Teachings of religious tolerance
and intolerance in world religions
||Edward de Bono: "We can no longer afford to be held back by dogmatic ignorance."
||Eric C. Shafer: "So many bridges to build. So many walls to break down."
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:
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
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
||The commandments inciting people to kill, such as Deuteronomy 13:6-9;
Deuteronomy 17:2-7; 2 Chronicles 15:13.
||The commandment telling us to avoid
unbelievers (Romans 16:17).
It would also be helpful if Christians were skeptical of:
||Passages in the Bible derived from other religions, such as those in
nearby Middle-Eastern Pagan cultures, Egyptian religion, Mithraism, etc.
||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
In another part of the world, Palestinian Christians are shocked when the Bible
is used to justify the Israeli occupation of their homeland.
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.
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:
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."
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
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:
||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
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.
||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
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
||IX.29 "Fight those who do not believe.",
||IX.5 "Slay the pagans wherever you
fight them", or
||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:
||How can there be a discrepancy in an
inerrant text dictated by an Archangel?
||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).
||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.
In the U.N.
Declaration of Human Rights, the clause which affirms a person’s right to
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)
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
||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.
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.
||In 1991, over three thousand people were killed during disturbances in the
||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.
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.
||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 ...."
||Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, Nathuram Godse.
||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.
||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.
||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.
||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.
||The doctrine of ahimsa gives Jainism (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism) a
strong pacific streak.
||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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Henry Bamford Parkes, "Gods and Men," Routledge and Keegan Paul,
Bart D. Ehrman, "Lost Christianities," Oxford University Press, (2003).
- Andrew Norman Wilson, "Paul," Pimlico, (1998).
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, "Is Religion Killing Us?" Trinity Press
Sumner W Davis, "Heretics," 1stBooks, (2001).
Susan Niditch, "War in the Hebrew Bible," Oxford University Press,
John Hostler, "Unitarianism," The Hibbert Trust, (1981).
Khalid Baig, "On religious tolerance," at:
Taheri Amir, "Holy Terror. Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism." Adler &
Mahmud Soliman Ahmad, "Scientific Trends in the Qur’an," Ta-Ha, (1995).
Helmut Gatje, "The Qur’an and its Exegesis," Oneworld, (1996).
Faruq Sherif, "A Guide to the Contents of the Qur’an," Garnet
Johannes J.G Jansen, "The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism," Hurst,
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