Religion & Philosophy Department

Lebanon Valley College

Religious Tolerance

I recently read a piece by Marilyn Sewell on the Huffington Post Blog (read it here) and a reply by Paul Louis Metzger (read it here) and their thoughts stirred an ongoing effort to think about how best to promote a pluralistic society.

In “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance” Sewell describes her experience being the religious “Other” talking to students at seminary. Her experience is quite similar to that of Ravindra-svarupa Das (read it here) in that they are both brought into seminaries to engage in “interfaith dialogue”, but find their audience less interested in dialogue than in the spectacle of someone who believes something different, either intentionally as with Das or unintentionally as with Metzger. The motive, in both cases was the promotion of “religious tolerance.”

However, “tolerance” is not enough. Years ago I saw Elie Wiesel speak and he addressed the inadequacy of the word tolerance when applied to a pluralistic society. Not only is religious tolerance not enough; it is insulting; it reinforces a power differential that is oppressive; it fails to stimulate real exchange or respect, or, even the possibility of more.

The Oxford Dictionary online defines tolerate in two ways 1. allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference and 2. be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction, and informs the reader that it comes from the Latin tolerat, “in the sense ‘endure pain’”. The first definition highlights the power dimension that Sewell and Metzger seem to recognize, but do not address well. Only those in power “allow” the existence of differing beliefs and practices. The sense of subjection in the second definition gets to the way this word is usually used. That is, when we tolerate, we “put up with” we “endure” something unpleasant.

As an example, Obama’s recent speech at the UN has been lauded as a call for religious tolerance and some have claimed that America offers a model of religious pluralism. However, if you read carefully how Obama uses the word “tolerate” you will notice he always uses it with negative things. “We can either accept that outcome as inevitable, and tolerate constant and crippling conflict.” And later: “That effort must begin with an unshakeable determination that the murder of innocent men, women and children will never be tolerated.” And finally, “The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.” I think the word “religious tolerance” implies similar, insulting things about “other” religions.

Further, in this first sense religious tolerance is used by those in power to either de-legitimate those who are different—that is, they must be “put up with”—or deployed by those who are in power, but feel oppressed, to legitimate the encroachment of religious belief into improper places. “In God We Trust” on our money has certainly established a monotheistic belief in a secular nation, but efforts to change this, or the pledge, are characterized as religious intolerance.

In the second case the motivation is acceptance; some people truly try to respect everyone who is different. How positive this sounds! But how troubling it really is. Could you find it in your heart to respect my beliefs if I told you I was God? Could you respect my religious practice if I told you I thought bodily mutilation of infants was a key part of my religious practice? Could you respect me if I decided to fly a plane into a skyscraper?

These examples are not taken at random. Sai Baba of Shirdi was understood by some of his followers to be the incarnation of Krishna, that is, God incarnate. Many Americans practice male circumcision, but are outraged (rightly, I think) when it happens to girls in Africa. The last example is tricky. We don’t respect the terrorists of 9-11, we clinicize their behavior. They were crazy. They were evil incarnate. They weren’t religious. But they were! They understood their behavior to be deeply religious. We respect all religious beliefs, unless we don’t like them, then they aren’t in fact religious.

However, if we ignore this fact we refuse to face up to the fact that some people religiously justify bad behavior, some religions call on us to do evil. The Hebrew Bible sanctions genocide. Jesus called a woman a dog. The Laws of Manu tells us that women should not ever be independent during their life.  Buddhists in Sri Lanka go to war. Shintos ruthlessly oppressed Buddhists in the past.

If we ignore the blemishes of religions we take a juvenile attitude toward religion. Consider an analogy. If I ignore all the bad stuff my significant other does, telling myself “that’s not her” or “she isn’t being herself”, then I fail to love her for who she is. When we dismiss anything bad done in the name of religion, we similarly hold a naïve idea of what religion is. This works if we want religion to be only the good stuff, but it isn’t really religion then, is it?

When we practice a blanket, unconditional tolerance we commit a similar juvenile engagement with the world. Some people hold to bad ideas. We should demand that people’s ideas make sense. We should not tolerate evil, even if it is done in the name of God. We should not accept the denigration of anyone just because a book—written about God by men—says they are sinners (or worse those we trust tell us it says that and we fail to look for ourselves). We need to have those tough conversations. Interfaith Dialogue is a key instrument in creating a positive pluralism, but if we fail to address the tough questions and it always ends with us singing Kumbaya, then we fail to respect each other. We need to respect each other enough to disagree and argue. Not fight, but argue. Disagree without being disagreeable. If your belief is worth your faith (and even atheists have faith in their beliefs, though most like to believe they just see the world as it is) then you should be able to engage a real conversation without feeling threatened.

Metzger is right when he says tolerance is not enough. Sewell is right in that we should not ally with those who do harm. While I think Metzger is more hopeful (which I am cherishing more as I grow older), I find Sewell’s reaction more mature and healthier. I think her piece is a courageous attempt at a constructive rejection of the dangerous idea that we need to respect everyone’s beliefs. We need a more mature way to interact in a world wrought with difference.

We need, first, to get rid of this word “tolerate”. But what to use? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Look what the simple word “tolerance” got us. Coexist? Respect? Cooperate? Engage? In which situation do you want to use it? What ideas does the word promote? Which would help us get along with others better? Which would produce the pluralistic society you would want to live in?


Diversity at Lebanon Valley College

I put a lot of thought into the various reactions to the recent “bias incidents” here at LVC and that led me to thinking about the institutional aspects of intolerance and all those -isms, racism, sexism, etc. (My son, who is struggling being the only Jew and the only atheist at his elementary school, wanted an easy label for attitudes of religious intolerance, so we decided to call them all -ism and came up with religionism, sexualityism, ageism, sizeism). In my Introduction to Religion class we spent a few days talking about scholars of religion who discuss Power–Gramsci, Althusser, Weber, and Foucault–so my mind was swimming with analyzing the situation in terms of power. What was the discourse on race and sexuality on campus? How did the administration, our curriculum, and the college’s response to these events advance hegemonic notions of culture at LVC and speak to or ignore subaltern identities? In what ways did Foucault’s notion of the internalization of power and subjugation help us understand the communities response? How does his notion of surveillance impact how we perform our gender, and other, identities on campus?

But these discussions weren’t going to stick beyond the end of the semester, if they lasted past the end of class. I wanted to come up with something that spoke to the subtle ways in which race, gender, religion, and sexuality are defined by the dominant culture and oppress the subaltern, the minority. In the Sustained Inter-faith Dialogues we talked about the responsibility the Religious majority in a democracy has towards the religious minorities, but these dialogues, while very helpful, often merely focus on what we agree about, what we all deplore. So too do discussions of race and gender. So I wanted to come up with some way to help students, and faculty, see how subtle expressions of power could be more dangerous, not only because they are more subtle, but also because they are more pervasive. Often these unspoken assumptions about identity shape the way we think in ways so subtle we are unaware. When we discuss religion in class and try to define it, students efforts to define often reveal unexamined default assumptions, that turn out to be a product of their own religious experience. That is, the definition begins to look like Protestant Christianity, because it is the default, the assumed norm, the model with which most students, even if not Protestant Christians themselves, are familiar. But to use this as a model for all religions is a problem. Like the margins or spacing in our word processors, we only examine them when someone, usually our professors telling us what they want, point them out to us. But how many know what kerning is? The spacing between each individual character has a huge impact on how we see the written word, but we don’t think about it, we trust Microsoft or Apple to set those for us. We don’t even need to think about it. They are the default settings. They are normal.

What a seemingly comfortable and wonderful word, normal. The other bias incident that prompted the Unity March involved someone writing “Be normal” on a homosexual student’s dorm write-and-wipe board. Normal means fit in, don’t rock the boat. Like Buddhists in America in the 1900s, who changed many aspects of their religious practice to look for Protestant, America expects people to be normal. I understand the discomfort with difference, its only natural, but when it comes to forcing others to fit our mold things get bad. How boring would it be if we all looked the same? acted the same? Timmy Turner found this out in a very gray episode of Fairly Odd-Parents, and the creators realized even we were all the same there would be folks who thought they were more the same than everyone else.

So I wanted to point out some aspect of our culture, LVC culture, that imposed normal on its students. Couple this with my recent feeling that only shock gets through to the average General-Education-class-taking student and you get a provocative pedagogical attempt to reveal one of these defaults, one of these hidden perceptual proclivities, one of the ways that race and gender maintain their hegemonic hold on us.

Here is what I came up with.

African-American Dutchman

If I were a better artist I would have created a female Dutchman (Dutchwoman?), but I decided other Dutchman would quickly devolve into caricatures, and that would be no use pedagogically. So, let’s get past the awkward reaction… No, wait! Why is there an awkward reaction to this image. If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should ask why. We ask African-American students, Asian students, Hispanic students, and others to identify with a white Dutchman. We ask women to identify with a male Dutchman. Why would we be uncomfortable with our mascot being different than us when we ask a significant minority of our students to identify as a white male to belong?

That the image is of an outdated notion of the American norm should disturb us, but it doesn’t. The white man has been the default American for so long, we no longer even notice it, much less question it. Americans must identify with the male perspective, and the white perspective, in order to fit in. Why do we say Muslim terrorist, but not Christian terrorist? Why do we say Denzel Washington is a successful black man, but Tom Hanks is a successful man? Why is it the NBA and the WNBA, as if women is some qualifier, but men’s basketball doesn’t need the same qualifier? When we discuss gender in class, some authors ask what Christians think about women, but never ask what Christians think about men. Why is that? Does it imply a distinction between Christians and women, as if they are two different categories?

I suggest the lesson to be learned from the discomfort this image may bring is that we need to be aware of the subtle ways the the dominant, hegemonic, culture imposes conformity, to recognize the subtle ways that loyalty to a mascot may cover up power structures that continue to oppress despite the majority’s (be it based on race, gender, sexuality, or religion) inability to see the oppression. Part of a liberal arts education is understanding difference, learning to appreciate difference. Understanding the ways in which culture shapes us and is shaped by us helps us see how the world works, how we become the people we are. Just as the the words in this post are organized by hidden protocols that make organize them in a way that facilitates comprehension, protocols about which I am largely unaware, so cultural protocols organize the way we see the world and the way we are seen. And if you don’t want the world to tell you what and how to see, or how you should be seen, you should work at understanding these protocols.

Symposium on Catherine Malabou

Here is the most recent story from the LVC homepage about some of the innovative courses we are offering in the department:

So far we have been extremely pleased with the class. It has been challenging and rigorous, but also very rewarding. Several students from the class are planning to present on their research at the North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy in March. We are also planning to create a publication at the end of the course that contains all of the student papers.