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BASIC INFORMATION ON RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE & CONFLICT

PAST EVENTS

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Someday, we plan to expand the following essay into a whole series of essays, each covering a specific time interval or culture. But a brief overview of the topic is all we can present at this time. 

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Prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire, religious intolerance was the norm. Individual tribes had their own Gods and/or Goddesses who belonged to them and ruled over their area. A person joining the tribe would be expected to abandon their old beliefs and accept the tribe's deities. There are many accounts of vicious genocide by the ancient Israelites against neighboring tribes that were at least partly based on religion.

During much of the Roman Empire, the civil government enforced religious tolerance. Within the empire, many religions flourished: the Greek and Roman Pagan religions, mystery religions, Christianity, Judaism, Mithraism, etc. It required only that its citizens perform certain routine civic duties. Unfortunately for the Christians, everyone was required to make nominal sacrifices to the Roman Gods, and sometimes to recognize the Emperor as divine. Many of the early Christians refused to meet these requirements, and so were seriously oppressed under some emperors.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century, religious toleration ended:

bulletPagan temples were confiscated and their priests and priestesses either exiled or murdered. 
bulletJews were horribly persecuted. Initially, this was because all persons of the Jewish faith (past, present and future) were regarded as equally responsible for the execution of Jesus Christ. In reality, the crucifixion appears to have been a routine execution by the Roman occupying forces. Yet the descendants of 1st Century CE Romans, the Italians, were never blamed for Jesus' unjust execution. Only the Jews were.

During the Middle Ages, Jews became a handy scapegoat during the plagues. Often at the instigation of the Christian Church, Jewish communities were invaded and many individuals massacred. The logical end-result of centuries of anti-Judaism occurred during the Holocaust when the Nazis exterminated about 6 million Jews.

Islam has a history of greater tolerance than Christianity. Jews were sometimes subjected to additional taxes, but they were otherwise left in peace.

bulletBreak-away Christian movements were viciously exterminated by the Christian Church. These included the Cathars, Knights Templar and Huguenots.
bulletThe Crusades resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Christians, Jews and Muslims. 
bulletFollowers of the Old Religion were ruthlessly hunted down by the Church. These were followers of the religion of the ancient Celtic people (which Christianity had replaced). A few hundred thousand Witches, other heretics, and innocent people  were arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake over the period circa 1450 to 1792 CE in Europe. After the Reformation, the Protestants preferred to hang Witches.
bulletAfter the Reformation, many Catholic and Protestant countries slaughtering each other's inhabitants in endless wars. Daniel Taylor wrote in Christianity Today that some believe that religious tolerance: "...was invented in response to the spectacle of Christians slaughtering each other in the name of Christ. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe led to the increasingly widespread conviction that there had to be a better way to decide these things than with the sword. The answer was tolerance, essentially a decision not to decide--that is, to decide on the private level but not on the public." 4
bulletThe European conquest of North America resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Natives by conquest or disease, and the forced religious conversion of many of the survivors. It is only in recent years that a few Christian churches have begun to realize the enormity of the crimes perpetrated against Natives, and have made formal apologies. It is also only recently that Native spirituality has become widely appreciated and valued by non-natives.

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The framers of the U.S. Constitution feared of the power of religious hatred and created a wall of separation between church and state. The state would be secular; the public would be free to choose any religious faith, or none. The system has worked reasonably well in the U.S. ever since. Except for oppression (and occasional killing or attempted murder) of Jews, Mormons and Roman Catholics in the 19th century, and of Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and Neopagans in the 20th century, North America has enjoyed relative religious peace. Other parts of the world, from Northern Ireland to the Philippines, from Kosovo to the Sudan continue to experience religiously-based civil strife and warfare.

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Religious tolerance has only been rarely present in the west. The few past examples of tolerance (e.g. the Roman Empire and the United States) have been seriously flawed.

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Related essay:

bulletPresent-day religious tolerance and intolerance
bulletChristian persecution of the Jews
bulletReligious tolerance in the Bible
bulletReligious intolerance in the Bible
bulletCurrent civil disturbances and wars with a religious component

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Site navigation

 Home page > Religious tolerance > here

 Home page > Spirituality > Religious tolerance > here

 Home page > Religious conflict > Basic information > here

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Copyright 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1999-SEP-9
Latest update: 2006-SEP-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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