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?


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