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:
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 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:
It would also be helpful if Christians were skeptical of:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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Copyright © 2006
by Vladimir Tomek