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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Nahid Sewell

"Discourse on Religion"
Comments on tolerance, freedom, & human rights

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Discourse on religion:

Since the beginning of recorded time man has sought to explain his existence, the complexities of life and his place in the myriad of creatures, in relation to a supreme being. Early man sought God in the wind or trees, the sun or moon. The Greeks, not being satisfied with a single deity to explain the nuances of man and creation, claimed multiple gods. Zeus, the father figure was accompanied by Aphrodite, goddess of Love, and Ares, god of War. When Rome came to power, these gods were Jupiter, Venus and Mars, renamed but evoking the same qualities. And before Rome flourished, while the Egyptians worshipped Ra, a small band of nomadic people claimed direct connection to the ‘one’ God who gave his name as “I am who I am”.

Now millennia later, the gods of Greece and Rome are mythology. They once served to explain human emotions or actions, the movement of events, relations of the stars in heaven to the fates of men. Now, they are legends with little or no meaning beyond an understanding of history.

Today, we deem ourselves far more enlightened, perhaps because our major religions at least agree on the concept of one God, though he is named differently and places different demands on followers. This Supreme Being is asked by some to bless America, by others to destroy it. Some pray Muslims will convert to Christianity while Muslims pray the infidels would follow the will of Allah. To some, Jesus is the son of God, divine and one with the Father and Holy Sprit. To others, he was a prophet who spoke the word of God, just as did Mohammed or Jeremiah centuries before him.

For some, God dictates roles appropriate for men and women, the proper dress, what to eat, whether alcohol is acceptable and when. From some, God demands sacrifice and tithing, ten percent of their earnings to support the church. From others, he demands their very lives, not to defend his truth or proselytize unbelievers, but to destroy those unbelievers and all that stands in the way of domination.

In every century, in every civilization, men have committed the most unspeakable crimes in the name of their God. Any student of history can rattle off the litany of inhumane and barbaric actions carried out in the name of religion. The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” 1 Even today, some hear the voice of God speaking to them directly, demanding they take violent action to correct the sins of their fellow men. They bomb abortion clinics or murder the doctors in the name of Jesus. They set off car bombs or become walking tools of destruction in the name of Allah. They commit genocide, gleefully murdering and raping hundreds of thousands of their fellow men, when the tribe across the river bows to a different deity.

But is it really about God, religion or even belief? How can religion continue and flourish if not through money and property, politics and power? Without man interpreting and proclaiming the word of God in all its variations, how would God speak to us today?

Religion exists for a very real reason – we seek explanations for existence, our purpose in life. It provides comfort in times of unbearable loss and gives hope beyond what Shakespeare called this ‘mortal coil’. It lifts our thoughts to generosity and kindness; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But it can pervert and manipulate just as easily, morphing into evil so heinous no Supreme Being could tolerate.

Within another millennium or two, will Christianity be a myth? Will Islam be a distant memory surpassed by some variation on the theme? Of course, those who proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or who prostrate themselves the requisite number of times a day facing Mecca, will denounce such thoughts as sacrilege or heresy. When Christianity was an upstart religion born in the distant Roman province of Israel, a true believer in Jupiter and Mars may have held the same opinion.

I am neither agnostic nor an atheist. I believe and take great comfort in the existence of God, a supreme and beneficent intelligence that transcends my own existence. I believe in the inter-connected nature of all life, the spark of the divine in every person that requires I recognize their dignity, regardless of shape, color or creed. What I don’t accept and will vehemently oppose is that any man or men, no matter how profound or holy, have the right to dictate how I define my relationship to this Being or how I should dress, act, pray, make love or treat my fellow man. I will not grant another person or group control over my choices, nor allow them to make up my mind. To tolerate this surrender of self is to accept the “I was just following orders” defense for the Holocaust.

Some religious leaders guide and direct with the most pure and self-sacrificing of intentions, setting incredible examples which affirm the existence of God as his love shines through them. Far too many manipulate and control for ever increasing power and wealth, demanding strict adherence to their singular interpretation of God’s will and purpose. When this occurs, when political structures, threats, intimidation or actual violence enforce religious conformity, then the myth has gone too far. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. For some, this may be true as it lulls them with promised release from burdens and glory to come, while their leaders grow rich in grand houses, watching the impoverished starve. For others, religion is the flaming brand raised in defiance and destruction, while again their leaders grow rich in grand houses, watching the impoverished starve.

My call is not to abandon God, or even religion. If you find in religion a comfort and communion with the divine to enrich the soul, then by all means, cherish it. But let no religion deprive you of the right to disagree or walk a different path. Let no man dictate where or when you pray, how you should think, which books you should or shouldn’t read, what clothes you can wear. Let no man or men control and manipulate you, or worse, an entire society, in the name of religion.

Legend has it at Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene wept, her tears captured in a Roman vase to lay in the tomb with his broken body. Today, all the tear catchers in the world could not hold the anguish of God as he mourns our inhumanity and perversion of his truths. To denounce intolerance, hatred and narrow-minded fundamentalism is not to deny God. Rather, it affirms a loving and benevolent deity who sees the people of every country and culture as his children and weeps over our propensity to kill and destroy in his name.

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Copyright © 2010 by Summerhill Press

This is an excerpt from:

Book cover image  The Ruby Tear Catcher, an Iranian Woman’s Story of Intolerance by Nahid Sewell
Published by Summerhill Press
Web site:

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  1. Original quotation: "Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand on le fait par conscience." Blaise Pascal, Pensées (# 894 or 895, depending on differing editions) Translations:
    • Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it conscientiously.
    • Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction (trans. W.F. Trotter)
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