Religious Tolerance

Nov 99

We live in a multicultural society, and while this diversity can be, or ought to be, a source of vibrancy it also has its problems. The only way we can maintain a civil society is to develop a high degree of tolerance for difference; difference of race, culture, lifestyle and belief. But what exactly constitutes tolerance in the religious sphere?

Sadly, it is still all too easy to find examples of intolerance. According to recent news stories, one of the largest American Protestant denominations has published a booklet deeply offensive to Hindus, accusing them of demon worship, and worse, have decided to distribute copies of this in India during a Hindu holy festival. They have prepared similar booklets targeting Jews and Muslims and are working on one for the Buddhists.

Of course, there are more serious and tragic examples, at various times and places people have killed each other over religion, a folly that makes a travesty of any faith. But this story cited is cited here as a negative example of the first principle of toleration, which is "to live and let live." One can only wonder where this aggressive urge to force everyone into one mold comes from. Does anyone advance along a spiritual path by trying to force others to follow them? If you are trying to climb a mountain, you don't get any closer to the summit by walking around to the other side and urging the climbers there to come back round to the trail on your side.

A believer ought to be secure in his or her own faith without needing to convert everyone else. We do not need to fall into the opposite error, though, of some well meaning writers who advocate the idea that all religions are actually teaching the same thing. This is to reduce the peculiar genius of each great wisdom tradition to one shapeless and tasteless mush. There are very real and important, differences between the various religions and these ought to be acknowledged and respected without becoming points of useless conflict.

In the area of ethics, all of the world's religions agree on a few basic principles, such as some version of the Golden Rule. (One Buddhist formulation is found in the Dhammapada, "All tremble at the rod. All fear death. Seeing others as oneself, one should refrain from violence.") The widest ethical variance is fond at the margins, as it were, in such things as dietary rules.

It is in the field of metaphysical doctrine that we find the greatest divergence, not only between religions but between sects and schools. For example, Buddhists (at least of the southern school) are often the odd man out at interfaith conferences when someone inevitably suggests "a prayer to the supreme being, however conceived." We have to politely point out that we don't conceive one at all.

But these differences ought not to matter, or to lessen our respect for one another. It is a common observation among monastics that when Buddhist monks and nuns meet with their counterparts among the Christian orders, they get along very well and find much in common, even though the Holy Life each is following is founded on a radically different metaphysical conception.

As a final note, it should be observed that the greatest threat to the spiritual health of humanity these days is not anyone else's different idea of the sacred, but the pervasive influence of the unspiritual ethic of greedy materialism. Instead of attacking each other's beliefs, people of faith would do more good to keep alive the truth that there is more to life than making money, and greater wealth than gold.

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