Welcome to our series of Guest Blogs on Religious Tolerance. But before the series begins, I want to acknowledge that there are some very serious and perfectly rational objections to promoting Religious Tolerance, and we need to consider these objections.
After all, if we could just hold hands and sing a rousing chorus of ‘Kum Ba Yah’, and if that would actually accomplish anything, then we could wrap this up very quickly.
1. In other words, the first objection is that this whole big thing about Religious Tolerance is really just about being ‘nice’, in a sentimental and condescending way: a pretense to help us ‘put up’ with other people, and feel good about ourselves – even though we really can’t stand them! Thus, the whole thing is just a hypocritical lie!
Something more than being ‘nice’ is needed. Something more than ‘mere tolerance’ is needed, something much more significant than simply a “live and let live” philosophy, or ‘peaceful coexistence”.
Merely ‘keeping the peace’, avoiding fistfights, is not what I’m talking about. Asking for ‘mere’ tolerance is like asking people to ‘calm down’, so we can all have a little peace and quiet. This can help bring about a cease-fire. But then what? There’s nothing here from which to construct anything positive or lasting. Mere tolerance is a low hurdle to clear, and it can easily be cleared without having to give up any of our hatred, our arrogance, or our ignorance of the people we are condescendingly tolerating. This just sets up the conditions for the next outbreak of violence and intolerance, and we end up in an inescapable loop of fighting each other one day, singing Kum Bayah together the next day, and then renewing the fight all over again at the first excuse, always blaming the “other’ side for violating the peace.
Mere tolerance is not enough. What holds a pluralistic American society together is not just tolerating others, but going beyond tolerance by creating and nourishing meaningful, and genuinely respectful, relationships.
2. The second objection is that Religious Tolerance means that believers will have to relinquish their love and passion for what they believe to be most right and true, most unique, and most sacred about their own Faith, and just end up watering it down so we can all be the ‘same’, or come to some sort of consensus about a bland, inoffensive, new Religion, that we can all convert to.
I’m not talking about this at all. I’m not suggesting a One World Religion. On the contrary, I’m talking about respecting, learning about, and even celebrating our religious differences, not erasing or eroding them. But we have to learn to appreciate all this rich diversity – and not use it as a justification for puffing oneself up with pride, or feeling the need to beat other people over the head who disagree with us.
Sometimes feeling offended is the price we pay for having a pluralistic society. Disputes will occur and arguments can be heated. But disagreement does not require defamation, nor does it require the questioning of anyone’s patriotism, moral worth, or right to exist.
I remember reading an article by an elderly Catholic priest who commented that he hoped heaven was not populated only with other Catholics: he said he’d be bored to tears!
3. The third objection is that, in order to take a stand for Tolerance of other religions, we must all slide down the slippery slope of Relativism, where we have no real convictions of our own and insist that all beliefs and practices have equal truth and equal value – in which case, we are ready to fall for anything because we believe in nothing.
This is a very serious objection. Indeed, it has become the standard in contemporary America to believe that it is morally offensive to consider anyone’s personal opinion of what is right, good, or true, to be more accurate or more valid than anyone else’s personal opinion. We are taught to be ‘open’ to the beliefs and opinions of everyone. Thus, everything is relative, and no decent person would question this!
The obvious paradox here is that if we must be tolerant of any belief system, then we must necessarily be tolerant of an intolerant belief system. This leads to the nightmare of being unable to defend ourselves morally against any sort of evil or tyranny, which is why relativism is essentially incoherent and, in the end, morally bankrupt.
This popular so-called ‘openness’, which we have accepted as a great virtue, really just leads to indifference. We approve of this indifference because it safely and comfortably respects everyone else’s opinion – no matter how inspired or ridiculous – and because it promises us in return that we will be allowed to ‘do whatever we want’. But the consequence of such indifference is that, having no real principles of our own we become the slaves of fashion and whim, and we revere whoever or whatever is the most popular that day. Tolerance of everything leaves us weak and submissive, prepared to surrender to anything.
This is not what I’m advocating. It is not my position that we should give up our moral convictions, or that we should give equal credence – or assign equal value – to anything anybody says.
I am advocating that we listen. I am advocating that we listen seriously.
I am advocating that we never assume, in some automatic flippant way, that because someone disagrees with us there is something wrong with their character, their intelligence, their morality, or their integrity.
When a pious minister told Abraham Lincoln that he “hoped the Lord is on our side,” Lincoln responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God‘s side, for only God is always right.”
Recognizing this huge difference between being right, and being religious, is the key to avoiding being mean-spirited and violent in the name of God. Faith should never be used as a weapon of Political division. To be a follower of God – rather than God Himself – means that each of us can be wrong!
But again, I’m not advocating for Relativism. I wish I could talk more people out of the stance of relativism. We have to make Moral Judgments. We have to be willing to stick by them and be serious about them. We just have to make them in good faith, with intelligence and a decent respect for other human beings, fully aware that our judgments are provisional! Only God’s judgments are absolute, not yours or mine. This is why we have to be willing to listen, to consider, to respect other ideas, and sometimes change our opinions.
But this never means we should be morally indifferent, or complacent in the face of evil.
I hope you’ll come back often and enjoy all our posts this month.
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