet The doctrine of abrogation conflicts with the Qur’anic affirmation that Allah’s word, i.e., the Qur’an, is unchangeable (Suras X.64, XVIII.26, VI.115).
bullet The exact dates or even the precise chronological order of the Suras cannot be determined. This makes it difficult or impossible to determine which parts of the revelation were meant to be abrogating and which not abrogated. 11

Not surprisingly, radical ulama (theologians) tend to annul passages that are friendly to non-Muslims. There can be no question of tolerance toward other religions. The abrogating verses, the verses that remain valid, are then the verses commanding the faithful to fight and kill the unbelievers. 12

In the Qur’an, Islam is stated to be the complete religion which Allah has chosen for humanity. It follows that any religious innovations must steer clear of anything that might be interpreted as apostasy. This makes religious change extremely difficult. 13

In the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the clause which affirms a person’s right to freely change his or her religion if he or she so wishes, runs directly counter both the Islamic law on apostasy and to the practice of execution of persons who leave Islam -- a response still enforced by some of the more conservative Muslim states.

Islam is almost entirely fundamentalist. "Under Islam it is not religion that is part of life, but life a part of religion." (Habib Boulares) 9 Among the best known Islamic fundamentalist movements are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Party (Jama’at-I Islami), and there are many extremist offshoots. The original goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the reform of Islamic society by eliminating Western influence. Its current goal is the creation of theocratic Islamic states. The original purpose of the Islamic Party was to train a cadre of future leaders capable of rebuilding the Muslim society. Its main interest seems to lie still in education, although science is considered intrinsically evil. The Hezb-Allah (the Party of Allah) was founded by Ayatollah Mahmoud Ghaffari in Qom in 1973. In 1987, it boasted a membership of more than a million in the Islamic Republic of Iran alone.

Extremist Islamic fundamentalism cannot conceive of either coexistence or political compromise. A world based on religious and political diversity is repugnant to them. Their goal seems to be a world ruled by a theocratic dictatorship based on the Qur’an and Islam. Their teaching justifies or even requires violence, terrorism, and war against enemies, in service to Allah.

However, there are also moderate voices within Islam. Some live in the west in countries where Muslims are in a small minority. Some commentators predict that it will be from western countries that a reform movement will arise to make major changes to Islam.

If the world is to avoid the spiral of violence that threatens us, we must have sufficient doubt and skepticism to challenge historical interpretations of some passages in the Bible, Qur’an, and other holy texts. We need to go beyond the distorted images of God which wrongly associate divine and human power with superior violence and defeat of enemies, which form part of ancient understanding of these texts. 4

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The Bahá’í Faith:

The Bahá’í faith advocates cultural and religious tolerance as one of its main teachings. 19 Bahá’u’lláh instructed his followers to associate with all the peoples of the world: The Bahá’ís should "consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship". ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advocated "infinite kindness and forbearance" when speaking with those of a different religion. He claimed that "fanaticism and unreasoning religious zeal repel others", and that "shunning others because of their religious beliefs, regarding them as ritually unclean, and treating them with discourtesy, are to be condemned." Even when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá strongly disagreed with the religious beliefs of others he avoided directly criticizing them, except when these beliefs engendered social attitudes of which he disapproved, such as racial hatred and religious intolerance. These teachings contrasted with the 19th-century Iranian Shi’a practice to discriminate against minority religious groups (such as Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians) and regard them as ritually unclean. The Bahá’í tolerant approach was very likely a factor in the conversion of members of those groups.

According to the Bahá’í, reducing differences among religions is needed in order to build a common religious approach. This requires change and flexibility on the part of all religions, along with the elimination of all fundamentalist, absolutist, orthodox, and conservative attitudes with their à priori stances. The fundamentalist approach, based on insight from immutable revelation, dogma, and inerrant received wisdom must be replaced by a more openness. There is nothing to be afraid of if we follow what we believe in. "Our Father will not hold us responsible for the rejection of dogmas which we are unable either to believe in or comprehend, for He is infinitely just to His children." (‘Abdu’l-Bahá.)

According to Bahá’u’lláh "every man and woman is responsible for what he or she believes and should not blindly imitate anyone". The only danger is that when we believe that ours is the only faith that contains truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result. Is it not reason enough to try to avoid contentious claims?

In the Bahá’í view, of all the causes of religious intolerance the most prevalent is "ignorance and lack of understanding of the most basic elements of the various religious beliefs." Thus, it would appear that education is one of the paths to the elimination of religious intolerance.

The Bahá’í are convinced that the world is moving inexorably toward unity and tolerance of diversity – even diversity of religion and belief. They believe that the principle of religious tolerance is gaining acceptance.

The Bahá’í are probably the most advanced of all the major religions as far as religious tolerance is concerned. 19. However, even with them not everything is perfect: Bahá’í scholars are forbidden to change, delete or otherwise reinterpret Bahá’’u’lláh’s writings and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretations and explanations of them. 20 This inability to change is causing the Bahá’í faith to fall behind the positions of other liberal religions concerning homosexuality.

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Sikhism has successfully combined elements from Bhakti Hinduism, Advaita, and Sufism, with emphasis upon tolerance and coexistence between Muslim and Hindus. It was based on mutual respect of the two communities. Whether Sikhism is seen as an attempt to reconcile Hinduism and Islam by creating a syncretism, or in some other light, its existence gave hope that religious reconciliation does not have to be an empty word.

Unfortunately, the hope has practically disappeared. Misused religion became a distant second to politics. Between 1981 and 1994, thousands of young men and perhaps a few hundred women were initiated into secret fraternities of various rival radical Sikh organizations. These included the Babbar Khalsa, the Khalistan Commando Force, the Khalistan Liberation Force, the Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, and extremist factions of the All-India Sikh Student Federation. Their enemies were secular political leaders, heads of police units, Hindu journalists, and community leaders. Over the time the distinction between valid and inappropriate targets became blurred and virtually anyone could become a victim of the militants’ wrath.

bullet In 1984-JUN, Sikh terrorists seized the Sikh holy shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Many people were killed, including a number of innocent worshippers, when Indian security forces re-took the temple.
bullet In 1984-DEC, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards as revenge for this act of profanity. On the following day more than two thousand Sikhs were massacred in Delhi and elsewhere as a reprisal.
bullet In 1991, over three thousand people were killed during disturbances in the Punjab.
bullet In 1991 the Sikh extremists attacked the Indian ambassador to Romania. The Romanian government helped to capture the Sikhs. Later that year militant Sikhs kidnapped a Romanian diplomat in Delhi in retaliation. 3 And so on.

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Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism:

These religions have a tradition of religious tolerance and of respecting religious diversity. However, they are all able to embrace positions of violence as well as non-violence, of religious tolerance as well as of intolerance.

Buddhism does not support war or any type of violence, and any expression of religious intolerance has to be seen as an exception. In Hinduism, the first virtue to be practiced is ahimsa, the doctrine of non-violence, which is also part of the Buddhist and Jaina teachings. Ahimsa was interpreted by Gandhi as ‘non-violence in a universal sense’ and elevated to the foremost human quality.

Hinduism can still be considered non-violence and religious tolerance friendly, but there are some disturbing signs.

bullet The Bengali terrorists fighting the British colonial rule used the Bhagavad Gita as a sacred script in support of their doctrines. One of their manifestos contained the following words: "Take up arms and protect religion. When one is face to face [with the enemy], they should be slaughtered without hesitation. Not the slightest blame attaches to the slayer. … Lay down your life but first take a life ...."
bullet Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, Nathuram Godse.
bullet The doctrine of Hindutva asserts that Hinduism, as the ‘indigenous’ faith of India, must be dominant, and that all ‘foreign’ religions must be subject to the will of the majority.
bullet Hindu fundamentalism is manifested in the family of Hindu nationalist organizations known as Sangh Parivar. In 1992, Sangh Parivar activists stormed and destroyed the 16th century mosque in Ayodha, setting off riots between Muslims and Hindus throughout India in which thousands were killed.
bullet For a time, a certain form of fundamentalism has exerted considerable impact on Indian mainstream politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was formed in 1980 as the political expression of Hindutva.
bullet According to Jainism, each person has the freedom of choice to act his life out according to his own wishes; the freedom of choice applies also to his or her religion. This is the doctrine of anekantvada (many-sidedness) which posits that truth is intensely personal.
bullet The doctrine of ahimsa gives Jainism (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism) a strong pacific streak.
bullet Daoism (a.k.a. Taoism) is unique in the importance it assigns to pacifism, and in its opposition to ambition, worldly authority, and political power. There is a well-documented cooperation of Daoism and Confucianism.

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References used:

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

  1. Henry Bamford Parkes, "Gods and Men," Routledge and Keegan Paul, (1960).
  2. Bart D. Ehrman, "Lost Christianities," Oxford University Press, (2003).
  3. Andrew Norman Wilson, "Paul," Pimlico, (1998).
  4. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, "Is Religion Killing Us?" Trinity Press International, (2003).
  5. Sumner W Davis, "Heretics," 1stBooks, (2001).
  6. Susan Niditch, "War in the Hebrew Bible," Oxford University Press, (1993).
  7. John Hostler, "Unitarianism," The Hibbert Trust, (1981).
  8. Khalid Baig, "On religious tolerance," at:
  9. Taheri Amir, "Holy Terror. Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism." Adler & Adler, (1987).
  10. Mahmud Soliman Ahmad, "Scientific Trends in the Qur’an," Ta-Ha, (1995).
  11. Helmut Gatje, "The Qur’an and its Exegesis," Oneworld, (1996).
  12. Faruq Sherif, "A Guide to the Contents of the Qur’an," Garnet Publishing, (1999).
  13. Johannes J.G Jansen, "The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism," Hurst, (1997).

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-22
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-23
Author. Vladimir Tomek, with contributions by B.A. Robinson

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