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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious intolerance


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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletFirst, what is religious tolerance?
bulletEscalation of religious intolerance
bulletDefinition of "religious intolerance"
bulletForms of religious intolerance
bulletA related form of intolerance: religiously motivated intolerance
bulletWhat do religions teach?
bulletWhat does the Bible teach?

First, what is religious tolerance?

The meanings of "religious intolerance" and "religious tolerance" are closely tied together. Unfortunately, the latter has two distinct meanings:

  1. Religious and social conservatives often interpret the phrase as related to a persons beliefs about other people's different religious beliefs. It means that, to be tolerant, one must accept all religions as equally valid and true.

    This is close to a religious concept called "pluralism" which states that all religions are true and valid within their own cultures." One problem is that if diverse beliefs are all true, then absolute truth does not exist. This conservatives generally find unacceptable. Also, taken to a logical extreme, this definition of tolerance would require people to accept the existence of Yahweh, Allah, the Wiccan Goddess, Thor, Re, Jupiter, Venus, Diana, Fergus, etc. as real Gods and Goddesses.
  2. Among other individuals and groups, "religious tolerance" is related to a person's actions in response to other people's different religious beliefs and practices. It means that one must avoid oppressing or discriminating against persons whose religious beliefs happen to be different from yours.

    It is a statement of fundamental human rights. It is like racial tolerance, gender tolerance, etc. You probably don't agree with what other people believe, but you extend them the freedom to believe and act as their religion requires.

    An excellent definition of "religious tolerance" is published on "Apologetics Index," an evangelical Christian counter-cult web site. Webmaster Anton Hein defines it 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

We use the second definition. However, we are continually criticized because some of our visitors assume that we use the first meaning. This is a common problem in the field of religion where some words have multiple meanings. "Witch" and "Witchcraft," for example, have at least 19 different and sometimes mutually exclusive definitions. "Pagan" has at least five. There are many other commonly used religious words that are defined quite differently by religious/social conservative when compared to others in the culture.

Escalation of religious intolerance:

The followers of most religions (and of no organized religion) feel that their beliefs are true and that the beliefs of other groups are, at least to some degree, false. By itself, this stance is not dangerous to public order. However, profound evil can result when they also oppress other religious groups, discriminate against them, or disseminate hatred against them.

If they go to the next step and believe that followers of other faith groups are sub-human, then all the prerequisites are in place for mass crimes against humanity, genocide, and still another Holocaust. We have seen such criminal acts in recent decades in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, East Timor, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc.

Definitions of Religious Intolerance:

bulletWebster's New World Dictionary (1995) defines intolerant as:
bullet"not tolerant; unwilling to tolerate other's opinions, beliefs, etc..."
bulletWebster's defines tolerate in part as:
bullet"to recognize and respect others' beliefs, practices etc. without sharing them"
bulletOur working definition of religious intolerance is a combination of the above:
bullet"not respecting the fundamental human human right of other people to hold  religious beliefs that are different from your own."

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Forms of Religious Intolerance:

We divide religious intolerance into four forms, depending upon the perpetrator and the intended target:

  1. Inter-faith intolerance (e.g. a Hindu - Christian conflict)
  2. Intra-faith intolerance (e.g. Shi'ite vs. Sunni Muslims)
  3. Intolerance by from a faith group against a secular group (e.g. Christian fundamentalists vs. Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Homosexuals, Transsexuals, loving, committed same-sex couples who wish to marry, etc.)
  4. Intolerance by a secular group against a religious group. (e.g. feminists vs. some organized religions)

A given instance of religious intolerance may be considered inter-faith by some groups and intra-faith by another. For example, some fundamentalist Christians do not consider Roman Catholicism, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church), liberal Christian denominations, progressive Christianity, etc. to be a legitimate part of Christianity. Thus, an attack by an evangelical group on Roman Catholicism might be considered inter-faith by the evangelical and intra-faith by a Roman Catholic.

We consider the following actions as exhibiting religious intolerance:

bulletSpreading misinformation about a group's beliefs or practices even though the inaccuracy of that information could have been easily checked and corrected;
bulletSpreading hatred about an entire group; e.g. stating or implying that all members of a group are evil, behave immorally, commit criminal acts, etc.;
bulletRidiculing and belittling an entire faith group for their sincerely held beliefs and practices;
bulletAttempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others against their will;
bulletRestricting human rights of members of an identifiable religious group;
bulletDevaluing other faiths as worthless or evil.
bulletInhibiting the freedom of a person to change their religion.

A related type of tolerance/intolerance:

The above text refers to intolerance:

bulletBetween two faith groups,
bulletBetween two secular groups, or
bulletBetween a faith group and a secular group.

However, tolerance and intolerance takes another form as well. This is "religiously motivated intolerance." For example, a religious group may believe on the basis of their beliefs that God hates homosexuality and that homosexual behavior is chosen, changeable, disordered, immoral and a criminal act. They might well be motivated to to oppose equal rights for gays lesbians and bisexuals; they may oppose same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Because they believe that such intolerance and motivation to discriminate against a group of people is God-ordered, they generally believe that it is good and moral. They are often distressed when they are called homophobes because their worldview calls upon them to discriminate.

What do religions teach?

All major religions teach a "Theory of Reciprocity," commonly called the "Golden Rule."

bulletChristianity' urges that we: "Treat others as you want them to treat you." (Luke 6:31).
bulletConfucius said "Do not do to others what you do not want the others to do to you."
bulletHillel the Elder, the famous Jewish rabbi from the 1st century BCE and CE summed up the Torah with the expression "What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend."
bulletWiccans follow the Wiccan Rede which allows them to: "Do whatever you wish, as long as it harms nobody, including themselves."

Unfortunately, throughout history, we see people of different religions applying the Golden Rule only to members of their own religion. People of other faiths (and even those of other denominations in the same religion) are sometimes actively discriminated against. The most vicious civil disturbances and wars often have a religious component (as in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Middle East, Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and East Timor).

Religious intolerance in the Bible:

Jesus sometimes promoted religious tolerance of non-Jews by his words and actions. He is also recorded as having been severely intolerant of the religious beliefs and practices of Pharisees and Sadducees. He even committed aggravated assault in the Temple against people with whom he disagreed. There are many specific references in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), by St. Paul, and by the author of Revelation that teach intolerance:

bulletPeople who follow another faith are to be executed in organized acts of genocide.
bulletTheir Gods are said to be demons.
bulletThey are described as unrighteous and unclean.
bulletTheir priests were murdered.
bulletChristians are warned to not associate with them.

On the whole, the Bible promotes intolerance of other faiths. There are only a few passages which promote religious tolerance.

Copyright 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update and review: 2009-APR-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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